Posted on Fri, Mar 25, 2016
John 13:1-17, 31-35
March 24, 2016
Gospel Text: John 13:1-17, 31-35 – “What has HE Done?” or “The Sacramental Towel”
Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ 7 Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ 8 Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ 9 Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ 10 Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’
12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
The New Commandment
31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
This week stands out in the year, even more than Christmas with its own pace, traditional actions and distinct feelings. On Palm Sunday, we may have felt those feelings when we re-enacted the fantastic experience for the faithful welcoming Jesus into the Holy City; The surprise, confusion and anxieties of Maundy Thursday; The apparent hopelessness of Good Friday, the flames and stories of God’s amazing faithfulness on, Saturday, and the “Sonrise” and Gloria’s of Easter Sunday.
But today we are at Maundy Thursday. There is something strange about today. Jesus is saying and doing strange things, declaring that he is going places “nobody can go.” At the same time, we see the disciples learning about a potent new symbol of the Christian faith: the towel. In the early Christian days, when people were invited to a meal, after walking through dusty roads, they were greeted by somebody at the door with a towel, a basin, and water to wash the feet and the hands of the guests. The person at the door was a fundamental part of the welcome and the meal even though this person never participated in the meal. Usually a nameless slave was the one who made meals possible. This reminds me of our society today where the poor, the undocumented, the marginalized are the ones who harvest our food, who clean houses and pools, who do yard-work, who do all of the hidden services of our society so we can have the things that make our lives happen.
When Jesus wraps his waist with a towel, he shocks his disciples. Peter can’t understand it because Jesus was mirroring the work of the insignificant slave that greeted them at the door. He says something like this: “Are you kidding my Lord, are you going to wash my feet? No way! This would be shameful and embarrassing. You cannot do that, this is the work of someone like a slave or servant!” It would be like Jesus stepping in place of a yard-worker, undocumented field worker or dishwasher. But Jesus insists and says: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Perhaps saying: “unless you take the position of those at the bottom of society, the ones you don’t want to see, or cannot see, you cannot see me, or claim you know me or even know or do what this mission is all about.” And Peter, in his usual exaggerated way says: "If that is the way it must be, Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" A towel, a basin and water: today, these are the markers of the mission of the church.
After that perhaps embarrassing time of allowing their master touch their feet as a servant, with Jesus wearing only what the servant would wear gently washing the disciples’ feet, I would bet they all shuffled back to the table in stunned silence. Jesus breaks the awkward silence by asking them if they knew what they had experienced was all about. He says that they are right to call him Teacher and Lord but nothing would matter if they didn’t do exactly the same thing to others. “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” Many of us have forgotten that Jesus Command to love and serve is this ‘blessing.’ In serving the outcast, the hungry, we are serving and experiencing Jesus… Therefore this commandment, which becomes a blessing, becomes something more like a sacrament right there for all of us to experience! The issue is whether we will let this strange gesture of servanthood open our eyes, ears and hearts to Jesus’ calling to be servants of God in thankfulness by following Jesus and His commandments. Will this gesture open our hearts, or will it require God to do more, like going to the extent of giving His own begotten Son to die for us?
I find it rather interesting that the only time we ever wash each other’s feet, which is a powerful symbol for this day, is today. But at our school, we see the children washing each other’s feet all the time. It isn’t strange or uncomfortable; the children just do it as a part of learning. I find it strange because of how good it feels. Pope Francis washed the feet of people in prison on Maundy Thursday, and it made the newspapers around the world. What a symbol it was that the Pope would kneel down and wash the feet of people from various faith traditions! Why is this action of the Pope considered so radical and new? Isn’t that what the mission of the church really is? Imagine this: our churches actually hearing the gospel and going out to wash the feet of the homeless of our cities, the feet of the homeless, the undocumented, the incarcerated or of the dying. Maybe it is just easier to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners and welcome the outcasts… That is following Jesus’ commandment to show mercy in such a way it turns what we think as normal, upside down.
Maundy Thursday/Holy Thursday holds a mandatum, i.e., the commandment of Jesus Christ to go wash somebody’s feet. We are talking about a commandment not a choice. The washing of feet has the potential to revamp the structures of class society, turning upside down the location of the value of one’s humanity! The washing of feet is the caring of somebody’s body, the bodily temple that offers our spirit and faith a home, the flesh of someone’s life who dreams, desires, hopes and lives. As we obey the commandment to touch someone else, the washing means to care for the fullness of someone’s life. The other gospel narrates the foot washing as part of the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, I wonder if that at every Eucharistic table, there should be a basin with baptismal waters! Take (feet, bread, and wine), wash, bless, eat! Or take (feet, bread, and wine), eat, bless, wash! All the senses felt, perceived, honored! God fully there! Restoring people’s humanity and honor! Somebody fully cared for, and attended to, fully transforming a society! Because it is only after the washing of the feet that Good Friday and Easter Sunday will make sense. Get prepared to experience possibly a new sacrament: all you need is a towel, a basin and some water. Go and serve!
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