April 1st 2021 Homily on John 13:1-17, 31b-35; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 by Pastor Galen
The Last Supper
I imagine that Jesus and his disciples had always enjoyed celebrating Passover together. Passover was a festive occastion that involved families gathering and feasting together as they recounted the story of how their ancestors were freed from slavery in Egypt. I imagine that as a little boy Jesus relished asking the questions and hearing the stories told to him by his mother and father. Maybe he lit the candles, maybe he helped bake the bread for the passover meal.
As an adult, Jesus and his disciples probably celebrated Passover together every year. But this Passover was different, because Jesus knew that not only would this be the last time he would celebrate Passover here on this earth, but this would be the last meal that he would eat with his disciples before he was crucified on the cross.
As Jesus looked around the table at the disciples who were celebrating this Passover feast with him, an intense sorrow must have come over him, because he knew that before the evening was over, one of his inner 12 apostles would betray him. Judas Iscariot had walked with him for 3 years, and Jesus had even put in charge of managing the money for the group. But Judas would sell him out for 30 pieces of silver.
And then there was Peter, his right hand man, who always was there to defend Jesus and stand up for him. Peter was always the first to answer every question that Jesus posed (whether he answered it correctly or not). Peter, who was so bold that he had stepped out of the boat and walked on the water with Jesus. Before that night was over, before the rooster crowed the next morning, Peter would deny that he even knew Jesus. Not just one time, but three times.
Why is This Night Different From Every Other Night
I can only imagine the mixture of emotions that Jesus must have felt as he looked around at his disciples, reclining around the table with him, dipping their bread into the same bowl, dipping their herbs into the same saltwater with him.
When the question was asked during the Passover feast, “Why is tonight different from all other nights?” I can only imagine what Jesus must have been thinking to himself. Perhaps it was at that point in the meal when the question was posed that Jesus picked up the bread and broke it and gave it to his disciples and said “take this bread and eat it, this is my body which was broken for you.” And perhaps it was at that point in the meal when he lifted up the cup and said “drink from this, all of you, this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you.”
As Jesus looked around at his disciples, I believe he knew that they still didn’t get it. They didn’t understand the significance of the words he had spoken to them, they couldn’t comprehend they sacrifice he was about to make for them and for us.
I imagine that Jesus was wondering how he could get through to them, how he could help them understand what was about to happen. And that’s when Jesus looked around at his disciples and realized that most of them were sitting there with dirty feet.
You see, typically hosts would provide water for people to wash their feet when they came in after walking on the dusty sometimes. Occasionally servants or sleeves were assigned to the task of washing guests’ feet. But most likely the disciples were too hungry, or too excited to get on with the feast that they had not bothered to wash their feet. And it never ever would have never occurred to them to wash each other’s feet. Over the previous three years, Jesus’s inner circle of disciples had constantly argued amongst themselves about which of them was the greatest, and who would get to sit next to Jesus when Jesus sat on his throne in Glory.
Stooping down to wash each other’s feet would have been a condescending task and an implicit admission that they held a lower status than the other disciples.
But Jesus wanted his disciples to know that in order to be great in the Kingdom of Heaven, we must become like a servant. He wanted his disciples to know that true greatness is shown not through demanding that others bow down to you, but it is shown by extending mercy and compassion to others.
And so Jesus picked up a basin of water, and a towel and he began one by one to wash his disciples’ feet.
Like many things that Jesus did, this action was startling and disconcerting. Jesus was upending the whole system of status and privilege. But in so doing, he conveyed a powerful lesson to his disciples. A lesson that they would not soon forget.
A New Commandment
Jesus then explained to his disciples what he had done, saying “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” (John 13:14-15). And he went on to say, “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” (John 13:34-35).
This is how the world will know that we are Jesus’s disciples. Not because we’re perfect or because we have it all together. Not because of our wealth or status or privilege, not because we’ve proven our self-worth or shown ourselves to be better than other people. In fact most of us are not any of those things. But the world will know that we are Jesus’s disciples by the way we love and serve one another.
Love One Another
This past year has posed a number of challenges for us in figuring out exactly what it looks like to love and serve one another in the midst of a pandemic. Probably one of the hardest things was that for most of this past year, loving one another meant staying physically distant from one another. This has been particularly challenging for everyone whose love languages are touch or time together! Every individual and every family has had to make difficult decisions for themselves and their loved ones — whether to gather for the holidays or other celebrations, and if so, how to do so safely? Whether to put our kids in school or keep them home. Whether or not to physically attend church or to worship online. Whether to visit in person with loved ones, or to find ones to connect online or by phone.
These challenges have left many of us feeling worn out and exhausted, and in some cases angry, frustrated, or lonely or isolated.
But I think that Jesus’s commandment to love one another involves giving each other the benefit of the doubt, trying to assume the best about our friends and family members, recognizing that each and every person has had an enormous weight on their shoulders over the past year.
It’s easy when we don’t see someone in person to think or believe that the other person doesn’t care. I face this, even as a pastor! I sometimes worry that if someone hasn’t attended church in a while (whether in person or online) that I may have said something that offended them, and my doubts and insecurities begin to rise to the surface.
But I think that Jesus’s commandment to love often involves being the first person to take the initiative, picking up the phone or sending a message to check in and see how the other person is doing. Or sending a card in the mail to let them know that you’re thinking of them and caring for them. These are all ways we can “wash one another’s feet” safely, without violating social distancing guidelines.
Grab a Basin and a Towel
In closing, I want to point out that when Jesus gave his disciples this new commandment to love one another, he did not qualify it by saying, “love and serve only those Christians who look like you, or agree with you theologically.” He did not say that we should only care for those fellow believers within our own congregation, or even our own denomination.
But rather, he looked around as his ragtag bunch of followers that included people of various ages and stages of life, various socioeconomic backgrounds, various occupations and political persuasions, and told them to love one another. Loving someone doesn’t necessarily mean you have to like them or become their best friend, but it does involve having mercy and compassion on them, forgiving them, just as we’ve been forgiven.
Imagine if everyone in the world did this. Imagine even if just those who claim to be Christians did this! Imagine how much different our neighborhood would be. Imagine how much different the media and social media would be. Imagine how different our city and our country would be.
If Jesus, our Lord and Teacher, has washed our feet, then we also ought to wash one another’s feet.
So let’s grab a basin and a towel, and let’s get busy! Let’s ask Jesus to clean us up from the inside out, so that we can be agents of God’s healing and grace in this world. Let’s ask Jesus to help us love as we have been loved, and forgive as we have been forgiven.