Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
+In the Name of God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen. Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said that what the Bible demands can be comprised in one word: Remember. And so, like our Jewish ancestors who were commanded by God to remember their liberation from slavery in Egypt by the annual observance of a sacred ritual meal, tonight we remember the meal that Jesus shared with his closest friends on the night before he died for us.
It would have been a Passover meal like any others they had celebrated—the familiar prayers and songs and foods of the seder prescribed in the text of the Haggadah. It would have been if Jesus had not done something so out of the ordinary, something so culturally and socially taboo. In a startling gesture, he got up from the table, took off his outer robe, tied a towel around himself, poured water into a basin, and began to wash their feet—to the amazement of many and to the horror of Peter.
Foot washing in the Palestine of their time was an act of hospitality. Imagine walking twenty miles on dusty, uneven roads in sandals and you will understand how welcoming this gesture was for people. The master of the house, however, would never stoop down to wash feet. In as much as washing feet demonstrated hospitality, it also was an act of submission. One would either wash one’s own feet in a basin provided by the entrance to the house or, if the household were extremely wealthy, a slave would be charged with this duty, a further reminder of his or her lowly status in society. But the Rabbi, the teacher, their master would never, ever humiliate himself by washing their feet. Here he was doing just that.
Jesus had touched lepers and hemorrhaging women. He had openly shared meals with those who were considered despicable and sinful people—all violations of Jewish purity codes. Yet his disciples never protested all of this contra convention. But here they do. His act of condescension is just too hard to take—the reversal of values too upsetting to remain quiet over. Jesus knew that there had been enough talk, enough explanation, enough teaching about servant love. He had to show them what it looked like rather than just tell them.
The only way to teach the disciples the reality of the gospel was to get down on his knees and wash their feet—every one of them—the one who loved him so deeply and the one who would betray him. Before he broke bread with them, before he shared the cup, before they received the gift of the Eucharist, he had to demonstrate that the human desire for power and privilege must be broken. So tonight we remember by washing feet and by celebrating this Passover meal, this festival of freedom—a sign of God’s extravagant love and the liberating journey we’re on.
In his book of meditations on the readings of Holy Week, author Sam Portaro makes a very profound point about the meaning of the foot washing in the life of the early church and beyond. The Gospel of John which relates this story was written fifty to sixty years after the Resurrection—a whole generation removed from the events it detailed. The Christian community had already begun to fracture into alliances centered on particular teachers. There were growing divisions within these communities and the question of status was an issue. It is curious, however, that this same Gospel omits any record of the Eucharistic meal described in Paul’s Epistle this evening. There is no blessing of bread and wine, no words of institution—only the strange matter of the foot washing.
It made no sense to those disciples that Passover night of long ago. But for those who followed them, there may have been a different perspective. Portaro asks the question: “Did those early Christians gathered around John’s memory understand that this account was addressed to their own fractious divisions? More importantly. Do we understand?
Can we see that the only way to make Eucharist—to embrace the gospel in our own lives, to bring the gospel to this culture of ours, and to bring that culture to the fullness of the Eucharistic table is to do the same? Down on the floor, in service, was where the disciples would see God. Down on the floor, in service, is where they would be the church. Down on that floor, in service, is where we are the church.
We don’t travel dusty roads nor wear sandals, yet we all need refreshment from the burdens we bear and someone to help remove the dust and sooth the calluses—whatever that is for us—our fears, our failures, our pain, our sadness, our loss of hope, our many stresses and tensions. We are all called to wash feet, perhaps in a different way, but one that is equally significant and we do that when we follow the way of servanthood, when we “lose” our lives as Jesus did, when we give up trying to save our lives by winning, when we enter into the greatest power we have as human beings—to serve without evaluating whether someone is “worth it,” without worrying how our service is being perceived, or what results it will produce.
Sam Portaro’s meditation on this gospel ends with this epiphany: “Our place is at the feet of those whom God has entrusted to us. When our eyes meet the eyes of those who look down upon us they will only see our gratitude to God, our thanksgiving for the gift the each of them is. That is when the eucharist begins: not when the bread is broken, but when we are.”