JOHN 13:1-17, 31 –35
Have you ever imagined what it would have been like to be there? - to have been at the Last Supper? Maybe you can picture Leonardo da Vinci’s mural or remember the scene as portrayed in the ‘Life of Christ’ at Wintershall or indeed from Oberammagau.
So we see the Upper Room – Jesus gathered with His disciples to celebrate the Passover meal- and yet with signs that something untoward was to happen-Jesus washing His disciples’ feet in spite of their protestations, eating the bread and drinking the wine, but talking of His Body and His Blood, speaking of betrayal:
‘And you are clean, though not all of you’
‘The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.’
and speaking of death.
You sing the hymn and go out onto the Mount of Olives – out into the Garden of Gethsemane, where the disciples could not keep awake and watch, for even one hour, even when ‘the Son of Man was to be betrayed into the hands of sinners.’
A truly momentous evening for all who were there and for Christians throughout the ages.
A celebration of the Last Supper – the inauguration of the Eucharist, the Mass, the Holy Communion- whatever we like to call it- as described in the reading from Corinthians and in the 3 Synoptic Gospels.
Our Gospel reading tonight from St John’s Gospel however is unique. Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet is found in no other Gospel and it takes the place in John, of the institution of the Supper. In so doing, it provides an interpretation of Jesus’ death, just as the traditional words of the institution in the Synoptic Gospels and in Paul’s letters do.
The introductory verses set an unusual context for the action Jesus performs. He knows that the time for His death has come: he loves His disciples to the uttermost: He anticipates a return to the Father. Before Jesus takes the towel and the basin, we are reminded of what is to occur immediately beyond the incident. We are told that he took off His outer robe, ‘tied a towel around Himself’ and ‘put on His robe again,’ all reminiscent of the Good Shepherd who lays down His life in order to take it again.
The dialogue with Peter occupies most of the story and provides the essential explanation of Jesus’ action. Peter is told,’ You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter will see more clearly. Now he vehemently resists Jesus washing his feet, but Jesus warns him, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share in me.’
Careless of His own dignity or convenience, Jesus serves His own disciples and in serving, cleanses them. In the Christian liturgical enactment of the service, well prepared and already well washed feet are presented to the Christian minister, as here this evening! The gnarled, habitually unwashed and travel-stained feet of the original disciples would have been a very different matter!
Poor Peter, he would have been much happier washing Jesus’ feet and found it difficult to accept Jesus as a serving Lord, but we see that he does in v9:
‘Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.’
Nothing further is needed. The humiliating death of Jesus is sufficient to provide thorough cleansing.
So we can see the feet washing as a dramatic commentary on Jesus’ death. We can also see it as a dramatic representation of what Jesus’ followers are to be and do. Jesus gives us an example for His followers to emulate. It is more than simply kindly deeds to a neighbour; more (as one commentary puts it) than an apple pie in a time of crisis, more than money donated to a worthy cause.
It is ‘your Lord and Teacher’ who washes feet – performing this menial chore for the reluctant disciples. Jesus therefore subverts the accepted hierarchical structure – it is role reversal – the new images of authority are a towel and a basin.
Following Jesus’ example, ‘you ought also to wash one another’s feet,’ means creating a community of equals, where the status of superior/inferior is reversed in the act of service. This is very different from the values of a society where people compete for power and power is carefully protected. The Church is blessed when it follows Jesus’ example:
‘ If you know these things you are blessed if you do them.’
The 2 references to betrayal can be seen also as a reference to the fact that the Church is a mixed body and contains both the faithful and the unfaithful, both the washers of feet and the betrayers. Yet Judas is not mentioned by name. He is not singled out. The disciples do not know who the guilty one is until after the event. They are not told only to wash the feet of those they think are faithful and to ignore the rest. In fact, they serve the betrayer in their midst just as Jesus does.
The incident provides real depth for understanding the new commandment Jesus gives. Love is defined as more than feelings, more than liking, more than compassion from a distance.
‘Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.’
And , so today, is called Maundy Thursday.The name "Maundy" and the ceremony itself derive from an instruction, or mandatum, of Jesus at the Last Supper that his followers should love one another. In the Middle Ages, English monarchs washed the feet of beggars in imitation of Jesus, and presented gifts and money to the poor. Over time, additional money was substituted for the clothing and other items that had once been distributed.
Beginning in 1699 the monarch did not attend the service, sending an official in his place. The custom of washing the feet did not survive the 18th century. In 1932, King George V revived the traditionof the sovereign distributing the Royal Maundy. Traditionally, the service was held in or near London, in most years in the early 20th century at Westminster Abbey. Today, Queen Elizabeth II almost always attends (she has been absent only four times in her reign), and the service is held in a different church (usually a cathedral) every year. New recipients are chosen every year for service to their churches or communities, on the recommendation of clergy of various Christian denominations.One man and one woman for each year of the Queen’s age. Generally, recipients live in the diocese where the service is held, which a few years ago was at Christchurch, Oxford and included one of our own congregation.
We also have had the example of the Pope washing the feet of young prisoners in Rome, including those of 2 women, one a Muslim girl, with his clear message that people matter more than the ceremony of the Church and that we should take note of the simplicity of Jesus’ teaching.
‘A new commandment, I give unto you:
That you love one another, as I have loved you,
That you love one another, as I have loved you.’
If you had been there, how would you have responded to the dramatic events of Maundy Thursday evening – how do we respond to Jesus’ ‘new’ teaching on the nature of service and love?