Washing the feet of the betrayer

Maundy Thursday 2021

Exodus 12:1-14, PSALM 116:1, 10-17, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35

As we have been following the days of Holy Week since Palm Sunday, and what is often described as the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, we know that the mood has been subtly changing.

We already had a sense that something was not quite as triumphal as it might be when we saw Jesus arrive in the Holy City sat on a donkey – fulfilling prophecies – not quite as grand as we might expect. Of course, we are always at a slight advantage when we read the story of these events, because of course we know how the plot goes.

Joy, fear and hiding, celebration, betrayal, death, wait and then… but that is for later this week.

For Jesus and his group of friends who had left much behind in order to follow an unconventional lifestyle though, there was no doubt that something was poised to happen.

Already, in the days before the Passover, there had been a number of events which had singled out Jesus as a troublemaker who was causing the authorities a great deal of worry and grief. Resurrecting Lazarus, drawing large crowds by his actions and teaching, eliciting the welcome of a king. There were many signs that did not bode well for him, and those with eyes to see could see disaster coming.

We can imagine that though the disciples were faithful to Jesus, they were also wondering what was going on. They had been basking in the reflected glory of their leader, and had learnt much about God and God’s people during their time of shared travel.

Because, a bit like a football team, they understood leadership from the front. They had enjoyed following – without hesitation – and had enthusiastically been willing to be taught in words and example, and to be directed by Jesus. And they would do anything for him. Anything. Or so they thought. But there was yet more for them to learn.

Jesus knows that time is near as he prepares to celebrate the Passover feast, that soon he will be leaving his friends behind, that soon he will be returning to his Father, that soon it will be up to his disciples to lead and take on the baton.

He has been an unusual teacher in many ways, using parables and stories to engage the imagination, behaving in counter-cultural ways in order to make a point, sometimes balancing law and greater good to make connections, all to help his disciples understand the Gospel of the unconditional love of God in their hearts rather than simply in their head, all to transform the lives of those who encountered him. And they got it to a point, perhaps, but falteringly, time and again falling back on the standards of the world rather than the standards of God. They are after all humans like all of us and best intentions can be overtaken by enthusiasm.

There is little time now, and unlike in the other three Gospels, the apostle John emphasizes a move by Jesus that leaves everyone stunned. Echoing the words of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life in order to take it again, we see Jesus lay down his garment, tie a towel around him, and put it on again. The disciples look on in horror. What is he doing?

And in the same way that at Cana, Jesus turned the water reserved for purification into the new wine of the kingdom, Jesus embraces the symbolism of foot washing in order to teach his friends a lesson, and one which they are not likely to forget. Suddenly, the structures they thought underpinned the kingdom of God come tumbling down when Jesus kneels at their feet to wash them.
There is something very personal about feet of course. They allow us to go about our business, often they can be seen as we wear sandals, especially in warmer climates, and we may or may not be proud of them. For runners, probably the latter, for people with time and money for regular pedicurist visits, probably the former. Nevertheless, feet are still deeply personal, and touching someone’s feet is a very intimate act, unless it is that of the lowest of the lowest servant when in need of cleaning.

For these alpha-males who have been together so long, this is the crossing of a boundary which they do not expect, something that leaves them reeling when they think of their leader. Peter first refuses to accept this sign of servant leadership, this sign of love. And when persuaded by Jesus that this has to be the way in order to be truly part of him, he then blurts out – like an impetuous puppy – ‘not just my feet, but also my hands and my head’.

And that is not the point of course. The point is that Jesus, their Lord and Teacher, the one who has just washed all of their feet with tenderness and grace, including those of the one who will betray him shortly, wants them to learn about the way of divine love, a love that is not inward focused or bent on satisfying selfish desires. A love that does not have hierarchies, a love that includes everyone, a love so great that God humbles Godself to take the place of a servant, a love through which we too are called to wash one another’s feet, thereby creating a community of equals, a community where status and positions are reversed in the act of service.

The sequence of the passion is foundational for our faith, because it provides us with a pattern and a hope. A pattern for community which was counter-cultural in Jesus’s time, and is even more so today, focused as we are on ephemeral illusions of power and the cult of the individual. Tonight reminds us that while those who speaks loudest, have the greatest wealth or the least regard for others also find their places in the love of God – who washes the feet of even those who betray him – the message is clear:

‘love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’

After a year of pandemic, and finding our way with new patterns of living, often isolating, frustrating or soul-destroying, we have been sustained and encouraged by the many signs of the love of God present in the world still today.

We have seen countless individuals selflessly embracing the task of literally washing the feet of the elderly and the infirm in CHLSDs and shelters, we have witnessed the dedication of those healthcare workers who have and continue to put their lives at risk to maintain the health of the populations we have seen many overcoming their own fear of the virus in order to continue to serve their communities through essential services, schools, shops, transport; in these and many others, we have seen the love of God at work.

These experiences shared by Christians have throughout this challenging time been brought together round altars joining with Jesus in this first Eucharist, his last supper, sanctifying this gift of life, this gift of love in a communion shared in bread and wine.
We have also seen the shift from the initial adulation of essential workers showered with praises and gifts, to boredom and now impatience. There will always be those who betray the spirit of God, and yet they – and we sometimes – continue to be part of that beloved community too.

The British Cistercian monk St Aelred of Rievaulx writes in his Rule of Life for a Recluse :

‘Now then go up with our Lord into the large upper room, furnished for supper, and rejoice and share the delights of the meal which brings us salvation. Let love overcome shyness, affection drive out fear, so that he may at least give you an alms from the crumbs of that table when you beg for something. Or stand at a distance and, like a poor man looking to a rich man, stretch out your hand to receive something. Let your tears declare your hunger.
But when he rises from the table, girds himself with the towel and pours water into the basin, consider what majesty it is that is washing and drying the feet of mere mortals, what graciousness it is that touches with his sacred hands the feet of the traitor. Look and wait and, last of all, give him your own feet to wash, because those who he does not wash will have no part with him.’ i

i. In ‘Celebrating the Seasons’, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 1999, p212

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