In first century Jerusalem it s evening. Tomorrow is the Day of Preparation for the Passover. In Hebrew tradition the Day of Preparation is when the lambs are slaughtered for Passover. A time to remember the blood of a lamb being placed on the door posts of Hebrew homes in Egypt centuries earlier so that the Angel of Death will pass by and not enter. Jews in first century Jerusalem are remembering the Exodus a time of deliverance a time of departure as they leave the old and journey forth into the new. And it s no coincidence that in the Gospel of John, Jesus is crucified on the Day of Preparation. John wants us to make a connection between Jesus crucifixion and the slaughter of the Passover lambs. The gift of blood is to be remembered.
But tonight, it s the evening before. Jesus and his disciples are gathered at what only Jesus knows will be their last meal together. Tonight is a night of companionship. But it is a night of companionship complicated by betrayal.
During supper Jesus gets up, takes off his outer robe and ties a towel around his waist. This is symbolic. The disciples will know only later what it means. Jesus lays aside his outer garments tonight. These are the same words that will be used as Jesus lays aside his life for them tomorrow.
Jesus slowly pours water into a bowl. But the timing is off if this is about a ritualistic cleansing. It s the middle of the meal. Tonight, like good Jews the disciples have already washed their hands. They have all already participated in the ritual of purification before their meal.
And then Jesus kneels down before them. But this doesn t look right. The Teacher, the Master kneeling before his disciples? It s upsetting to well known social and family norms. The Master kneeling like a servant? This won t do. Already Peter is getting nervous. What s happening here?
Jesus takes the feet of each of the disciples in turn, washing them and drying them. Dusty, well-worn feet, callused and rough. Mostly peasant feet, broad and sturdy. As Jesus touches the disciples feet, washes them gently, dries them carefully, is he remembering how many miles these feet have followed him? The hearts of the disciples may have wandered, their minds missed a beat or two, but these feet kept on walking.
When he gets to Judas feet, does Jesus hesitate if only for a moment? Does Judas draw back a bit, surprised as Jesus reaches for his feet? Before the end of this meal these feet will carry Judas away to betray the man kneeling before him. Maybe Jesus lingered the longest over Judas feet. In some way communicating by water by touch, Father, forgive!
But Peter, of course it would be Peter, jumps up when Jesus pulls the bowl of water over and settles down kneeling in front of him. Peter, so often in the Gospel tradition the designated speaker for them all. Peter, the one who argued with Jesus when Jesus earlier described what was going to ultimately happen to him, their leader who would suffer and die. Peter, the one to whom an exasperated Jesus earlier had shouted, Get thee behind me, Satan! Now Jesus kneels before Peter and stretches out his hands to take hold of Peter s feet to wash them. Washing them so slowly, so lovingly, yet knowing that later other parts of Peter, his heart and mind and mouth, will deny even knowing this man kneeling before him, the man tonight he calls Master.
Perhaps, somewhere deep inside Peter is frightened. This is a role reversal that depicts a future Peter doesn t want to face. A lesson that none of the disciples are ready for. A call to love that challenges heirarchal norms of leadership. A call to be leaders, but to leadership that is not grounded in power over but in servanthood with.
The exchange of words between Peter and Jesus is not surprising as we think back on how many times the disciples just don t understand what Jesus is teaching, what Jesus is trying to show them. But Jesus persists. This is his last night in the company of his disciples. He has an important final lesson to share with them.
After (Jesus) 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. (John 13:12-15)
Maundy Thursday. That s what the Church calls tonight. Maundy is derived from the Latin word mandate. Tonight Jesus gives to his disciples, both by word and deed, a new mandate, a new commandment: that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another. (John 13:34) It s a call to live together in a community grounded in loving one another and in caring for one another, no matter what the apparent price. It s a call to kneel before each other. It s a call to serve one another.
This morning on these steps, Bishop Lee knelt at the feet of four priests, representatives of all the priests present today for a renewal of their ordination vows. He took their feet in his hands, washed them gently, dried them carefully. In real time this morning our Bishop followed Jesus example. Then over eighty priests who had come from all around the Diocese renewed their baptismal vows and reaffirmed their commitment to their ministry. Those priests today reaffirmed their promise to be faithful servants of all those committed to their care. They remembered their baptismal vow to seek and serve Christ in all persons. (BCP p. 305) Randy, Dana and I were among them. This morning, almost two thousand years later we saw Jesus words in action: For I have set an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
Three bowls rest on these steps. Randy, Dana and I will each kneel before you as you take your place in these chairs. We kneel, we take your feet in our hands, we wash your feet and dry them a symbolic action reminding us that our life with you within this community is one of servanthood. We will follow Jesus example from almost two thousand years ago, as he commanded.
When each of us were ordained we acknowledged a call to love and serve the people among whom we work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. (BCP p. 531) At our respective ordinations we remembered and reaffirmed the promises made in our Baptismal Covenant to seek and serve Christ in all persons.
We re human, just like all disciples, then and now. Sometimes, by God s grace, we are able to keep our vows. Sometimes, in our humanness, we fail you. But I, for one, have come to understand that it is only within a community that lives in love, mutual respect and a sense of the dignity of everyone within that community that I have the best chance of keeping my vows. This is the kind of community that all of us here at St. James s, as we try to live within our Baptismal vows, seek to build.
Tonight Randy, Dana and I repeat an age-old ritual remembering the night when Jesus knelt before his disciples. We will kneel before you, serving you and the Christ within you. You, like each of us, are called to do likewise. To be servants to one another.
Tonight you leave, knowing yet what tomorrow, Good Friday, brings. But in the days and years ahead remember especially Jesus great commandment given this night so long ago: Love one another. Tonight is meant to remind us all that we are called to live into our Baptismal vow to seek and serve Christ in all persons. Let Christ s words guide us on the way: Do this in remembrance of me.