Note: My Maundy Thursday sermon on this text can be found here.
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. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 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.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 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.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
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? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So 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. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking.
So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 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.’ 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.”
This seems to me to be a very strange passage to be reading on the fifth Sunday of Easter. Just a short time ago we celebrated the resurrection. The paraments in the sanctuary are still white. The banner with the embroidered butterfly still hangs in the transept. We still gather in the echo of Easter’s good news, singing of the resurrection and God’s ultimate victory over sin and death. But here, we seem to be jumping backwards a considerable distance. This text takes us back to the night before the crucifixion. Many Christians will have recently heard this text on Maundy Thursday (and in fact, my Maundy Thursday sermon on this text can be found here). You’re probably not alone if you read this passage with a sense of liturgical whiplash!
Yet, the power of the gospel is not confined to one particular day or event. This text is God’s Word to us, not just on Maundy Thursday, but on each and every day. The task here is to uncover the elements of the passage that speak to the situation in which we now find ourselves. If it is not a Holy Week meditation on Jesus’ last hours with his disciples, what is it? Are you facing tragedy or crisis? Are you celebrating new beginnings? Are you weary of life’s demands and simply seeking some rest? The simple fact is that in any congregation, there will be people experiencing all of these things and more. Furthermore, God will speak to them in a variety of ways through the same passage. Rather than immediately brushing this text aside because we just heard it on Maundy Thursday, why not assume that it will speak to you (and others) in a new way on this fifth Sunday of Easter?
Personally, I am struck by the fact that Jesus had to remind his disciples that “servants are not greater than their masters”. I’m also captivated by the image of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet – including the one who would betray him! These things occur beneath the blanket assurance that “he loved them to the end.”
A “Teaching Moment”
Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
Ouch. Lest we think that we can simply ignore the messy work of loving those dirty others out there, Jesus takes aim at our complacent tendencies. He is, of course, aware of the fact that his disciples may think that he’s conferred some status upon them, that wandering around at the heels of the Son of God will elevate their stature above the filth and squalor of the world and they’ll be exempt from the unpleasant work of discipleship. Washing someone’s feet was certainly not an enviable chore, and here Jesus uses this act as a symbol for how his followers are to relate to each other and to the world. If you think you’re above such menial tasks, or that stooping to touch the dirt, the cracks, and the calluses of the world is beneath you, Jesus would ask you a question: Do you think you’re greater than I am? If I did these things, why can’t you? I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.
These are challenging words for us, especially considering the form that Christianity often takes in America. The way we practice Christianity isn’t quite the same as it is in other parts of the world, for here we have adapted Christian practices to our opulent culture. All too often Christians are seen as those with power, with stature, with influence, and with money. Soren Kierkegaard once wrote: “I went into church and sat on the velvet pew. I watched as the sun came shining through the stained glass windows. The minister dressed in a velvet robe opened the golden gilded Bible, marked it with a silk bookmark and said, ‘If any man will be my disciple, said Jesus, let him deny himself, take up his cross, sell what he has, give it to the poor, and follow me.’” Sadly, we can identify with Kierkegaard’s church all too well. What if, instead of loving the beauty inside our churches, we became known for the loving the ugliness outside of them?
Jesus does, after all, give us an example of what this looks like. In an act of painstaking service, he washes the feet of each of his disciples. Eventually, of course, this means that he would get to Judas. He would look up into the eyes of the one who would betray him. He would look down at his dirty, cracked, and callused feet. Then, taking a basin of water and the towel tied around his waist into his hands, he would begin to wash.
Indeed, Jesus means for us to follow the pattern he sets for us, which includes not only loving those who are easy to love, but those who are very difficult to love as well! We are to show our love through humble service to the ugly as well as the beautiful, the filthy as well as the clean, the betrayer as well as the faithful disciple. As scripture tells us, Jesus loved them – even Judas! – to the very end. That’s a challenge for us to be sure, but it’s also good news. Our lives are mixtures of faith and betrayal. Yet, Jesus loves us no less during our moments of sinfulness than he does during our moments of faithfulness. The good news of this passage is this: no matter where we have been, no matter where we are, and no matter where we go, God loves us. In our moments of crisis, tragedy, celebration, anxiety, pain, and hopelessness, the love of Christ is for us…
Right to the very end.
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First Look is a commentary on the upcoming lectionary gospel text, written by Rev. Lee A. Koontz. It is usually published on Mondays.