April 17, 2014, Maundy Thursday – The Last Lesson
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Family dinners are complex things – on the surface one Christmas or Thanksgiving looks and feels much like another, year after year pretty much the same familiar traditions, same familiar foods, same people, same surroundings. But each year is unique because there is always a lot going on around and between and within the people that are present – for me, trying to savor the time with those that are going away, and there are always various personality clashes and bad history between some of those present. And then there are memories and family recipes and things that bring people to mind who are no longer with us, and anxiety about upcoming decisions, and wanting to say just the right things to encourage and guide each person. And binding all that together is an overwhelming love for all these weird and wonderful people that belong to me and to one another.
This meal that we call the last supper – there was a lot going on that night, too. On the surface, it was a traditional celebration of the Passover by a group of good friends, carefully planned and set up. Jesus had sent them ahead to prepare the room, to arrange for the food. They sang the hymns proper to the Passover – that would have been special psalms that were appointed for the Passover meal. But in the midst of the familiar prayers and melodies, and the well-remembered tastes and smells, there was a lot going on under the surface: Jesus knew that he would not sit with these friends again in this world, and his heart was full of love for them – John says, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” He was fully aware of his identity as the Son of God, and of his mission as the Messiah of God, and of all that that was going to mean in the hours and days to come. He knew that one of his friends was already planning to betray him, and that that betrayal would lead to his death. He wasn’t feeling like a victim, John says that he knew that God had put everything into his hands. And knowing all these things, and with his heart full of love for these men who had become like brothers to him, he got up from the table and he taught them one final lesson, one more sermon that would sum up all that he had been trying to teach them over the past three years.
And this final lesson was a sermon without words. Rising from the table, Jesus took off his outer garments and wrapped a towel around his waist. He went and fetched a basin of water, and kneeling at the feet of his friends he began to wash their dirty feet. It was something that ordinarily only a slave would do. The disciples were confused, and more than a little scandalized, and Peter, of course, argued with Jesus. But Jesus just kept on, washing the feet of the friends that would soon run away and leave him to the mercy of the Temple guard, washing the feet of the one who would lead the guards to him and betray him with a kiss, washing the feet of the one who would lurk in the courtyard to watch his trial, but then who would swear up and down that he had never even met the Galilean troublemaker that had been arrested. He washed all their feet, and dried them with the towel, and, his wordless lesson complete, he came back to sit with them at the table.
I leave you with this example, he told them. You know me as your Teacher and Lord, and that’s right, I am. Now look – what I have done for you, my disciples, I charge you to do that for one another.
Without a word, Jesus modeled, represented in the flesh, what he had taught them from the beginning. He had told them “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” He had told them, “Whoever would be the greatest must be the servant of all.” He had told them, “The last shall be first and the first last.” He had told them, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” He had told them, “I am among you as one who serves.” He had been teaching them the way of humility all along, and on that last night he became humility in their presence, so that they – and we – could know with our hearts and our hands as well as our minds just what he was calling us to do and to be, and because he never calls us to do or be anything that he is not willing to do and be himself.
It was nothing the powers and principalities and philosophies of this world could ever have predicted. How can it possibly be that the Almighty, all-powerful, all-knowing God who existed before all time, who is holy and perfectly righteous, with no taint of sin or darkness, who created the sun and the moon and the stars, the earth and all its creatures, how can it be that that same God wrapped a towel around his waist and knelt to wash the grubby feet of fishermen and tax collectors, of cowards and traitors? It is beyond anything words could express. But Jesus, in washing the feet of the disciples on that night, made the one true God visible to us in all his greatness, in all his love, in all his unexpected and inexpressible humility. And then he called us, as children of God, to follow him and do the same.
As we wash one another’s feet tonight, then, I think it is important to know that we are not just re-enacting what happened in that upper room 2000 years ago. We are living out what it means to be Christ’s followers, called to be servants, just as our Teacher and Lord first taught us by his own living example. As you pour the water and wash your brother’s or your sister’s feet, know that the meaning of what you are doing is in the physical act of serving. Just as we don’t have to feel holy or to be theologically astute to receive the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, so we don’t need to feel or understand anything profoundly spiritual as we wash feet. We may find it a very moving experience, or we may find it awkward and strange. But that is not really very important; because the essence of what we are doing is practicing the character of our Lord and Master, who came not to serve, but to be served. And as our bodies conform to his example, our hearts and our minds will be conformed to his image by the power of his Spirit in us.