A sermon, based on John 13.1-17, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Maundy Thursday, April 18, 2019
Peter oft…always misunderstood Jesus.
He rebuked Jesus for declaring that he was a Messiah who would die, thus, missing the point about the necessity of his death to atone for the sins of the world.(1)
He suggested to Jesus, on the mountain of his transfiguration, that they should build permanent dwelling places, thus, missing the point that divine transformation is to be experienced on the daily plane of life in the world.(2)
He thought he was magnanimous in being willing to forgive an offender seven times, thus, missing Jesus’ point about unlimited mercy.(3)
Peter, when confronted by Jesus, his Teacher and Lord, washing feet, rebelled, “You will never wash my feet!”, then, to Jesus’ insistence, responded ridiculously, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
Peter didn’t get it!
Do we? Are we, like Peter, uncomfortable with unconventional ideas about who God is and what God does, thus, unable to conceive of our Lord and Savior as a slave who washes feet?
But, as Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Only when we allow Jesus to be a slave, to be our slave can we be his disciples.
Recounting the night before Jesus’ crucifixion, John the evangelist, unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, does not tell us of Jesus taking the bread and the cup, saying, “This is my body and my blood given for you.” John only tells us of the footwashing. So, why, on Maundy Thursday, our annual commemoration of Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist, do we read John?
Because, I think, footwashing symbolizes the heart of the Eucharist…
Footwashing is a lowly, loving, slavish act of unconditional and impartial service – as Jesus says, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” – for us to render unto all people, at all times. Therefore, the Eucharist is a spiritual meal of spiritual food meant to strengthen our spirits that we may be Jesus’ servants in the world.
Given the footwashing, when I think about the various doctrines that have been propounded o’er the centuries about what the Eucharist is, from an incomprehensible mystery to a memorial meal and everything in between or when I think about how we, how I approach the Eucharist, coming to the altar in Peter’s puzzlement or certain, too certain that we, that I know what we’re doing, I wonder what would Jesus do if he were to walk in here and be among us this night.
Would he ball up in anger: “After two thousand years, y’all don’t get it yet?”
Or would he shake his head at the depth of our incomprehension and bowl over in laughter?
Or would he, with love, as Love, bend down and wash our feet, and then look up at us, asking, “Got it, now?”
Yes, that, I think, is what Jesus would do.
Nikos Kazantzakis, in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” for me, a beautiful, timeless spiritual memoir, describes the disciples at the Last Supper. Each of them, when eating a piece of bread, felt it descend, like a burning ember, to their bellies and bowels. And when they took a sip of wine, thick and salty, it tasted like blood. Their minds reeled. Suddenly, feeling Jesus taking root within them, they were terrified. Peter, finally getting it, lay his head upon the table and wept.
If we, you and I, came to the altar seeking to be fed so to become who we eat, then we, believing, knowing Jesus abides in us and we in him, could rise, turn, and return to the world to bear, to be, in our bodies, our words, our deeds, the kingdom of God.
(1) Matthew 16.22
(2) Matthew 17.4
(3) Matthew 18.21
Christ washing the apostles’ feet, Dirck van Baburen (1595-1624)
The Last Supper (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)