Maundy Thursday Eucharist 12th April 2017
Sermon for Maundy Thursday Eucharist 12 April 2017 at 7:30 p.m. - Exodus 12: 1 – 4; 11 – 14; Psalm 116; 1 Corinthians 11: 23 – 26; John 13: 1 – 17, 31b – 35
“So if I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13: 14)
It’s interesting to observe how, in different churches different jobs are the ones most sought after. In one church that I heard of, everyone seemed to want to be a churchwarden; in another, a lot of people wanted to train as readers so that they could preach. In yet another there seem to be many trained leaders of worship. I wonder if this has something to do with peoples’ perception of where it is possible to exercise power. Here in Hampstead it seems that signing up to have your feet washed is not a popular thing to do. By Tuesday only one person had signed up – unless it is just that we are all last-minute people. We might perhaps ask ourselves why.
I washed the feet of seven children recently at the end of term service for Hampstead Parochial School when we thought about the events of Jesus’ last week. It should have been six, but there were too many volunteers. As I did it, I noticed how different children’s feet can be, and how differently the children reacted. Some were solemn, others amused, some thanked me and one said it tickled.
In our Gospel this evening Jesus sets an example by washing his disciples’ feet. And then he tells them that they ought also to wash one another’s feet. But what do Jesus words and action tell us?
First, washing the feet of the guests was the job of a household slave. It was a courtesy to guests who had walked in sandals on hot and dusty roads. Jesus once complained at a party that no one had washed his feet – a discourtesy which was made up for by the woman who anointed his feet with precious ointment and dried them with her hair (Luke 7: 36f).
So now Jesus leaves his place reclining at the place of honour amongst his disciples, takes off his outer garment and kneels in front of each of them as their humble slave. No wonder Peter protests and is reluctant to allow Jesus to do this. But Jesus insists. He knows his hour has come. He knows what this means and he acts it out in a way that they cannot fail to remember. As the letter to the Philippians puts it: “Christ Jesus,…though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Phils 2: 5 – 8)
Secondly, the washing of his disciples’ feet was a subversive act. We all like to think we know our place in the pecking order. For the leader and teacher to wash the feet of his disciples upsets the natural order of things. Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, His Lord. For such a one to act as his servant is challenging and disturbing indeed. In a highly structured, hierarchical society such as that of the first century this would have been even more disturbing than it is to us. But Christ’s kingdom is subversive. Whatever our role, we are all equal – except that the leaders are the servants. The early church brought together masters and slaves as brothers in Christ. This is one of the reasons why the Church in Corinth was experiencing such difficulties when they came together for the Lord’s Supper. So Paul had to remind them of what they were doing, as we just heard in our reading from his letter to them.
Thirdly, Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to go and wash other peoples’ feet. He told them to wash one another’s feet. In other words to be prepared to both give to and to receive from one another. Jesus’ instruction implies community. He knew that left to themselves without Him his disciples needed to form close bonds with one another. Community is a fashionable concept these days; we all like the idea. Many of our parents often talk about the wonderful community in Junior Church. But true community requires commitment, discipline and sacrifice. This ultimately enables all its members to grow. Jean Vanier, who founded the L’Arche communities, puts it this way:
“Community is a place that is both beautiful and painful; but it is also the place of transformation. Community offers us the opportunity to become men and women who make an effort to grow in love, an effort that will always be crowned by the power of the Holy Spirit, who teaches us to love as Jesus loved.”
If a church is truly a community, it’s not about exercising power, or showing off our particular gifts, but about being prepared to listen to the Holy Spirit, to lay down our own preferences and learning to love those we don’t like.
Finally, Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet was supremely an act of love. A slave has no choice, but Jesus did. Jesus chose the way of humility, sacrificing himself in obedience to His Heavenly Father out of love for us all. A love which reflects the love of His Father in Creation, a love expressed also in the community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As we allow Jesus to wash our feet he invites us too into his subversive new community. A community of love. As we sang in our first hymn:
Great God your love has called us here,
as we by love for love were made.
Your living likeness still we bear,
though marred, dishonoured, disobeyed.
We come with all our heart our mind
your call to hear, your love to find.
Then take the towel, and break the bread,
and humble us, and call us friends;
Suffer and serve till all are fed
and show how grandly love intends
to work till all creation sings,
to fill all worlds, to crown all things.