“Do this in remembrance of me…” called to wash feet.
A sermon for Maundy Thursday for Adel Parish Church.
Some of you are perhaps feeling very relieved at this moment. Had this been a normal Holy Week, containing what I’d planned – this sermon would be followed by me washing some of your feet.
There would, I suspect, have been some arm-twisting along the way. Foot washing has always been part of the Maundy Thursday service where I’ve worshipped, and it’s often been a challenge to find 12 ‘willing’ people…
I wonder why…
“Do this in remembrance of me…”; these words of Jesus are only recorded in Luke’s gospel at the last supper, and in slightly different wording, in John’s gospel we heard tonight. I wonder why churches have shared bread and wine regularly from that time to this – but the foot-washing bit happens, somewhat reluctantly, on Maundy Thursday or not at all.
The disciples were no keener than we are…Simon Peter probably speaking for them all with his protestation…”you will never wash my feet”. Yet for the writer of this gospel, there is no mention of bread and wine – foot washing is the focus of Jesus’ final evening with his followers.
And it’s more than just a loving final action. “Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asks the disciples. On the final evening of his life, foot washing is the message Jesus wants to leave…and through the story of Jesus’ actions and the disciples’ response John tries to answer that question. “Do you know what I have done to you?”
Peter at first refuses, but Jesus says, if you want to follow me this isn’t something you can get out of. It’s that important. Just as important then as bread and wine.
Peter typically then leaps in with the idea that if washing is good – more washing must be better – “wash all of me then” he says. Perhaps he thinks the washing is to do with being made clean, having sins washed away.
But one of the most moving parts of this story for me is that it includes Judas. Jesus knows that Judas has decided to betray him; he knows his mind will not be changed – yet he washes Judas’ feet with the same love and care.
This then is not a ritual act of cleansing; it’s not an anointing of disciples for their future role…it’s simply an act of humble love and service…no more, no less…as Jesus takes up the role of a slave, and does one of the least pleasant jobs of a household.
“Do you know what I have done to you?” What does this uncomfortable act mean for us as we try to follow Jesus? As one of my books put it…’It’s a sermon to the world about how to love.’
More specifically perhaps it’s a sermon to Jesus’ followers about the love we’re offered by God, and the love we’re told to share with others.
Do we perhaps avoid the foot washing because we struggle with what it means for us?
First there’s the difficulty of letting Jesus wash our feet. I don’t know whether you have ever tried imagining it. I have – and I find it asks me to put myself totally in his hands. It asks me to surrender to his love – to be willing to give up control of my life to him.
Then it asks us to accept that we have a king who kneels and washes smelly feet. This is the person we’re to proclaim as Lord – this is the person we’re to follow. We don’t have a leader who uses conventional power to protect his followers. We aren’t part of a ruling group, safe in our position, looking down on those on the outside. This is what glory looks like in the kingdom of heaven.
Which means, as Jesus said, that this is what we are called to do as his followers. This is what sharing the love Jesus looks like. We are asked to take off our ‘outer robes’, put on a simple towel, kneel, and clean smelly feet.
Of course for us the foot washing is symbolic – it’s not a common need in modern western life. But it is symbolic of doing the jobs that seem most demeaning, least important. It’s about doing those jobs in love for anyone who needs us. It’s about doing those jobs for the ‘Judas’ we come across – who is unlikely to be grateful, who won’t repay our love.
As this state of lockdown continues it means still being willing to help our neighbours when the first flush of enthusiasm wears off. At the start of this I received many offers of help…I’m grateful to those who are still answering requests.
It means being willing to do the inconvenient jobs for the awkward and ungrateful, as well as jobs we enjoy doing for those we love. Again I am very grateful to those who are helping the church to respond to everyone who asks – regardless of who they are.
Tomorrow we will stand at the foot of the cross and see the depth of Christ’s love for humanity. Today we are shown what our response should be. Most of us will not be called to die for Christ, or for our friends. All of us are called to wash feet.
On his last evening with his disciples, Jesus didn’t just talk, he washed feet. Jesus message is not about foot washing, it is foot washing. And it’s such a profound and radical message – that I for one find the physical act helps me to answer Jesus’ question “Do you know what I have done for you?”