Maundy Thursday’s service last night was so full – scripture, song, handwashing, the Lord’s Supper, stripping the altar – truly a drenching in sensory experience.
I was grateful that my congregation was willing to try handwashing. Foot-washing is an incredibly intimate experience, one that for many people breaks too many boundaries. I’ve found that hand-washing, with a blessing of peoples’ hands for service in the world, is a really viable alternative. To have your hands gently washed, dried, and blessed by someone is a powerful experience – and it was for me doing the serving.
I decided to take a chance in my preaching and offer that Jesus brings a new narrative, one that stands over against the doctrine of an angry God needing some kind of satisfaction. To follow that with handwashing, while the ensemble sang a beautiful arrangement of “Ubi Caritas”, was a moment I’ll not forget.
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
1Now 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 supper 3Jesus, 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.”
31b“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.”
Dear people of God, grace and peace to you from our loving God, through his Son, Jesus who comes to us this night as a servant. Amen.
Each Wednesday evening through Lent, we gathered as a community around tables, we were fed with good soup and salad and sweets, and we experienced our senses in relation to God.
Tonight we’ve heard about another meal, another menu, and another set of sensory experiences that bring people closer to God.
Have you ever been to a meal celebrating a very special occasion? Maybe a wedding, or a 50th anniversary, or a historical observance?
A meal comprised of many courses, perhaps. Each course complemented by a carefully selected wine. A centerpiece of fragrant flowers.
There’s a weight of importance that accompanies a meal like that.
Jesus and the disciples are celebrating the Passover meal, and it’s a meal that even today in the Jewish tradition is one full of memories, particular foods, and being at table with others.
It’s a meal, not unlike the ones we shared through Lent, that’s woven through with prayers and songs, questions and answers, and sensory experiences.
And then Jesus changes the character of the celebration forever as he proceeds to wash the disciples’ feet.
This Passover meal has always been a time of passive remembrance of the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt – but Jesus takes it from passive remembrance to active response as he washes the disciples’ feet.
Likewise he makes this something for everyone to do when he says to them “so you must do.” It’s not something that just Jesus does, that’s only reserved for this one particular person/God being, but is expected to be our response as well to the truth of the stories that we hold together as the people of God.
If we think about the Passover story and then think about the actions of the Jewish people and nation after they left Egypt, we realize that Jesus is firmly establishing a new narrative – not an alternative narrative but a new one – that is the peaceable realm of God. And his resurrection will disprove once and for all that redemptive violence is a myth. Violence does not redeem; it only creates more violence.
Joshua and so many others, post-Egypt, acted in response to their situations by promulgating violence. And now in Jesus’ time, in the first century AD, that violence doesn’t seem to have done much good. The people of Judea are once again under foreign control, this time by Roman occupation.
I certainly can’t claim to know the mind of God. But I wonder – could God have possibly looked at the whole mess, and with an aching heart wonder to God’s self “how can I reach my people? How can I help them know that I love them?” Perhaps God remembered God’s covenant of the rainbow to never destroy earth again, and decided to try something entirely unexpected.
God coming to earth as a baby qualifies as unexpected, in my mind.
And what Jesus has preached, what he has done over his relatively short ministry, has been unexpected too.
The thread running through everything Jesus has said and done comes back around to his answer to the question “what is the greatest commandment?” The answer is the commandment he gives the disciples on this night: love one another.
It is a stark contrast to what the people of Jerusalem saw just a few days before, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. What looked for all intents and purposes like an approaching coronation of a secular ruler has now turned irrevocably down the road to crucifixion. And even with that knowledge, in that reality, Jesus urges the disciples to remember, and to live, that what makes them disciples is love.
One of the greatest gifts Lutheran theology has given the world is its cornerstone – the theology of the cross. We don’t skip from the cradle at Bethlehem to Jesus risen, cooking fish on the beach for his friends. The journey to the cross reminds us that God is found most particularly in the difficult times and places. If we skip that journey, then Jesus’ message – most clearly defined by radical inclusion and concern for those who are forgotten – becomes disposable.
And Jesus’ message is what has brought him and the disciples to this place, this upper room in Jerusalem. It’s what has earned him a reputation across Judea that profoundly unsettles the powers that be, both local and occupying. Jesus’ crucifixion is not a part of some twisted divine plan by which an angry God is finally appeased enough. Rather, his crucifixion is the result of his message; he is sentenced to the punishment Rome reserved for political subversives. And yet – a message of love is not what we’re accustomed to hearing from political subversives.
God’s mission in the incarnate Jesus is one that intentionally refuses the path of vengeance. It is one that shifts the nature of life in the reign of God to one that is guided by, expanded through, and drenched in love for the neighbor. The vengeful God of the Old Testament has transformed to the loving God of eternity.
If we can see Christ’s passion as endurance of suffering by God, rather than the infliction of retaliation by God, we can begin to consider the fullness of what Jesus is saying to his followers, “love one another.”
This kind of love is what makes it possible for the resurrection to breach the seemingly insurmountable walls of hatred and hostility that have plagued the world since the abandonment of Eden. Those walls can only be breached with the power of love.
This is God’s unilaterally disarming initiative. And it is one that we, who know how this story turns out, need to remind ourselves of daily. It is precisely the Way of the cross that leads home and that empties tombs.
In the final analysis, the failure to love the neighbor, whether friend or enemy, is to hedge on Jesus. We are, as the Apostle said, “baptized into Christ’s death,” implicated by the failure of our own faithfulness.
But at the exact same moment, we are baptized into his resurrection: the promised new heaven and new earth, where every tear will be dried and death itself comes undone. It is by walking the way of the cross that we learn the love that endures, the love that begins to build God’s kingdom here.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it as well as anyone:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Dear friends, let us love one another. Amen.