Thursday, April 9, 2009

“Lord, Are You Going to Wash my Feet?”

[A sermon based on John 13:1-17, 31b-35 for Maundy Thursday; this is the second sermon in my Holy Week 2009 series Eavesdropping on Holy Week]

“Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

It is a question posed by Simon Peter as Jesus, who had already washed the feet of some of his disciples, approached Peter, a towel around his waist and a basin of water in his damp hands, his intention much clearer than the water that was sloshing around in the bowl.

And so the question posed by Simon Peter seems in the first place a silly question—I can’t help but wonder what kind of look Jesus gave Peter as he, having knelt before Peter with the basin and the towel, glanced up at his always talkative follower; was it a look that said “Now, that’s a silly question, Peter”?

But maybe Jesus gave Peter that warm and compassionate and tender look, that look of love and grace and mercy that should have melted the heart, even the hardest heart, of every one onto whose eyes it fell, because he knew that Peter was onto something and it was something that meant so much to both Jesus and Peter and to everybody else that would ever follow Jesus that it was probably going to have to be dealt with right then and there even though Peter wasn’t ready. It also has to be dealt with right here and now whether we’re ready or not.

Imagine Peter actually saying the words. I think it likely that his inflection would have been something like this: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” by which he meant “Do you really think that you, my teacher and Lord, the one whom I believe to be the Christ, the Son of the living God, are going to wash my feet, when I am but your servant and am not fit to untie the laces of your sandals?” Peter, in other words, could not get his mind around the fact that his Master and Teacher would stoop to serve him like that, that he would condescend to give of himself like that.

Then Jesus said, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Jesus was challenging Peter to do something that most of us have a hard time doing—to accept what he was receiving from the hand of the Lord as a gift, knowing that it meant something vitally important but being willing to defer understanding until the time was right. Peter, who, again like many of us, could see things only as he saw them in the moment and could not imagine another explanation that was worth waiting for, responded, “You will never wash my feet.”

Perhaps Jesus sighed before he hit Peter between the eyes with the cold, hard truth: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” When Peter heard that he responded with more impetuous words, words that might have been tinged with more than a little desperation: “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” “If you must wash my feet for me to be part of what you are doing, then wash me all over because I want to be all in” was what Peter was saying.

Only he didn’t know what he was saying and he didn’t know what he was saying because the events had not yet happened that would enable him to understand. Yes, to be washed by Jesus meant to be all in with Jesus; to be washed by Jesus meant to be completely identified with Jesus; to be washed by Jesus meant to be joined with Jesus in Jesus’ kind of life and Jesus’ kind of love and Jesus’ kind of ministry—but Peter didn’t get that yet and he didn’t get it yet because Jesus had not been crucified yet. Unfortunately, too many of us don’t get it yet and we have much less excuse than Peter because we live on this side of the crucifixion and because we have the words of Jesus in black and white (and maybe red) in the holy book that we carry and read and study.

Now, Peter was on to something when he challenged Jesus’ intention to wash his feet; he was on to the fact that Jesus was his superior and his better in every way and that it was, in every way that someone from that culture in that time could have comprehended, improper for Jesus to wash Peter’s feet. Peter was also on to something when he asked Jesus to wash him all over if that was what it took for Peter to be a part of who Jesus was and a part of what Jesus was doing. But Peter was thinking about the water and the washing and not about what they meant; Jesus was thinking about what the water and the washing meant.

What did the water and the washing mean to Jesus and what do they mean to us? For Jesus to wash the disciples’ feet meant that he was a servant to them; when Jesus stooped down before his sinful and flawed followers to wash their feet it was a symbol of the greater stooping down that he was doing—he left his home in glory and emptied himself, becoming a servant who would serve so much that he would finally give up his life. The conclusion of the servant life that Jesus lived would conclude on the day after he washed his disciples’ feet when he would be nailed to the cross.

Listen to what Jesus said after he had finished washing the disciples’ feet:

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. (vv. 12b-16)

And listen to what he said a little while later:

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. (vv. 34-35)

So when our feet are washed—when we are washed—by Jesus we receive the privilege and responsibility of washing the feet of our brothers and sisters; but what that means is that when we become caught up in what Christ has done for us on the cross—that he loved us enough that he stooped down so far as to die for us—we receive the privilege and the responsibility—and the ability!—to love each other so much that are willing to die for one another and it is that kind of love and service and sacrifice that will bear true witness to the world of who we are and, more importantly, of who Christ is.

Given that the chances that we will be compelled to die literally for each other are slim, how do we love each other in a sacrificial, Christ-affirming, self-emptying way? Here are a few suggestions.

1. “Adopt” a homebound person or someone living in a nursing or assisted living home.

2. Volunteer to be a tutor at the Boys & Girls Club.

3. Forgive somebody—even if you are absolutely, positively convinced that you were in the right and he or she was in the wrong.

4. Quit complaining about your own life and start encouraging others in theirs.

5. Try to see things from the other person’s perspective.

6. When you hear a brother or sister being criticized, step in and intervene, even it means taking the attack onto yourself.

They may seem like little things but they are the kinds of things that we find hard to do, aren’t they? The issue for us, though, is whether we will let Jesus wash our feet so that we can go wash others’ feet.

You see, when Peter said, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” he meant that he didn’t think he deserved it. When he said, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” he meant that he wanted to belong to Jesus.

If we’re not careful, when we say, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” we might mean that we don’t want to be immersed in the kind of loving, sacrificial life that a disciple is called to live and when we say “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head” we won’t remember that to be immersed in Jesus is to be immersed in grace that leads to grace, in love that leads to love, in mercy that leads to mercy, and in sacrifice that leads to sacrifice.

[I pour water from a pitcher into a basin.] Listen to the water. Remember your baptism. Remember that Jesus has washed you. Remember what it all means. Remember that you are to love as he loved, that you are to give as he gave, that you are to serve as he served, that you are to sacrifice as he sacrificed—that you are to die as he died.

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