Maundy Thursday, 4.9.2020

            There are a lot of metaphors in scripture. Jesus will say the “kingdom of God is like” and then we’ll hear about how the kingdom of God is like a woman who has lost a gold coin. Or Jesus will compare himself to a mother hen – and how he’s like a hen trying to protect his chicks (us!) Or there will be parables, like the wise and foolish virgins, and we try to make out Jesus’ meaning. Jesus has so many head scratchers. There are so many metaphors and parables maybe we may feel like we can get away with calling tonight’s actions a metaphor.

            That’s not today. Jesus is not talking in metaphors on Maundy Thursday, when he literally strips and KNEELs down, and washes the dirty feet of his apostles. He makes it abundantly clear what he wants from us. No metaphors. He stripped the metaphors away.

He strips and washes the feet of his disciples who don’t understand what he’s doing. He washes the feet of his betrayers. Not just Judas. Or Peter. All of them. All of the apostles betrayed Jesus. They protest they would never, yet we know they all ran. Even JOHN the Beloved disciple. Where was he?  

Jesus washes all of their feet, all of his betrayers. Jesus says very explicitly:“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

We have to be TOLD what to do, (like we’re little children) because on our own, it would never occur to us.

This is a grace-filled moment when Jesus gets on his hands and knees to SHOW us what LOVE looks like. Not just WORDS, but ACTIONS. To forgive our enemies. To do good to those who hurt us. To not retaliate. To give kindness when someone offers an empty hand.  Jesus doesn’t get more explicit than what we see here.

John’s gospel doesn’t have the Last Supper – instead it has this foot washing. For BOTH of those events Jesus says, “DO THIS.” Do it. And we can never be greater than him. If Jesus, Son of God, will get down on his knees to wash the dirty feet of men who just don’t understand what he’s doing, but will betray him. “Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.”

                        We need to be astonished again and again by the LOVE that Jesus offers us. He gets down on his hands and knees, like a slave. We are NOT the masters, though. The MASTER is washing OUR feet, to get it through our heads: this is what LOVE looks like.Philippians says: “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,  being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” 

I ask you what other religion has as its central figure One who out of LOVE accepts and takes on the role of a slave, and accepts a slave’s death on a cross?[1]  All out of LOVE for us. Jesus does this to move us to make LOVE OUR central motivation. So we don’t waste another minute on useless activities, or competitiveness, or bickering, or backbiting, or negativity, or lack of forgiveness, or offering empty hands, when we should OPEN our hands. To make LOVE our central focus in our lives.For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master.”  Whatever divisions there are in this church, St. John, a little foot washing ritual can help to mend. (You think you’re the only church with divisions?)

No one here is greater than Jesus. No one in the synod is greater than Jesus. Don’t YOU make it into a metaphor. Make it real.

            Jesus knew what he was doing when he chose to wash FEET. We all have feet, and we all want to apologize for them. We all say, I’m sorry don’t look at my feet. Our feet are – knobby, calloused. Even with nail polish, we apologize. We hope no one looks too hard at them Look away! My feet are hideous. We cover up our feet. Getting them washed is the whole point. It makes us feel vulnerable. We were going to become foot washin’ Lutherans this year, but the virus intervened.

Normally, I think of washing hands on Maundy Thursday as a very lame, poor substitute for feet washing. Normally, I think of washing hands is for people who don’t want to GET DOWN in the water with Jesus. Except for this year. THIS YEAR, washing hands is a very poignant act. It’s a life-saving action. It’s a LIFE-GIVING action when we don’t spread our germs around. This year, we’ve had to relearn how to wash our hands with a vengeance. Only the covid19 virus could make our hands feel as vulnerable or more vulnerable than our feet.

The authorities are constantly bringing our hands to our attention. When was the last time we washed them? We have to keep asking ourselves where have those hands been? Don’t touch your face with your hands. Wash up to your elbows.

Foot washing is a strange thing to do, and we do it because it’s strange. Good strange. I attended a Maundy Thursday that had so much going on. There was foot washing over there, and hand washing at this table, and you could sit at a table set up in front of the altar with others and I forget what all we were doing there. Later on, someone asked me about it, she had heard it was ‘strange.’ I thought about it, and said, yes, it was strange – good strange. Nothin’ wrong with some ‘good strange’ in a church. At one church, “the children crawled around on the floor sniffing everyone’s feet and giggling.”[2] I can’t wait for that day.I hope when we get back, we will do a real foot washing. Warm, fluffy towels, almost like a spa –  the works.

            When I was a young mother, I remember the priest asking the question one Maundy Thursday service, when do you stop kissing the feet of your children? I was already kissing my baby daughter’s feet; I remembered that, and vowed I would never stop kissing her feet. Right, Rose?

So of course, when it is Peter’s turn to have his feet washed, he says the typical thing.

Don’t touch my feet, Lord. You will not wash my feet, Lord. Jesus completely unnerves Peter as only he can.

            Jesus is here. He is kissing our feet. We call today Maundy for the Latin word, mandatum,” which means “commandment. This is Jesus’ mandate. Jesus COMMANDS us to love one another. LOVE one another. There’s no metaphor there. He doesn’t just say it. He gets down on his knees to perform a ritual act that only a SLAVE performs. Or the women would have to do for highborn men. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

What are you going to do different, even in a time of corona virus? What actions are you going to stop doing and what positive actions will you replace the negativity with?

Whose hands are you going to wash right now? Now close your eyes and wash a second pair of hands, whose hands do you wish you could wash right now? Do it now. Let us begin. Take your water. And if you want to wash feet, go ahead. Wash the hands or feet, lovingly.

I thank you, Lord, for the gift of yourself. You always go ahead of us, showing us the way. Help us to take seriously your actions, and that you want us to be of service to others.

We pray this in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, Our Lord.


[1] Fleming Rutlidge. The Crucifixion.

[2] Amy Frykholm.