Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church
Reverend John Zachary Flack
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-7, 31b-35
I wonder if we know how the disciples felt this night, those millennia ago. They had followed Jesus into the city, hearing the crowds acclaim him as king. They have seen him stride through the temple, throwing the tables of sale to the ground and whipping the entrepreneurs in the courtyard. And now, the night of the Passover, they must be on fire with expectation—this is the Messiah, this is the one they’ve longed for, hoped for. Now is the moment of their liberation; now is the moment of freedom. Now, they must believe, now he will finally show himself in glory and expel the unclean and th unrighteous. And what does Jesus do? He starts stripping. And then he gets towel, and he kneels at their feet like a servant, and begins the work of a lowly slave.
This is not the work of a Messiah, not the job of a king. I can imagine the nervous giggles. Some of these disciples might have already hit the wine a little hard in anticipation. Hey look, it’s another crazy symbolic action by our Rabbi! Ha ha ha!. But then Jesus gets to Peter, who has seen him, however briefly, in glory on the mountaintop, Peter who has confessed through the Holy Spirit the truth about Jesus’ identity—that he is the Messiah. “You will never wash my feet,” Peter says. He knows. He is a follower. Say what you will about Peter, but he never has delusions of grandeur. He is like a puppy—all he wants is to be the best disciple he can be. He just wants to be with Jesus—but with the Jesus of glory. He wants to be with the Jesus who healed his mother-in-law, the Jesus who cast out demons, the Jesus who shamed the scholars, the Jesus who raised Lazarus. He wanted to follow the Jesus who called him on the shore of Lake Galilee where his only future lay before him, poverty and broken nets, and made him a disciple, who with a call gave him and his brother an entirely new life. “Are you going to wash my feet?” Imagine Peter—confused, ashamed, even insulted, not merely perplexed, but maybe even in tears. “You will never wash my feet,” Peter says.
Oh, Peter. He expresses the way we feel. How can the Lord of Glory stoop so low? Would God allow this of a prophet? Could the Messiah be so dishonored? Can the holy serve the unholy? Will the holy serve the unworthy?
Peter speaks from a profound sense of humility, even an appropriate sense that because he is in the presence of the Messiah, he himself can at best be a follower. Nothing is wrong with this sense—each of us should feel it ourselves when come in the presence of Christ. But he is wrong when he thinks that the Lord cannot serve him, not only because he is unworthy of being served, but even more so that it is shameful for the Messiah to serve. And we would be wrong, too, to think that God in Christ does not stoop to serve us.
That is Peter’s mistake. He thought too much of going up to God, and not enough of God coming down to him. And yet God loved Peter so much, God sent his Son into Peter’s life, not merely to announce himself in glory, but even to wash his feet, to serve him in humility. In Jesus of Nazareth, the full glory and power of God took the dirty feet of a fisherman, and washed them in love and tenderness. If you wish to know anything about God, if you wish to have any part of God, think on this—that nothing is too humble, too low for God. Indeed, it is precisely in human humility and helplessness that the power of God shines.
And why not? We human beings are a jumbled up mess. On one hand, we are marvels of the universe, perhaps the only intelligent life in the entire cosmos. On the other hand, we count one another very cheap, and we are painfully aware of the brevity of our existence. The grass withers and the flower fades, and the people are but grass, as the prophet reminds us. So it is, perhaps, shocking that the infinite would hold the feet of mortals in his hands. But that is exactly what Jesus does.
He does this, if the Gospels are to be believed, in the awareness that his own life will shortly end in pain and humiliation. But his last act is not to rage against death, but more fully embrace love, to show through humility the amazing condescension of God to humankind. He goes, one by one, amongst his disciples, as they party and celebrate the feast, to show the love made manifest in humble service.
When, tonight, we wash one another’s feet, we do as the Lord asked us. He asks of us what he himself has done—to kneel at the feet of another human, to take a foot in our hands, to wash it as a sign of love for one another. This is an intensely personal, and even uncomfortable moment for us 21st-Century Americans. Some of us hate our feet. They show our age, they may show disease or illness, they may be beautiful in all respects—trust me, none of them will be as gross as the disciples’ feet. But they are feet, and they will be washed by someone’s hands.
And your feet are holy, because you are holy. You are made holy by Christ. Think about this—if Christ loves and cares for you, will he not make you holy? As indeed you are, since no matter how grave your sins, Christ died and rose for you. You are holy simply because you have been made in the image of God—no matter how badly marred that image may be, no matter how little you see the reflection of God when you look at yourself, nothing can take that image away forever. In stooping to wash your feet, we stoop and kneel to that image of the Creator God. We kneel before holiness. In doing this, we consecrate one another, we acknowledge not only the innate holiness of one another, but the redemption of the image of God in one another by grace through the death and resurrection of Christ, who washes us clean.
To consecrate, according to one theologian, is to acknowledge or recognize that which has been holy from the beginning. As we consecrate one another tonight, we acknowledge God’s own work in each of us, and thus our own holiness, nothing we have earned or made, but that has been with us as a gift since the moment we first drew breath, and even before.
And likewise, in the meal we share tonight, we do not say that the bread and wine are somehow set apart, but that they have been holy from the beginning, as products from God’s good earth and the industry of human hands. But with these holy things comes Christ’s own promise that they are his body and blood, and that through them we are also made his body. We consecrate the bread and wine so that they will further consecrate us—till we ourselves are holy enough to stoop and serve.
Tonight, in you will touch and handle holy things: feet, bread, wine—the body and blood of the risen Messiah. Rejoice, because you are holy, and in Christ, you are made whole. Amen.