Do As I Have Done To You
This is a night of quite mixed traditions: Last Supper, foot washing, Agape meal, altar stripping, all night vigil. Then there is the first Passover. There is Paul’s take on the Last Supper. There is John’s take on the Last Supper. We tend to try and do them all.
Although it is often assumed the Last Supper was a Passover meal, even a Passover Seder, John’s account quite definitely places it “before the festival of Passover.” For John, it is not Passover and it is not a Seder meal.
The ritual behavior of blessing bread and blessing wine, however, is quite common around Jewish dinner tables year-round, especially on Sabbath eve. What is unusual is Jesus’ self-identification with the bread and wine.
Oddly, in all the chapters in John’s gospel that describe the Last Supper, there is no mention at all of bread or wine. None.
It can be seen in other parts of John’s gospel, but it is conspicuously absent from the Last Supper.
Instead, John offers the unique description of Jesus washing feet. He takes off his outer robe, ties a towel around himself, pours water in a basin and begins to wash feet and wipe them with a towel the night before Good Friday.
Perhaps we remember Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus anointing his feet with oil and wiping them with her hair the night before Palm Sunday.
Perhaps we remember that foot washing was done by the lowliest of household slaves.
It is an extreme posture and activity to assume. Not unlike overturning the tables in the Temple precincts to make a point. Not unlike withering fig trees to make a point. Not unlike accepting a drink of water from a Samaritan woman in public. Not unlike eating with prostitutes, tax collectors, blind, lame and leperous people.
Jesus was not a moderate. He did not play it safe.
He picks up a towel like the one on our altar. This towel of ours holds the gospel book which contains the stories of Jesus and his extreme activities. It holds our offerings, our financial commitment to spreading his kingdom and continuing his work in the world. And it reminds us of this night before Good Friday and his washing the disciple’s feet.
It has been said by some that Jesus’ entire life was a ministry of the towel. When he was born in a lowly stable, his mother wrapped him in something like a towel. He stanches the flow of blood in a hemorrhaging woman with something like a towel. He prepares and cleans up tables before and after meals with towels. He wipes feet with a towel. And when he dies on the cross, he is wrapped in something like a towel and placed in a new tomb.
So this towel on the altar can be said to summarize his entire life and ministry of service to others. All others. Especially those who were not welcome much of anywhere else.
Maybe that is why Peter at first refuses to participate. Maybe that is why Peter pulls back from having his feet washed: he does not want to think of himself as being lumped in with all those others, all those unclean and sinful people Jesus insists on welcoming all the time.
Maybe Peter was the first to think, “There but by the grace of God go I.” Something a lot of well-meaning Christians like to think is what God’s grace is all about.
I used to help serve meals at Paul’s Place and had a music and prayer ministry there. One day Bill Rich, a colleague and friend, turned to me and said, “There by the grace of God am I.” I have never forgotten it.
I believe that is at the heart of Jesus and the washing of feet. There we all are. We are the poor. We are the sick. We are the broken and brokenhearted. We are the slaves escaping from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke. We are the poor Iraqi child who has no mother or father tonight. We are the poor Haitian who has no bed to sleep in tonight. We are the poor child born of a crack addict tonight. We are the men, women and children infected with HIV/AIDS. We are the hungry, the tired, and the unemployed. We are the mother, father, sister or brother who sits on Death Row. We are the men and women of our armed forces at home and abroad waiting and wondering what tomorrow might bring.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word accepted a drink of water from a despised and broken woman. And the Word touched a bleeding woman. And the Word fed thousands of hungry people. And the Word picked up a towel, washed everyone’s feet and gave dignity to all of human kind. He made us one with himself and with all creation. He taught us how to love one another as he loves us. As God loves us.
Washing feet, eating bread and drinking wine makes us his own. It is his table. He denies no one a seat at his table. He washes everyone’s feet.
He invites us to do to others as he has done for us. Welcome them to his table. Wash their feet. Wipe them with a towel. His towel. Tonight we can feel what it is like to live with him. Tonight he wants us to wash one another’s feet so we can say, “There by the grace of God am I.”