Maundy Thursday Sermon—2008
John 13: 1-17
Let me go out on a limb here and make an assumption about you. I am going to assume that right now, in your life, you have issues.
Maybe issues like a sore back or a headache. Maybe issues like a busy schedule or a messy house. Maybe issues like an upcoming deadline or overdue bills. Maybe issues like trying to care for your children or your parents or both. Maybe issues like an unsatisfying job. Maybe issues like drug addiction. Or divorce. Or terminal illness.
I don’t know you. I don’t know what your issues are. But I bet you have them. And I’m sure you could list them out for anyone willing to listen.
Can you even imagine the list of issues Jesus is carrying with him as he sits down with his disciples for this meal? There is the fact that he has spent the last two (?) years of his life living with and teaching his disciples and they still don’t understand much of anything. They are arguing about who is most important, about how to spend money. One will betray him. One will deny him. And then there is, of course, the big issue: he knows he is going to die—soon, and in an excruciatingly painful way.
The point here is not to compare issues and deem Jesus the winner for having the best list. The point is simply that when John says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” he means it. That God, in Jesus, is absolutely human. We have issues. Jesus had issues. Despite what the museum paintings show, the man did not have a halo glow around his head.
He did, however, on that particular night, have mud, sand, and human and animal waste on his feet. So did his disciples. The roads were unpaved. The conditions were unsanitary. And the footwear did not offer much protection from the elements.
It was the custom for feet to be washed before a meal. In Jesus’ day, the task of washing feet was often done by a servant, a lowly servant. Usually a Gentile servant, because the job was too demeaning to be performed by a Jew. The servant would place a jar under the person’s foot, and pour water from another jar over the foot, scrubbing away the filth from the feet.
One can understand why this was generally the job of a servant. It was not a pleasant task. But apparently on this night that we read about, there is no servant. Or at least not a servant who has been designated to wash feet. Everyone begins eating while their feet are still dirty. It is some time during the meal that Jesus removes his outer garment and puts on the towel.
This biblical scene has become an icon for humility. The Divine One doing the job of a menial servant shows that we should not consider ourselves too good for any service placed before us.
It’s easy enough to blame those disciples for not washing each other’s feet if we think that their failure is due to pride. If they are all sitting around thinking, well, sure everyone’s feet are filthy and someone needs to clean them, but I’m too important for that job.
If that is what is going through their minds, then they are prideful and bad and thank goodness we are not like that. Even a store manager will clean up a spill. Even a professor will clean the chalk board. Even the pastor will wash the dishes. I honestly do not know any true snobs. I see them in movies. But I don’t know any.
So maybe we are—at least in this respect—better than the disciples. Maybe they did think they were just too important to be washing feet.
But isn’t it possible that all those disciples are sitting around with dirty feet because they just didn’t think about washing them? Because they are concerned about Jesus, worried that he is constantly talking about death. They are concerned for their own safety. They are trying to figure out the deepest theological questions–who Jesus really is and what they should do–and dirty feet just aren’t at the top of their lists of concerns.
What amazes me about Jesus’ action here is not that he degraded himself to the status of a servant. He has already degraded himself to the status of a human. Humility is a given for Jesus.
What amazes me is that he cared at all about dirty feet. Even his own. Jesus knows that Judas will betray him, that Peter will deny him. Jesus knows he is going to die. The man has issues. Lots of them. But he doesn’t let the enormity of what he is facing prevent him from realizing and ministering to the needs of those around him.
In The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, the advanced devil, Screwtape, advises his nephew Wormwood on the best way to get a person away from God. He tells him to “keep his mind off the most elementary duties by directing it to the most advanced and spiritual ones. Aggravate that most useful human characteristic, the horror and neglect of the obvious.”
If you want to lead someone away from God, make sure that they are so concerned with their own issues, their own spiritual struggles that they don’t think about the feet of their neighbors.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who spoke out against the Nazi regime, may not have known for sure that he was going to die. But as he sat in prison at Tegel, he must have had an increasing sense that he would be killed for his opposition to the government.
The letters and papers he wrote while in prison reveal a sophisticated and insightful theology. But more than that they reveal a man whose heart was not preoccupied with his own issues. Even as he awaited death, he was careful not to complain about the heat in his cell, fearing that the guards would move him to a cooler cell, thus forcing another prisoner into his almost unbearably hot one. He worried that he could give his friend nothing but a letter for his birthday. That his fiance, Maria, would suffer if he sent letters to her with “Tegel” in the return address.
If you want to see someone following Christ’s example, read the letters Bonheoffer wrote in prison.
Christ’s example, as he washed those filthy feet, is certainly one of humility. But it is not just, I think, the relatively easy humility of being willing to do the dirty work. It is the hard humility of looking past our own issues to see—really see—the needs of those around us.