Scripture Text: John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
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.2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God,4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.5Then 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.6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”10Jesus 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.”11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”12After 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?13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. 31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.33Little 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.’34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
This is the night when everything changes. I always thought that the disciples assumed that they had more time, that somehow Jesus would pull it out in the end. After all, to them, the mission had just begun. How could these three years be for naught? Was I wrong to join it? Was it a waste of time? The air hangs heavy with change. Something is wrong. The wilderness seems to be overtaking them.
It’s a hard day. We know what is coming tomorrow. We have read over and over again—the story of loss and betrayal, of the disciples sleeping, of Jesus’ surrender, of Jesus being dragged off to the house of Caiaphas on this very night. We have over and over and over experienced regret and bewilderment and grief. This is the night that everything changes, when the wilderness week seems to fold onto us, almost choking us.
But can you feel it? Can you feel the love tonight? Can you feel something beyond where you were? Do we ever remember the love of this night? They came together for a Passover dinner. I always thought that they were alone, gathered in some sort of stuffy upstairs room, maybe with Leonardo da Vinci standing on the side painting the scene for posterity. But then I saw, even if it was a “traditional understanding” of the place, the Upper Room in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was big, bigger than I had ever imagined. What dawned on me was that this was Passover, the community gathering. Jesus wasn’t just there crammed into some sort of painting with the disciples; he was there with the whole community, sharing life and community and food. But at some point, he sat down with his closest friends and it became intimate. It became a dinner of love on that last night. They shared food; they shared wine; and Jesus washed their feet. Jesus showed them what intimacy and love for another human really meant–that one would become vulnerable, would do for another what perhaps was not the most comfortable thing to do, that one would change for another, as hard as that might be. Love became not a caring or a sharing but an entering, an entering into the life of another.
This foot washing thing is hard. It is way too intimate for most of us westerners. After all, we are pretty private, seemingly reserved; we honor each other’s imaginary space. But once a year, the church I once served would have a foot washing at the mid-day Maundy Thursday service. It wasn’t just a ceremonial thing to show us how it was done. There wasn’t one clergy washing the feet of some brave designated congregant. It was the whole service. Everyone came. We worshipped in silence for about twenty-five minutes and one by one, people would remove their shoes and place their feet in the water to be washed. It was completely quiet except for the sloshing of the water in the pail. Toward the end, the clergy would switch places and someone would wash our feet.
It was a small service, intimate really. I remember the first year we did it. We were reticent, hesitant to trust that people would come through. So, admittedly, we had a couple of “ringers”. Well, the ringers came and then the rest did. One by one, they all came. I sat there on the floor moved by something that I had never experienced. I was touching people’s feet. They had removed their shoes at the pew and had walked barefoot to the seat where we had the plastic tub in which water would be poured over their feet. It was incredible.
And then Caroline came. Caroline–in her full Nigerian dress and gele (the elaborate head covering they wear) and her permanent posture of prayer. She came and she sat and she placed her foot in the water. I picked up her foot. Caroline and her family were part of the Nigerian freedom movement. She had come from the tribes and had wanted more. She had worked hard, always putting aside her own desires for what she thought was important–others and God. She had lost her young husband in that movement and had raised her four young sons alone. I looked at this older woman’s foot in my hands, deep with lines of life and passion, and I had tears in my eyes. It was a foot that as a young child had run barefoot through African jungles. It was a foot that had marched for freedom. It was a foot that had known grief, and pain, and joy. I was holding life. I was not holding someone’s foot. I was holding their life. I was affirming them, praying for them, washing away for them all the things that got in the way of what they so treasured. As I was gingerly washing Caroline’s foot, she raised her hands, looked up into the ceiling, and she began to pray. They were words from one of the tribal communities in Nigeria that I did not understand and composed a prayer that I understood completely. It was incredible. It was love at its deepest level–love for Christ, love for humanity, love for each other, love for God and all that we have together.
Caroline died a few years ago. We grieved at her funeral. But we also danced, danced with joy. (I think we need to start dancing with joy at funerals!) She left the most incredible love. At her memorial service, I remembered that day when I washed her feet. I remembered that day that was filled with love, that was filled with the Presence of Christ on that night. It had changed me.
You see, love is a funny thing. It is not perfectly complete. Jesus knew that on that night. He and the disciples did not sing “Kum-ba-yah” and then leave. In Jesus’ life, love meant rejection and exile, frustration and misunderstanding, Presence and turning, welcome and redemption. This very night, Love would be apathy and betrayal, surrender and pardon. But, in this moment, Love was a bunch of friends who had a dinner together and had their feet washed. They were feet filled with lines of life and passion. Jesus washed their feet and held their life. That’s all love is about. Love is Life. Love brings us together in a way that does not subdue us into one but embraces who we are. Love takes all that we are and creates Love. Love changes us. It turns the wilderness into a place of Love. Nothing else can create itself. But Love can. That’s why we love one another. That’s why Jesus commanded us to love.
On this night, we take all that we are, sinners and saints, kings and vagabonds, the betrayer and the beloved, the anointed and the one who anoints, the nay-sayers and the ones who miss the signs of the sacred, the pharisee and the rule-breaker, the faith-filled and the doubter, Caroline and me and you–we are all here, gathered together, showered in the most incredible love imaginable. Can you feel the Love tonight? You feel it because you’ve been changed. Tomorrow we will kneel at the cross. But, tonight, in this moment, can you feel the Love?
If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party…In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under delusion. (Frederick Buechner)
Grace and Peace,