A sermon preached by David Barton at St Mary’s, Iffley on Maundy Thursday, 2023
Jesus washes his disciples feet. In the ancient world, where people walked the fields and the streets in open sandals or bare feet, foot washing was a normal preliminary to a meal. It was a menial task, done by ‘inferiors’ for ‘superiors’. Children washed their parents feet, students their teachers, servants (usually slaves) their owners with their guests. It was unheard of the other way round. But Jesus, takes a towel and washes his disciples feet.
And John loads this action with meaning. The verbs he uses to describe Jesus laying aside his garments and taking them up again are the same ones Jesus uses a little earlier in the parable of the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The word is the same. And after that parable Jesus tells us that he does all this because he has received that commandment from the Father.
But this is more than just a symbolic pointer to what is to come.. Jesus has deliberately chosen to have this meal with the disciples. He has invited them. He is the Host, the Lord of the Feast – but he is also the servant.
And so the foot washing by someone who is both Lord of the feast and Servant is pointing to a new kind of relationship between women and men. Its not dominance, and its not subservience either, because Jesus chooses to do this. It points instead to an of equality of love between people. An equality in love which is the same as Jesus and the Father are equal in love. And because Jesus chooses to be equal with us, so we are equal with each other, bound together in the love of God.
And its interesting that John puts this event in exactly the place where we might expect him to tell us about the Last Supper. That reading from Paul is a reminder – and, written 20 years after the event, its a reminder that Christians were doing what we are now, from the earliest weeks and days of the Church. But I wonder if John, by telling us of the foot washing at this moment, isn’t actually pointing us back to the last supper and suggesting that there is more here than we realise. Those words of Jesus:“This is my body”, seem to ring through every line of this story.
We read those central words of the Eucharist as “This is my body which is given for you”. And so indeed it is: He breaks the bread, just as his body will be broken on the Cross – a breaking which is a sharing of his life with us.
But you might also read that as “If you are looking for my body, this is it.” And body here means Jesus, a flesh and blood human being. Jesus is very concrete in that respect. As human beings we long for, desire, bodily presence. So if we desire the real bodily presence of Jesus we will find it in the real bodily presence of the person who washes our feet, or who sits next to us, who cares for us, serves us, the one who binds our wounds. Just as they will find that in us. “I in you, and you in me”. That is the mystery the whole of this Eucharistic action, breaking bread and washing, is inviting us to contemplate.
We need to remember what the word Love means in the message of Jesus – that problematic, overused word in our society. When Jesus speaks of love he is talking about a love which reaches back to the deepest mystery at the very heart of the universe. At the heart of everything is a Compassion which reaches out to us, forgives, and more than that, a Love which deepens and changes us so that we don’t just live, we become fully alive. Living, fully living, with the empowerment and creativity that can only come from God: that is God’s purpose for the world.
That is what Jesus came to wake us to. All along it has been his purpose. That he should do so everywhere is the Commandment he has from the Father.
There is no difference between the compassion and love shown here in the upper room and everything that happens subsequently. Jesus does not change. He goes out from here to be the compassion of God in the darkest places of the human spirit. He goes to Gethsemane, the place from which you could so easily escape into the wilderness of Judaea, and he chooses to stay – for arrest, trial, flogging, mockery, the way of the cross and the cross itself with its nails. He heals the ear of the High Priests’s servant, he forgives those who bang in the nails, and he promises the thief beside him on the cross that they will, together, be in Paradise. And those things are just glimpses of the embodiment of God’s creative, empowering Love that Jesus is, in himself, throughout all of this, to his last dying moment on the cross.
The seed falls into the ground and dies, and Love flows out from the cross and the empty tomb…