5 April 2012/Maundy Thursday - Exodus12: 1-14/1 Corinthians 11:23-32/John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek,Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills
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 are instructions for the first Passover - not a Passover celebration or Seder Meal, but a description of the opening acts of the Great Escape from Egypt itself. Then there is Paul’s take on the Last Supper, which is in fact the earliest account in the New Testament, preceding the Gospel accounts by at least a decade or more. Finally there is John’s take on the Last Supper. We tend to try and do them all. And no thanks to the lectionary, we lump them all together and tend to make some wrong assumptions.
For instance, although it is often assumed that 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, it is not a Seder meal, and it is not even a traditional Friday night Sabbath Meal. Point of fact: nothing like what today constitutes a Passover Seder even existed at the time of Jesus.
So we make the wrong inference from reading the Exodus account, which describes the Passover event itself (approx. 1300 bce), not a festival or meal to remember the Great Escape. Combined with John's account of things, however, what we do take away from our first reading is that for John, Jesus is the Paschal Lamb - he is the Lamb that was sacrificed the night before the Escape, the Lamb whose blood protected the Hebrew households as the Angel of Death swept over the land of Egypt taking the life of all the first born children of the Egyptians, "from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle." Exodus 12:29
After all, it is John's Gospel, way back in chapter 1, who places these words in the mouth of John the Baptizer when he first sees Jesus, "Behold, the Lamb of God." So we say, "Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us!" For it is his body and blood that saves his people - which, as it turns out, is all people. As we hear in the Comfortable Words of Rite I, "...and he is the perfect sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world." 1John 2:2
John devotes five whole chapters to the Last Supper. Yet, in all these chapters in John’s gospel that describe the Last Supper, there is no mention at all of bread or wine. None.
Instead, John offers the unique description of Jesus washing feet. It is Fellini meets the Word of God! He takes off his clothes, 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 are meant to recall Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointing his feet with oil and wiping them with her hair the night before Palm Sunday. The night that those enemies of Jesus stood outside the house plotting just how to kill Jesus AND Lazarus! And perhaps we are meant to recall that foot washing was done by the lowliest of household slaves, usually a child.
What we are definitely meant to recall is that way back in Chapter 1, John identifies Jesus as The Word, the logos, and that in the time before all time, before the heavens and earth were created, the logos was not only with God, but that the logos, Jesus, is God. As we study our Christianity unit at St. Tim's, I have to put this on the whiteboard nearly every day: Word=Jesus=God.
So what John invites us to imagine is that God not only became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood (John 1:14), but that the night before The Day of Preparation for the Passover, Good Friday, God takes off his clothes, ties a towel around himself, gets down on his knees, and like a child-slave, begins washing feet.
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 as it remains on the altar all by itself at the end of the mass, it reminds us of this night before Good Friday and his washing the disciple’s feet - an action He says we are to do for one another
Jesus insists that this way of relating to one another is somehow emblematic of what it means to be a disciple of his: “A New Commandment I give to you that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35 This is the Maundy, the mandatum, the commandment of Maundy Thursday.
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 and are not welcome 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, our flagship Diocesan Feeding Program, 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 Afghan woman who struggles to get an education. We are the poor child born of a crack mother 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 Samaritan woman. A bleeding woman touched the hem of the Word's robe and was healed. 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. For He is God.
Washing feet, eating bread and drinking wine makes us his own. It is his table, not ours. 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.”
My sisters, my brothers -
Jesus calls you to follow him
so that you might do something beautiful with your life
and bear much fruit.
The World needs you.
The Church needs you.
Jesus needs you.
They need your power and your light.
Know that there is a hidden place in your heart
where Jesus lives.
This is a deep secret
you are called to live.
Let Jesus live in you.
Go forward with Him.
Let him wash your feet tonight.
Feel just how good it feels to be touched by Jesus.
For we are, sisters and brothers, the Body of Christ.
His broken body is our broken body upon which others feed.
His blood spilled is our blood shed to rejoice the hearts of all.
His tomb is ours, and in it others die to rise again.
Even now we are becoming him.
As you hold his body in your hand, it is to this we say Amen
before we receive what we have become.