The text of a sermon, based on John 13.1-17, 31b-35 and 1 Corinthians 11.23-29, livestreamed and shared with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on Maundy Thursday, April 1, 2021.
Peter often misunderstood Jesus. Peter always misunderstood Jesus!
(I digress to suggest to us that when we fall short in our Christian living, we need not be too hard on ourselves. For we can draw some degree of comfort from the fact that Peter, Jesus’ chief disciple, could be so consistently obtuse!)
Peter rebuked Jesus for declaring that he was a Messiah who would die, thus, missing the point about the necessity of Jesus’ death as God’s suffering servant for the sake of the sins of the people.
Peter recommended 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 this world.
Peter thought he was magnanimous in being willing to forgive an offender seven times, thus, missing Jesus’ point about unlimited mercy.
Peter, when confronted by what, for him, was the outrageous spectacle of Jesus, his Teacher and Lord, washing feet, rebelled, “You will never wash my feet!” Then, to Jesus’ insistence, Peter, his incredulity overwhelming his reason, responded ridiculously, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!”
Peter didn’t get it! Peter didn’t get Jesus!
Do we? Are we, like Peter, uncomfortable to the point of rejection with unconventional ideas about who God is and what God does? Are we, like Peter, unable to conceive of our Lord and Savior as a slave who washes feet?
For as Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Only when we allow Jesus to be a slave, our slave can we be his disciples.
Recounting the night before Jesus’ crucifixion, John the evangelist, unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, says nothing to what we refer theologically as the Institution Narrative. John says not a word of Jesus taking the bread and the cup, saying, “This is my body, 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?
I suggest to us that it is because footwashing is the supreme symbol of the heart of the Eucharist.
As Paul testifies, for us to eat the bread and drink the cup in a worthy manner is to discern, to know the body. That is, to recognize and receive Jesus’ body as spiritual food to strengthen us for service to his body – the world and all who dwell therein.
In the light of the footwashing, I think about the various doctrines that have been propounded over the centuries about what the Eucharist is. An inexplicable mystery of union with a really-present Jesus or a memorial meal recalling the long-ago Last Supper and everything in between.
I also think about how we might approach the Eucharist. Coming to the altar in Peter’s puzzlement or certain, too certain that we know what we’re doing or somewhere in between.
I also think…wonder about how Jesus would respond to us. Would he bowl over in laughter? Would he ball up in anger? Or, with comprehending, yet incomprehensible love, would Jesus bend down, remove our shoes, and wash our feet.
The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis is, for me, a beautiful, timeless spiritual memoir. In it, Kazantzakis 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 bowels. And when they took a sip of wine, thick and salty, it tasted like blood. Their minds whirled. Suddenly, sensing, feeling Jesus taking root within them, they were terrified. And Peter, perhaps, for the first time, understanding who Jesus was and who he, Peter, was because of Jesus, began to weep.
When we come 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, can turn and return to the world to bear, to be in our bodies, our words, our deeds the kingdom of God.
© 2021 PRA
Illustration: Christ Washing the Apostles’ Feet (1616), Dirck van Baburen (1595-1624)
 Matthew 16.22
 Matthew 17.4
 Matthew 18.21
 Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957). The Last Temptation of Christ (1955)