Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year B – Maundy Thursday
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – March 29, 2018
We’ve been working really hard at advertising upcoming services and events. So when I sat down with Wayne and Kristian Nielsen to put advertisements on Facebook for Holy Week, we came to this stunning revelation that Maundy Thursday is a pretty hard sell. How do you invite people to a worship service when foot washing is an aspect of the evening? Tell them there will be pedicures offered during the service? Offer free air fresheners with ever pair of feet washed?
Well, we didn’t end up offering any kind of gimmick, but the point remains – Maundy Thursday is potentially the most awkward of the Holy Week services. Yet, it’s also one of the most beautiful and moving.
A Byzantine liturgy summarizes the reading from John in this way: “The Wisdom of God that restrains the untamed fury of the waters that are above the firmament, that sets a bridle on the deep and keeps back the seas, now pours water into a basin; and the Master washes the feet of his servants.” The one who kneels at his disciples’ feet is the same one who will rise from the dead “trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”
There’s this incredible paradox in these words. The one who is above all, in all, and indeed, is all in all, is the one who humbles himself not only to wash feet, but even to the point of death on a cross. We bump into these paradoxes all the time in Scripture because our faith is an embodied one. It’s physical. Messy. Interactive. Earthy. God is not some far off being or attained by the faculties of our mind. God comes to us weak and in the flesh, lives among us as a human, and dies in a flesh-y human way. We grasp God in water and oil, in the taste of bread and wine on our tongue, in the reading and hearing of the word, in the faces of others, in our hearts, and in our minds. And what a gift! When it’s difficult to believe, we can feel water on our skin and know we are forgiven and freed to serve in Christ’s name. When we find ourselves barely holding on, we can taste and see that the Lord is good.
This sensory experience of our faith – the physicality and tangibility all come to a head (or a foot?!) during Maundy Thursday. And it makes us a little squirmy and maybe even squeamish. We find ourselves caught up thinking about how embarrassing it is to take off our shoes and expose our feet to another human being. But therein lies the lesson, and, really, the beauty of it. The act of having your feet washed touches us in a really vulnerable place as we enter into the Great Three Days and the mystery of Jesus’ dying and rising. Who are we that our Lord should touch us? Should cleanse us? Should feed us? Should forgive us?
All of this reminds me of the words from the prophet Isaiah: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”
In Jesus we see the One who has brought good news and announced salvation, comforted his people and redeemed the world. And when the God of the universe stoops to take on the role of a common slave, we see precisely the kind of kingdom Jesus is bringing about. It’s not just an idealized place – it’s a way of life in which those who love others in this same humble way will be blessed to know the joy of Christ’s kingdom. That is the paradox of the humiliation and awe, the shame and the beauty of this night and our calling as followers of Christ. In this simple act we see the scandal of our Lord and Savior taking on the most menial of tasks for our sake. We see reflected in it his taking on human flesh and dying for us. Why would we expose ourselves to that shame and dishonor? Because deep down, under our desire to be self-sufficient individuals in control of our destinies, we know we need Jesus’ grace. Consenting to being washed is difficult because it means relinquishing power and control, admitting in some way that we need or would like help. It is a physical act depicting our deep need for grace not of our own making.
Yes, Jesus comes bearing good news, he models it for the disciples, and passes it on. Jesus stoops to wash feet that have tread the hillsides with him announcing the kingdom of God. The God of all creation kneels to wash the dirt, dust, grime, and sin away from the soles and souls of his disciples. It is humiliating, scandalizing, humbling, but also liberating because they are set free to do the same. They are freed to be those whose feet are blessed for they will bring good news to the world. They will be the ones loving and serving in Jesus’ name.
We, too, pass on what we have seen, heard, experienced, and learned. As Jan Richardson writes, “A blessing is not finished until we let it do its work within us and then pass it along, an offering grounded in the love that Jesus goes on to speak of this night.” Peter had to humble himself in order to receive that blessing, but also in order to pass it on.
Because amazingly enough, we become what we receive. Our faith is the ebb and flow of humble giving and receiving. In receiving Christ’s love – love that looks like suffering, dying, and rising – we find ourselves learning daily what it looks like to try to live with that love. In being washed in the waters of baptism and baring our soles (souls) to another, we receive forgiveness, and develop humility and compassionate hearts. In bread and wine we receive the body of Christ broken in love for us, and we become the body of Christ in the world, broken in love for sisters and brothers in need.
People may cringe, but I really appreciate Maundy Thursday and it’s not because I love feet – let the record show! It’s because kneeling and gently washing someone’s feet is humbling. It’s a chance to care for someone in a way that is quite foreign. It reminds me of what it means to love and to serve. Having my own feet washed reminds me that it’s ok to be vulnerable, to be open with others, and to receive. The whole act reminds me that sometimes life is messy, awkward, embarrassing, holy, funny, redeeming, moving, and beautiful – often all at once. Remember, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and breaks bread even knowing he will be betrayed and crucified. Still, God will be glorified even through all this. Life is messy just like this story.
Our faith is physical, and we are called to learn from Jesus to embody love in the world. It could be grasping the hand of friend as they struggle through a tough situation. It could be praying, laughing, or sobbing with someone. Maybe it’s packing up food and delivering it for LINK, Backpack Buddies, or the homebound. It could even be tenderly caring for the ones we love during times of sickness. Who knows? It might even be kneeling at someone’s feet or allowing yourself to be served.
So tonight, in a few minutes when the moment comes, I invite you to be bold. To step up, do something crazy, and come forward to have your feet washed. Be scandalized by Jesus’ incredible grace as we remember the actions of our Lord, the Servant King, and journey with him through death to new life. Amen.