SERMON Maundy Thursday 4/21/11

John 13:1-17, 31b-35
On the evening before his death on the cross, Our Lord gathered his closest followers around the table of fellowship to share a meal. Jesus spent quite a bit of his ministry around the table eating, talking, and sharing life. Through the gathering of people at mealtime, Our Lord broke down barriers that stood between folks. Jesus made it a point, through the most exclusive social event of the age, communal meals, to engage with misfits, outcasts, tax collectors, and those on the outside of society. The significance of the common meal was that it represented an intentional community. To eat with someone meant that you had a connection beyond mere acquaintance. For first century Palestinians you normally didn’t recline at the dinner table with people, unless you were closely knit with them. So, Jesus gives us an example of community by gathering the disciples together to share his last meal. Jesus and the twelve were more than just associates who traveled together; they were deeply connected in commitment and love.

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”


After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.


Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

On the evening before his death on the cross, Our Lord gathered his closest followers around the table of fellowship to share a meal.  Jesus spent quite a bit of his ministry around the table eating, talking, and sharing life.  Through the gathering of people at mealtime, Our Lord broke down barriers that stood between folks.  Jesus made it a point, through the most exclusive social event of the age, communal meals, to engage with misfits, outcasts, tax collectors, and those on the outside of society.  The significance of the common meal was that it represented an intentional community.  To eat with someone meant that you had a connection beyond mere acquaintance.   For first century Palestinians you normally didn’t recline at the dinner table with people, unless you were closely knit with them.  So, Jesus gives us an example of community by gathering the disciples together to share his last meal.    Jesus and the twelve were more than just associates who traveled together; they were deeply connected in commitment and love. 

Then something amazing happened at a significant social event with his disciples. Our Lord took on a cultural role that was unlike that in his revealed role as healer, teacher, rabbi, and his yet fully to be revealed self as the Messiah, God Incarnate, the Crucified One. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. In this first century society, the task of washing the feet of guests fell to the house servants. This was not the job a householder would consider doing, nor was it something, which a rabbi, healer, teacher, needless to say, the Messiah would do. Jesus humbled himself and served his disciples in a very poignant way. He washed their feet.


The social practices of a culture always have embedded in the act, a much deeper meaning. Each day, people gather around a delectable cake with frosting and roses. We place small candles on the cake, we put on funny hats, and we all sing a song that we all know by heart. Every day, this ritual is acted out, but through the lens of another culture, other people might scratch their heads and ask, what in the world are they doing. Like our birthday ritual, washing the feet of guests had a particular significance in the first century. Foot washing is not a practice we observe in the 21st century, but it had major significance in the culture of first century Palestine. Walking was the primary means of travel and traversing dusty roads meant that the feet of guests were covered, no crusted with dirt and grime. The gesture of washing feet, said volumes about the relationship between the guest and the householder, and it became the symbol of a contract of sorts between them.


Hospitality for this culture was the central virtue. To maintain one’s reputation of being hospitable, when one welcomed guests in the home, the householder would care for the guest and protect them against all harm. The guest in turn, would share with everyone with whom they came in contact, that the householder was hospitable. By having one’s servants wash the feet of the guests, the deal was sealed and the hospitable relationship was established.


Jesus experienced an example of an inhospitable gesture involving foot washing. When he ate at the home of the Pharisee, the householder failed to wash Jesus’ feet, yet an outcast woman came in and washed Jesus’ feet with her hair and her tears. Through this act, she expressed a very significant understanding of hospitality and she humbled herself and expressed her love for Jesus in a very culturally significant way.

Our Lord took the role of the servant and washed the feet of his disciples. He not only humbled himself, but also made it clear that the depth of the community, which he brought together, was to be based on service, love, hospitality and mutual commitment. Jesus also teaches us through this act, that humbly we are to serve each other. The gesture of washing the feet of another signifies our commitment to serve the other. The rite of washing feet also entails our own humility as well. To allow a sister or brother to wash our feet, we enact our willingness to humble ourselves to be served. To allow a sister or brother to wash our feet, we enact our understanding that we are a community of commitment, a community of service, and a community of love. On the eve before he offered himself to death on the cross, as the humbled, self-giving servant, Our Lord uses this very significant moment, this significant act to teach us, to encourage us, and to command us to love one another. As we gather on the eve that Our Lord gave himself for us, we are invited to consider our commitment to give ourselves to one another.

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