Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
Maundy Thursday – April 21, 2011
I don’t know about you but if I were faced with some kind of impending trauma or catastrophic event in my life the last thing I would be thinking about is sitting down for a meal or washing someone’s feet. Most of us can become quite self-absorbed when we are dealt a hand of cards by which we are confronted with great upset in our lives. It changes our entire perspective.
Not so with Jesus. On this very night before his extreme humiliation, the betrayal and abandonment by his closest friends, and his brutal death, he shares a meal with his companions and, in a shocking demonstration of his love, he gets down on the ground and washes their feet. On this night in Jerusalem, they had all gathered to do what Jewish people have done every year at Passover since the time of Moses: to commemorate by a ritual meal the escape of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. What would have been an otherwise ordinary Seder for them would turn out to be an extraordinary occasion, one they would never forget, one now memorialized in the minds and hearts of believers.
At this private meal, where they gather for the last time together before his passion and crucifixion, Jesus gives them the sacrament that will be forever the confirmation of his presence among them—ordinary food become extraordinary fare— the Gifts of God for the people of God.
Taking off his outer robe, tying a towel about him, and washing their feet was a radical action—the duty not of the rabbi but of the lowest servant or slave in that household. For the guest, it was an act of welcoming and respect. But for the servant, it was an affirmation of the low and despicable place that person held in society.
For Jesus to assume this role was more than humbling. Yet Jesus washed all their feet that night, every single one of them, even the feet of one who protested, even the feet of the one who would betray him. This extraordinary act during an ordinary meal is a statement about how God loves us not generally and abstractly but specifically and concretely.
And so, following the example given by Jesus, we are about to do the same thing tonight—to demonstrate by this sacred ritual the extravagant love of God in our midst. In offering our feet for washing, we offer our vulnerability. Our lowly, unprotected feet may well be the sorest, unattractive and most concealed parts of our bodies.
The Dean of the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, says that “it’s easy to see how the church is to act in the world when you wash feet. It’s risky. It’s messy. You feel inept and silly. You have to roll up your sleeves and go to work. You have to kneel to perform the act. You get wet and so does the floor. You touch people in ways you would not touch them outside the ritual.
“There is a bond of Christian affection that ties the washer to the person whose feet are being washed. This humble gesture points us to the path of service, compassion and love. All of this silliness and riskiness are at the bottom of Christian action in the world…but foot washing is more than a gesture. It is a model for living the Christian way.” Later we will keep Passover together—the Passover of the Lord—as we gather around a table and share a sacred meal given to us by Jesus that same night as he washed feet. We will hear the words he spoke to his dear friends that night so very long ago: “Take, eat. This is my body given for you. Take, drink. This is my blood shed for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Princeton theology professor Ellen Charry, writing in The Christian Century, says that “Christians are bound together by feasting at the Lord’s table. True, they are bound together by sharing potluck suppers too,” she says, “but there is a difference. In the parish hall, they share themselves, the work of their hands, their hospitality at a table set for one another. But the communion table is set by God.”
How can the simple practice of eating and drinking together—reenacting the holy meal Jesus gave us—carry so much freight? Touch us so deeply? Look at those around you at tonight’s service. Each person a universe of searching—and finding. In the offering of our hands to receive Christ in bread and wine, in the menial task of washing feet, Jesus meets us here.