What gets you down on your knees these days? Do you wash the kitchen floor, vacuum under the sofa, repair the drain under a sink? Maybe you plant seeds in the garden, or pull up weeds. Maybe you attend to a small child when he or she is sick, or clean up after a beloved cat or dog? I hope that sometimes you get down on your knees in prayer – as long as your knees still work!
There are probably many things that cause us to get down on our knees, for one reason or another, but I bet that foot-washing is not one of them.
And yet – there it is, right at the center of tonight’s Gospel. Jesus had gathered with the disciples, and he had a pretty good sense of what was coming next. In fact, the way John relates the story, Jesus knows that his hour had come, time was up, and he wanted to leave his followers with a very clear example and symbol of who he was and who they should be.
So during the dinner party Jesus gets up, takes off his outer clothing, and wraps himself in a towel, just like any household servant of first-century Palestine would do. And then he proceeds to take up a basin and a pitcher of water and wash the disciples’ feet.
You probably know what it’s like in the summer time if you wear sandals – your feet feel cool and comfortable, but boy, do they get dirty! Well, it was the same thing in Jesus’ day, and the accepted standard of hospitality was that when a visitor arrived for a meal, the guest’s feet would be washed of the street dust and dirt. And if there was household help, washing feet was a servant’s job.
It was a shocking thing to see the leader, the revered rabbi, washing feet like a common servant. I am sure the disciples were whispering amongst themselves: “This is too weird; what does he think he’s doing?!” It was finally Peter who, as usual, burst out with what everyone else was thinking: “Master, you wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You don’t understand now what I’m doing, but it will be clear enough to you later.” Peter persisted, “You’re not going to wash my feet—ever!” Jesus said, “If I don’t wash you, you can’t be part of what I’m doing.” “Master!” said Peter. “Not only my feet, then. Wash my hands! Wash my head!”
Peter couldn’t stand the idea of his leader and friend, the one whom he had identified as Messiah, could act like a common servant. And then Jesus explained the inner meaning of his action: “If you’ve had a bath in the morning, you only need your feet washed now and you’re clean from head to toe. My concern, you understand, is holiness, not hygiene.” And he went on to make it clear to them that if they claimed Jesus as “teacher” and “master” then they had to follow his example, to live life according to Jesus’ pattern.
Jesus was giving them a new vocation, or at least finally making it clear and explicit, in these last hours before his arrest and trial and death. The vocation of the disciples was to live a life of service to others, based on their love and loyalty for Jesus, strengthened by their love for one another.
We had flashes of Jesus’ humility on Palm Sunday when he rode a donkey into Jerusalem – a common, humble animal, and when we heard the reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians when he quoted the words of a hymn: “…though he was in the form of God, [Christ] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.”
The new vocation that Jesus gave to the disciples and to us is that we are to be servants – not subservient – but servants to those for whom Christ died, all those whom he loves, especially to those who are least able to help themselves: the poor, the sick, the lonely, the powerless, the outcast, the lesser-than And we are to do this with love, with compassion, because really (if we look into our heart-of-hearts) we know that we have all been in that place of need whether physically, emotionally or spiritually. Not one of us is exempt from it. And so Jesus calls us to be servants on his behalf, in the world.
In the Church, it is the deacon who symbolizes this, and tonight I am remembering our former Deacon Bill Bailey who embodied this so well, right up to a few months before his death earlier this month. And I know that Bill would say that he was merely showing the way for others, that he would not have succeeded in his ministry if others hadn’t learned from him a little more deeply what it means to serve, and to be Church, in and for and on behalf of the world. The ceremony of foot-washing which symbolizes servant-hood was always Bill’s favorite part of Maundy Thursday liturgy, and I know he was a little disappointed that we did not do that here at All Saints’.
Our vocation to be servants get lived out on at least two different levels – the level of our individual actions in our work and families, and the level of what we do together as a parish. That’s what has driven our ministry of community hospitality; it’s why we open our buildings to so many groups in our neighborhood; it’s why we host so many AA meetings each week; it’s why we collect food for the pantry in Dover; it’s why we endeavor to welcome anyone and everyone who is looking for a spiritual home, a community of connection to God. It’s all part of our vocation as servants for Christ’s sake.
But even as we are engaged in all this work and ministry and hospitality, Jesus bids us to gather at his Table – to be fed, strengthened, renewed, nourished – not just for our well-being or spiritual satisfaction, but so that we can be the Body of Christ in the world, fed by the Body and Blood of the Lord. We gather for worship, we lift up the cares and concerns of our hearts and our neighbors, we are fed by Christ and then sent out to be who and what we are, only to return and begin the process all over again.
Towel and table, invitation and dismissal, bread and work, prayer in sacrament and action – it’s all part of this night, and part of each and every day that we live as Jesus’ followers, servants and friends. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
March 28, 2013