March 28, 2013, Maundy Thursday – I Will Make You Washers of Feet
At the Passover, Jesus gathered his disciples around the table for this one last time. It was the last time they would all share a meal together, the last time before their lives would all be changed forever. By that evening Judas would be found to be a traitor, and the rest of them cowards at best, and Jesus would never again walk by their sides to teach and guide them. But in that upper room, as they sat around the table, it was that precious moment, like the moment a parent says good-bye to their son or daughter when they drop them off at college for the first time, or like the moment you sit by the bedside of a loved one who is dying. Jesus knew there was no time for empty chatter; now was the time for him to speak those words that his friends and apprentices most needed to hear, the words that would make sense of the things that were about to happen; the teaching that would equip them to carry on when he was gone.
What Jesus had to tell his disciples was so important that instead of just saying it, he did it. He acted it out. He got up from the table, and took off his outer garments. And he wrapped a towel around his waist and filled a basin with water. And then he knelt at the feet of his disciples and began to wash their feet. We do that on Maundy Thursday – we’ll be doing that after supper – and for many of us it feels very awkward and uncomfortable. We feel weird having someone kneel at our feet, or we’re embarrassed because our feet are funny-looking, or we’re afraid maybe they’re stinky. It seems like a very intimate thing. It was different for the disciples; because it wasn’t unusual for a servant to come around and wash people’s feet when they dined at someone’s house. It wasn’t strange culturally, but it was very strange for the most important person in the room, and they felt at least as uncomfortable as we do. In fact, Peter tried to refuse, but Jesus insisted.
And when he had finished and was back sitting at the table with them, he began to explain what he had just done. I wonder how they all reacted. The room might have been very, very quiet as the disciples sat staring at him, trying to figure out what he was doing and why. Or maybe the room was buzzing with a confusion of questions and comments. Probably no one dared to argue with Jesus after Peter’s outburst, but maybe everyone was quietly muttering to his neighbor. I’m sure, though, that when Jesus began to speak, all eyes were on him. Are you shocked because your Teacher and Lord just performed the work of a slave? Well, here’s what I need you to know – this is the work I have been preparing you for all these months. I just gave you the example. I have served you – now you, go and do as I have done, go and serve one another.
That night was the darkness before the dawn of a whole new kingdom, and life was never going to be the same. In this new kingdom, greatness was suddenly going to look like servitude, and power was going to look like weakness. It was a little bit like heading into a world of opposites where up is down and black is white. This above all else was what Jesus needed for them to understand, because when he hung on the cross, what looked to the world like the most desperate and pathetic weakness was actually the greatest act of power the world had ever known. And the men that were at the supper that night followed in their Master’s footsteps, so that instead of going on with life in the world as they had always known it, arguing about who was the greatest and who would get the places of honor, they began living the strange way of the upside-down kingdom that they now belonged to. Most of them were martyred, because the kingdom of this world hates that kingdom. But these eleven men, servants of all men like their Master, poor in spirit and held in dishonor, beaten and imprisoned, these eleven men changed the world.
I think we don’t often understand that kind of humility very well. We tend to think that being humble means thinking better of others than of ourselves, putting ourselves down and maybe even letting others walk all over us. That might be what it looks like sometimes, from the outside looking in, but the worldly kind of humility is false; it is slavery, and it brings death instead of life. Worldly humility is either a pretense, so that it is just pride in a particularly ugly disguise, or it is born of self-hatred, so that it kills from the inside. But true humility in the kingdom of God, is nothing like that. The kind of humility Jesus modeled for his disciples is actually immensely powerful, because it is rooted in absolute freedom.
John writes, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and wrapped a towel around his waist.” Jesus didn’t serve his friends because he wanted to belittle himself or make himself less than he was. He served his friends because he knew exactly who he was. He had nothing to lose. He was absolutely and totally free to kneel down and wash their dirty feet. And that was what he was passing on to them. John writes, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” His disciples were so secure in his love and in the love and care of the Father that they were free as no one in this world could ever be, free to bow down and serve even the lowliest and least honored person, free to give up anything and everything, because their lives were safe with him.
To listen to the recording of this sermon, click here: I Will Make You Washers of Feet
Jesus told his surprised disciples, “I am making you to be washers of feet.” And there is more to that than their own security. To be great in the kingdom is to be a servant, but serving in the kingdom of God is immensely powerful because it gives life. The greatness of the world can never give life. Powerful people can control; they can influence people or intimidate them, punish them or reward them, but they always make people less. The power of the upside-down kingdom is the only power that can make people more. Just as Jesus gave his disciples a part in his work by washing their feet, when we follow our Master in serving, we can build people up. We can’t give them salvation by our service like Jesus, but we can give life to them by loving them, by feeding their bodies and minds and souls, by helping to heal them, by letting them know that they are loved by the Father, that they are infinitely precious to him. No worldly power can give life in that way, but if we humble ourselves as children of God, to serve our brothers and sisters in the world, we can. So following the example of our Master; let us all become washers of feet.