March 24th, 2016
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
There are many things to know about being a Christian, and one of them is to beware taking marriage advice from some of the venerable Church Fathers, like Tertullian. He was one of the ancient writers who thought celibacy was better than marriage, especially if a Pagan man was married to a Christian woman. This is because Tertullian thought ancient Pagan men were way too concerned about honor, and way too concerned about what their women were doing around town. He thought they’d be scandalized if they knew what the women did on their own time. He writes, “For who would suffer his wife, for the sake of visiting the brethren, to go round from street to street to other men’s, and indeed to all the poorer, cottages? Who will willingly bear her being taken from his side by nocturnal convocations, if need so be? Who, finally, will without anxiety endure her absence all the night long at the paschal solemnities? Who will, without some suspicion of his own, dismiss her to attend that Lord’s Supper which they defame? Who will suffer her to creep into prison to kiss a martyr’s bonds? nay, truly, to meet any one of the brethren to exchange the kiss? to offer water for the saints’ feet? to snatch (somewhat for them) from her food, from her cup? to yearn (after them)? to have (them) in her mind?” Sounds scandalous—associating with the poor, “kissing the brethren”, "nocturnal convocations", washing the saints’ feet. Staying out all night at church, partaking in a salacious supper. Better, Tertullian says, not to marry. You can just live as a Christian without worrying about some man’s precious honor, and have him keep you on a short leash so he won’t get embarrassed by all your Christianly deeds.
Foot-washing seems to have been a peculiar practice of the Christians. Tonight we hear Jesus’ mandate to his followers: wash one another’s feet. Of course he means more than just washing feet—he means for us to serve one another, to be there for each other, to comfort one another in pain and sorrow. He means that we should kiss one another's chains. He also means we should actually wash one another’s feet. And he means that we should offer ourselves to the world, with faith in his Word, which calls our offering forth. Because even as we offer ourselves, God has offered God's own self to this world, poured it out, life everlasting, for this world. Our offering adds nothing to God's, but God's offering bears us up and illuminates what we offer, accepting it and binding it to God's purpose. Jesus, tonight, tells us to offer our selves in concrete ways that matter to the world--to tired feet.
Washing a foot is like offering yourself, a little, and it is one of the reasons why washing feet, I think, is so hard. It’s hard to take the foot of someone you may or may not even know or like and wash it. And for some, it’s even harder to let somebody else wash your foot. We’re lucky that this is ritualized, because it gives a pattern and some safety to a moment of vulnerability, you could even say intimacy. In the world, we may not be so lucky. But here we can trust without fear, so that we can trust in spite of our fear out there.
In our Gospel we see that Jesus offers himself to his followers as a servant. And this week we see that on the cross Jesus offers all of himself to all of us—completely, giving up even his Spirit for us. And when the early Christians kissed the prisoners’ chains and washed their feet, when they walked away from the path of honor and respectability, they also gave up themselves for others. They offered themselves in concrete ways, ways that made someone else more comfortable, ways that honored someone else. They washed the feet of the sick and imprisoned. They fed the hungry. They kicked their reputation and cared for the well-being of others. They knew, down deep, that God was not above honoring us, or giving himself up for us. Christ doesn’t want us to think that we are above that, either.
But he also takes pains to remind us: washing feet is necessary. Serving one another is necessary. Offering yourself to world is necessary. And to do it in the way Jesus does, it is necessary to know and believe that God does offer God's own self to this world. It is our hope, and it is God's promise, that whenever we offer ourselves for the sake of the world, we will find that God is there, offering God's own heart.
John does not tell the story of the Last Supper. John does not offer the Words of Institution. John, instead, offers us Jesus, offering himself for the sake of the world. From the beginning of John's Gospel, to the end, John gives us Jesus, offering himself for the sake of the world. The world is in pain, and in darkness, and in despair. God does not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that world might be saved. God sends his Son to wash feet, to serve, to invite. And in the Lord’s Supper, we believe that the real Jesus, flesh and blood, offers himself to us, dishonoring himself so that we may be honored, pouring out his life so that we may live.
When we celebrate the Lord's Supper, we bring with us our own chains. We bring our own sins. We bring all the ways we have failed to offer ourselves to the world, all the ways we have broken it. And most of all, we bring our hunger, hunger for something even more than food. We bring our hunger for God. And God satisfies us. God offers himself. God kisses our chains away. God kisses all our shame away. Amen.
The Reverend John Flack