Maundy Thursday Sermon 2018—“Lord, Are You Going to Wash My Feet?”
In the name of the one, holy and undivided Trinity: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
Feet. Water. Bread. Wine. Think about it for a moment. Could anything be more ordinary, more commonplace, more prosaic, yet so profoundly essential? Feet are very often looked down upon, yet we need them to stand upright and to walk. Water, of course, is vital to our existence. Bread, or some variation, is the “staff of life” in many cultures, yet we really do take it for granted. Wine may be a somewhat more exalted produce, yet it, or some version, is found in almost all human cultures. These are the very things, the very symbols, which Jesus uses on this night. A body part, a life-sustaining liquid, and two culinary products crafted by human hands. Ordinary things for truly extraordinary purposes.
This says something very important about the meaning of this night, but also about the Christian tradition. Material things are meaningful and valuable. Matter matters. The entire sacramental life of the church is founded on the profound and continuing relevance of human gestures, symbols and objects—on the astonishing incarnational nature of matter. So how appropriate is it that Jesus, in order to show us the absolute requirement of service as his followers, should wash his disciples’ feet? How appropriate is it that he should choose bread and wine, things that we ingest into our own bodies, in order to share his very own body with us in the Eucharist? Very appropriate indeed, and also very relevant. I doubt very much if other symbols or signs would be as eloquent or as potent in their impact. Feet washing might not be something as culturally meaningful to us as it was for Jesus in his time, but we can’t really miss or ignore its very obvious message of humble and dedicated service. We can still draw on it for inspiration, and as an example of how we should live our lives. This night, then, reminds us that Jesus speaks to us in the world, through the world, and from the world. Not outside it or against it, but from the very heart of it. Feet matter, and so do water, grapes and wheat.
“Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Now, there’s what I would call an interesting question. Leave it to Peter to be the one to ask it. On the surface, it might strike us as being rather insolent. Maybe he’s freaked out. Why can’t he be just like the others, and let Jesus do his thing? But of course, more is at play here. The evangelist certainly has something up his sleeve. This provides the occasion for a curious back-and- forth exchange between Jesus and his disciple. Jesus begins by reminding Peter that he does not really understand the meaning of what is happening, but that he soon will. Peter still refuses, this time dramatically so: “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus then reminds Peter of what is at stake if he persists in his refusal. And now, there’s a sudden change of heart on Peter’s part: “OK then, please wash my hands and head in addition to my feet. Wash all of me. I want to share in what you have.” Can’t you picture it, as though Peter were enthusiastically jumping up and down? Not literally, of course, but metaphorically. In response, Jesus comes back to reality and tells Peter that he is already clean and does not need a thorough washing, but that there is one that night who is not and who does need cleansing. It’s really a very human exchange, a mixture of doubt, uncertainty, hope, and wild and sudden enthusiasm. We do hope that Peter gets it, but can we really be sure? In fact, can we be sure any of us ever do, and on this night especially?
So, let’s stay with the question. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” In other words: Lord, are you going to cleanse me? Lord, are you going to teach me? Lord, are you going to give me my share? Lord, what is about to happen to you? Lord, what is it about this night above all others? Not insolent questions, but honest questions having to do with human uncertainty and doubt in the face of the unfathomable depths of divine action. Jesus, on this night, knows that his time has come—that what he was born for needs to be brought to completion. But before any of that happens, he kneels before his closest friends to wash their feet: a fairly mundane gesture of care and hospitality, but one that still reverberates down to us today, and that continues to speak to us.
“Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” I’ve often wondered what lay behind Peter’s question. Was he shocked that Jesus, like an ordinary household servant, was doing this—that this gesture was somehow beneath Jesus? Or did he see himself as being slightly superior to his fellow disciples, not requiring as much attention or instruction as them? Or perhaps it was simply a naïve utterance, a bit of confusion on his part, not sure why Jesus was doing this, and wanting to better grasp what was happening. Perhaps any or all of these. But, at its heart, I think Peter’s question is a spiritual one. I think it is the same question that we might have asked had we been in Peter’s place. Because fundamentally, this is a question that asks us to make ourselves vulnerable and intimate in the presence of Jesus, and that engages our whole body, feet included. It is a question that speaks to our humanness, to our need for some degree of reassurance, to our slightly uncertain and confused search for some understanding about the true meaning behind this night and the momentous days to come. We are at a loss; we need to make sense of this sacred drama unfolding before our eyes. And we start by asking a question, as Peter does, about a very unassuming yet powerful gesture involving water and feet. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
It is a question we could well ask of each other: “Are you going to wash my feet?” or, more appropriately, “Will you please wash my feet?” In a few moments, you will be invited to do just that, wash each other’s feet. Some of us might cringe at the thought of touching another person’s feet, or we might shy away from such an intimate gesture. Perhaps we don’t find meaning in doing such a thing. But I ask you to think of feet-washing in another context: of bathing a baby or washing a dead person’s body. We probably would not recoil from doing these things; we would do them out of tenderness or respect. In a way, Jesus is asking us to do something similar, and for these very same reasons: as a sign of tenderness toward, and out of respect for, each other. In a word, as committed followers of Jesus: doing the things he did, and witnessing in the same way he did. Feet and water do matter. The put us in physical touch with each other, and they help us share quite intimately in the life of Jesus on this night. As you pour water over each other’s feet, and as you gently touch and rub them, remember that you are standing in the place of Jesus, that you are Jesus for that other person, and vice-versa.
St. Paul in his letter to the Church at Corinth reminds us that this is also the night that Jesus gave us his body and blood in the Eucharist, in the very words of consecration that we will be hearing shortly. Bread and wine: commonplace and familiar elements for astonishingly significant purposes. But there is a clear and meaningful line of continuity between our washing of each other’s feet and our gathering as a Jesus-centred community around the Eucharistic table. Both remind us that bodies—our own and that of Jesus—are deeply evocative symbols, but also that these bodies, as diverse and as dissimilar as they may be, are at the very centre of our communal life. In the coming days, the body of Jesus will undergo various ordeals: sweating blood, torture, pain, death. It begins this night. We may share this in a spiritually vicarious way, and perhaps only intellectually. Regardless, the body of Jesus and our own bodies are placed this night on a common course. We are now invited to begin the walk. We are now invited into the heart of the mystery of the coming days. Amen.