Thursday, April 5, 2012

Look! He Is Serving!

(A sermon based on John 13:1-17; 31b-35 for Maundy Thursday 2012)

During Holy Week it is a good thing to try to imagine what it was like to experience the events of that week; it is a good thing to try to place ourselves in the story so that maybe we can in fact find ourselves in the story.

So I invite you to close your eyes and imagine.

It is Passover week in Jerusalem and the city is teeming with pilgrims and the air is thick with tension. The Roman-appointed governor, Pontius Pilate, is in the city for the week as is his custom and Roman soldiers are much more evident than usual. Your teacher Jesus has been involved in many controversies and has engaged in many debates with various religious leaders during the week.

What a relief it is to go into a private room to share a dinner with Jesus and with the other disciples; what a relief it is to shut the door and close yourselves off from the teeming crowd and from the maddening world.

Besides, you think, it is always a joy to share a meal with Jesus; he always enjoys his food and he always enjoys the fellowship.

Soon, though, you realize that something is different about this night and about this meal.

The atmosphere in the room is heavy; the conversation around the table is subdued.

Jesus is much more solemn than usual; when he looks around the room there is a pronounced sadness in his eyes and when he speaks there is a troubling pain in his voice.

Everyone is eating and drinking—and waiting, although you are not sure for what.

Jesus is picking at his food.

Then he sighs, gets up, pours some water into a basin, and kneels in front of Bartholomew. He removes the disciple’s sandals. Bartholomew just sits there, his mouth open, as Jesus begins slowly and deliberately to wash his left foot. The water in the basin darkens with the dust from Bartholomew’s feet even as, you can’t help but notice, the countenance of Judas Iscariot, who is sitting beside Bartholomew, darkens with—well, you really can’t tell with what. Jesus moves to the right foot of Bartholomew and repeats the process, carefully and tenderly. He then takes a towel and dries Bartholomew’s feet.

Jesus stands.

He skips Judas.

He moves on to Matthew, then to Thomas, then to Thaddaeus. Judas is staring at the floor. You are staring at Judas.

Jesus pours a fresh basin of water and walks back to the group, stopping in front of—Judas. He kneels before Judas, placing the basin on the exact spot into which Judas has been trying to stare a hole. Jesus glances up at Judas with what you will later think of as a knowing glance and then gets to the business of washing Judas’ feet. Judas alternates between expressions that look like he wants to throw his arms around Jesus and like he wants to get up and bolt from the room.

Jesus moves to Philip, then to Andrew, then to James the Son of Alphaeus.

After refreshing his basin of water, Jesus goes to Simon Peter. To this point no one has said anything but you can always count on Peter to be the first. They’re on the other side of the room and their exchange is quiet but you can interpret their body language well enough to know that Peter at first refused Jesus’ offer to wash his feet and then quite dramatically acquiesced. As Jesus begins to wash Peter’s feet, you see the first and only smile of the night appear on your Rabbi’s face—as well as the usual look of confident confusion on Peter’s.

Jesus then washes the feet of the brothers James and John, who are together, as usual.

And now, at last, he kneels in front of you.

Please open your eyes.

Look—he is serving—you!

Look—he is washing—your feet!

After putting away the basin and the towel, Jesus said, “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.”

Later, after Judas had in fact for some reason bolted from the room and as the room became filled with an air of expectation, Jesus said, “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.”

Look—he is serving!

Now—look at us…

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