In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.
Tonight we begin the first of three holy days leading up to Easter. On these nights we will meditate on what Jesus has done to save us. You will remember that the Son of Man came not to be served, but serve and give his life as a ransom for you. He did this by going to cross as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He did this by bearing the beatings, the trial, and scourging so he could be placed on the cross to be forsaken by God the Father so you don’t have to be. For these next three days remember he did all this so that you can hear the joyful message that he rose on Easter morning.
We hear of the Lord rising in our gospel lesson this evening. It’s not the rising you normally think of and in fact this little detail at first seems so insignificant. John recounts that in the middle of the supper Jesus rose from the table. He rose from reclining with the disciples, took off his outer garment and wrapped a towel around his waist.
Why did he rise? All of us here know why. He rose to wash the disciple’s feet, but this subtle detail exposes that something was really amiss. Etiquette dictated that one’s feet were to be washed before supper, not at the end or the middle of the supper. That Jesus stood to do this after the supper had begun exposed his guest’s impropriety. Yet, he had more than a lesson in manners to teach them.
This is the point I’d like us to take home this evening. Jesus rose to serve his disciples when they refused to serve.
Many of us feel a bit repulsed at the thought of touching another persons sweaty feet. Imagine sweaty sandaled feet with a day’s worth of dust and grime to boot. Washing feet was the work of servants and slaves, but this was a private affair. There were no servants or slaves among them, or at least that’s what the disciples thought. Did they at first take their places with bated breath hoping they would not be the one the Lord would choose to do the humiliating chore? We don’t know, but what we do know is that not a single one of them volunteered.
The basic principle Jesus is teaching is easy to understand. He explains it himself. The one whom they (and we with them) rightfully call Lord and teacher made himself the servant and slave by washing their feet. They likewise are to wash one another’s feet. This was not to become a ritual, but a pattern. Jesus rose, in order to bow down and serve, cleansing and washing their crusty toes. His disciples are likewise to serve one another.
Peter was incensed at first. (That’s typical of Peter). The sight of his lord and master humiliating himself this way was too much. Once Jesus gently corrected him Peter asked for his hands and his head to be washed too. (That’s also typical of Peter. He was a man given to extremes). On this evening the disciples were only getting a glimpse of the entire lesson and significance of this service. Jesus told Peter, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” The “afterward” Jesus is talking about are the days following his death and resurrection. Then and only then would Peter and the disciples understand what Jesus meant by this service. Only then would they really know what he meant when he said, “you are clean.”
We should take pause here and let this sink in for a moment. What is most troubling about Jesus’ taking on the form of a servant is not his charity, other men are charitable. Nor is it troubling for him to ask us to love one another. Other men say that and our world now parades love like a slogan with little understanding of love’s source in God. What should trouble us is what Jesus says later, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Where it once was “Love your neighbor as yourself”, it’s now “Love as Jesus has loved you.”
Jesus loves you to death. He loves unto death. Jesus loves to your advantage at his disadvantage. His loves gives to your complete gain and his total loss. Jesus loves, even when his love is abused and taken for granted. The same Jesus said to follow his example, to love like him.
The love that sinners offer is much different. We love others, but with stipulations. Certain work is too lowly and too unsightly for us. We like to love from the position of authority and where we have some control. Even the least of us gives from our riches and not our poverty. We’ll love and give to others when we have the free time, the extra rest, or the surplus funds to do so. We are extremely concerned with having enough in reserve for ourselves, so we won’t let our love completely deplete us.
Jesus’ love lead him to completely deplete himself of life and breath on the cross. He did not give to us from the place of authority or control, but instead from the place of weakness and death. He gave you his riches by becoming impoverished for you. He does not just forgive your sin he becomes your sin on the cross. He does not just take away your death he becomes your death on the cross.
Jesus example is one of reckless abandon and reckless love. He abandons himself to the Father’s will alone. He drinks the cup the Father has poured for him and faithfully trusts that his Father will deliver him. Jesus abandons himself to your poverty of sin and death to save you. It really can’t be put any better than St. John’s gospel in a nutshell, “For God so the loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever should believe in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Or St. Mark’s, “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.”
Confronted with the reckless love that would rise once more from the table and go to the cross we know we cannot find such charity in ourselves—or the world around us. This love must first bring us to repentance. Like the disciples who were first shamed by their master rising and stooping to serve, so we are brought to our knees in worship for Christ’s loving service. Yet, look at the kindness by which Jesus serves. “You are clean.” He tells Peter. So, He also tells you.
We spent our Lenten midweeks remembering our Baptism into Christ. Submerged under all this talk of foot washing is also a nod to Baptism: “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me,” Jesus says to Peter. The washing Jesus is referring to here is not a foot bath, but the washing of regeneration and renewal, a washing of water and Spirit with the Word. In Baptism, Jesus again stoops down to us, the Holy One reaches down to wash the filthy and crusty sinner. Unless we are washed by Jesus, we have no share with Him. Only He can cleanse you from sin, only He can make the sinner clean.
At this supper Jesus takes bread, breaks it, gives thanks, and says “This is my body given for you.” He takes the cup filled with wine and says, “This is my blood of the new covenant shed for you.” Jesus, the servant foot washer, sheds new light on the Passover meal. He institutes a new Passover, where we are delivered not by the blood of goats or of lambs, but of his body broken and his blood shed on a tree. This is the Lord’s Passover where the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is received in the mouths of the saints in His true body and true blood for you to eat and to drink.
From this Supper of His Body and Blood, faith toward Christ and love for one another is given and strengthened. We always pray that this salutary gift would strengthen us the same in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another. Jesus loved us to death, giving His Body and Blood on the tree of the cross, lifted up for the life of the world. He loves you, washing you in the water of Baptism, giving you the bread of His Body, the wine of His Blood, all of it as gift to you – undeserved, unmerited, unearned, gratis, by grace.
And in that love, you are given to love one another, reflecting to each other the love that you have received. The world cannot see Jesus’ love. They can hear it, they can taste and see that the Lord is good. But they can’t see it. What they can see is you. “This is how the world will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another”
He gives His life—all of it to the very last drop. He gives you a pattern for life – love. This is the Lord’s Passover. In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen!
SDG—Rev. Eric M. Estes