A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on Maundy Thursday
21 April 2011
Text: John 13:1-15

The more you think about it, the stranger this Gospel reading is. We are very used to it, and we have learned what it means, which is a very good thing. But it is also a good thing to step back from the familiar and try to recover the strangeness of what John writes concerning the Last Supper.

The most obvious thing in this passage is that Jesus washed His disciples’ feet, and that this was not a natural thing for Him to do. In that culture, where people travelled on foot, wearing sandals, by dinner-time, most people’s feet would be in serious need of washing. A wealthy and hospitable host at a dinner would have the guests’ feet washed for them. You may remember Jesus’ rebuke to Simon the Pharisee, when the sinful woman washed the Lord’s feet with her tears and wiped them dry with her hair: “I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.” (Luke 7:44). Not having the facilities for washing His feet put Jesus in His place, as less than an honoured guest.

But the washing of such feet can’t have been much fun. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the sight and the smell. In fact, it was so dirty that it was potentially defiling, making a person unclean. After all, who knows what those feet had trod on in the roads and streets of Palestine. Therefore, it was a job reserved for the lowest Gentile slave in the household. Even Jewish slaves could not be coerced to wash guests’ feet.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that Peter protested when Jesus got up from the table and began to wash His disciples’ feet. The surprising thing is that Peter was the only one who protested. The others, one can imagine, sat in embarrassed silence, a little like we would if a friend suddenly got up at a dinner party and began to clean the host’s bathrooms.

Because by His actions, Jesus is seemingly denying who He is: the Master of His disciples, the host at His own dinner—let alone the Christ and the Holy One of God who has the words of eternal life—and instead He behaves as a Gentile slave, the sub-underling of the lowest servant, the one who was by definition unclean and who could therefore not be rendered more unclean by carrying out this odious task.

Peter is right, then, to stop this farce: if anyone is going to have feet washed by someone else, it’s Jesus. If there’s anyone who is holy, anyone who is worthy, anyone who should be served, it’s Jesus. Peter is here showing the most admirable and ardent devotion to the Lord. He recognises that, in the company of Jesus, He is the sinner, He is the one who is already defiled, and so he is willing to make himself a Gentile slave, even to defile himself, in order to preserve Jesus’ honour and purity.

Shouldn’t we all be more like Peter? To put Jesus first, to be willing to sacrifice our dignity and our honour for the sake of Jesus, to worship Jesus in the genuine sense of the English word, of showing and declaring by our actions Jesus’ worthiness and pay homage to Him, even when it means humbling ourselves?

You would think so.

But Jesus did not. You see, our natural idea of true worship is the very opposite of what Jesus shows true worship to be. We think of true worship as bringing what we are and what we have to Him as our tribute: our money, our goods, our reverence, our very selves. Whereas the true worship of Jesus is allowing Him to bring to us all that He is: His riches, His goods, His obedience, His very self. We are already defiled: dirtying ourselves further in doing Jesus’ dirty laundry for Him doesn’t help us one bit. What we need is to be cleansed by Him, allowing ourselves to be served by Him. Jesus says in elsewhere in the Gospels, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:28)

If you will not allow Him to do that, you have no part in Him. If you insist on worshipping Him by doing things \emph{for} Him, you are in fact denying your own sin and your need to be healed by Him, not just once but constantly. Yes, you were bathed once in Holy Baptism, and you are clean—but as you walk through the roads and streets of your life, you will collect defiling dirt, which Jesus needs to wash away.

Nor is this some minor detail, or a coincidental aspect of Christian discipleship. Did you notice how John introduced Jesus’ startling foot-washing:

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. (John 13:3–4)

Listen very carefully. Jesus rose from supper to wash His disciples’ feet, to make Himself the unclean slave—\emph{because} He knew that the Father had given all things into His hands, that He had come from God and was going back to God.

This act of humble service was not in contrast to Jesus’ true glory. Jesus served because He was glorious. And it was the glory He received from the Father that led Him to serve.

This is the kind of God we have. One who displays His glory chiefly in showing mercy, who serves \emph{because} of His authority and majesty. Jesus can give everything in humble service to His sinful creatures, to those who would kill Him and those who would desert Him, because the Father has given all things into His hands. The Father gives all things to the Son. And the Son takes on flesh gives all things to His fallen brothers and sisters in the flesh. He has no need to assert His authority, because He has everything.

And it is into this kind of service that Jesus now calls us. The world does everything to its own advantage: it works, rests, plays, worships, loves, hates, serves, helps, for its own benefit—to get what it needs or wants from the created world, from other people, from God and from itself. Because who else is going to look after Number 1?

But the very opposite is true of Christians: all that the Father has given to the Son, He has given to you. You have received everything from Him as a free gift. What higher status could you have than that of a son of the Most High God, a co-heir with Christ of God’s kingdom? What greater riches could you have than all the treasures of heaven? What better service do you need than that given by the Son of God who loved you and gave Himself for you. And because you have everything as a free gift, you are free to serve your neighbour without having to worry about yourself, just as Jesus did not need to be served by the disciples because He already had all things from the Father.

And if you find yourself flagging, or even failing, in your call to serve—more worldly than Christ-like—then you need to remember Jesus’ example: that those who have all things can give all things. So that if you find yourself unable to give, the answer is to receive more: more of His forgiveness, more of the treasures of heaven, more of His promises, more of the foretaste of your inheritance. Fill your pockets with God’s goods, stuff your cupboards full of His riches, contemplate what you have from Him now and what He has promised for you, and you will soon find less careful about worldly dignity and wealth, more liberal with God’s love. In order to overflow, you need to be filled. And it is the Holy Spirit who does the filling by bringing us Jesus in the word and the sacraments.

There is one other strange thing about this text, or rather about it use in our liturgy. During the Last Supper, Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Altar, the Lord’s Supper as Paul calls it, as the meal of the new covenant by in His blood. Surely that is the most significant thing about this night—yet it doesn’t even get mentioned in the Gospel! Surely someone missed something here!

Well, no.

For what is the Lord’s Supper other than the place of cleansing for the sin-stained feet of those bathed in baptismal waters? In the Divine Service, we gather to have supper with our Lord, not as waiters or servants but as honoured guests. And He gets down from the Supper, takes on the place of the servant, and cleanses us by offering us His life-giving body to eat and His cleansing blood to drink. That’s why you don’t get to do anything except to eat and to drink: because you are the guest. It is not those who do things that are privileged at a banquet, but those who don’t have to do anything.

What sinful paths have you trodden? In what defilement have you walked? What lapse, what fall into temptation, what offence against God, what wound to your conscience, have you brought with you tonight? Come to Jesus’ supper. His physical touch cleanses you from all unrighteousness. And having been thus cleansed, you will be completely clean. And as you go out tonight, ready to serve but also ready to sin some more, know that Jesus is waiting to receive you back into His banquet hall, to cleanse you again, to strengthen you for the good works He has prepared for you.

Strange? Very. Thanks be to God.