May 7, 2017 John 13: 1-15; 33-35
Prayer: Dear Lord, When we take communion, we remember not only the ceremony you created for us but all that surrounded it. The teachings. The relationships. The love. We pray in the name you wore when you broke bread among us. Amen.
The Last Supper … With a Twist
There is a bookend story I tell in almost every speech I give to people who want to learn about Triune. Both bookends occurred early in my time here.
We had no signage in those days, and people found us when we told them we were next to Tommy’s Ham House. Well, one day a man on the sidewalk waved one of Tommy’s huge chicken breasts in my face. He had gotten it from Tommy’s dumpster. He was so proud because only one bite had been taken out.
“Can you believe someone threw this away?” he asked me.
Then I talk about our work, how we hang our hat on inviting people to belong, to become part of a church community. About rehab and counseling and Triune Circles. About meals and worship and relationships, how we focus not on giving out stuff, but on belonging to each other, ministering to each other.
And then at the end of the speech, I return to the man with the chicken breast. He often sat in his wheelchair on the sidewalk along Stone Avenue. He could stand if he had to, but he had severe diabetes. Gangrene had set into his foot, and doctors were slowly amputating pieces of it.
One Sunday after lunch, I went out to sit on the brick wall in the sun for a few minutes. I asked him how his foot was, and he said he could use a fresh bandage.
So I ran up to my office to get bandages and Neosporin. I came down and was prepared to simply hand them to him.
But a man named Alec, who was quite open about his crack addiction, stopped me. “Rev,” he said, “if you can get me some warm water, I’ll clean his foot first.”
So I got Alec a cup of warm water and paper towels. He took them and knelt on the pavement in front of the man’s wheelchair.
He carefully removed the bloodied bandage and gently washed that blackened, sore-encrusted foot that I would not have touched for love or money. And he applied the Neosporin and fresh bandages.
I always conclude by saying, “That’s the danger of inviting people to belong. They end up making you look bad.”
There is so often good and bad in all of us. And very few of us are all good or all bad.
Sometimes, the kindnesses exhibited here make me gasp.
The homeless man who gave his SNAP card to someone he thought needed it more.
Ray, who spent months arranging a funeral service for an elderly man he’d befriended.
Gene, who got a truck driving job and comes up from Atlanta at least once a year to thank us for helping him when he was down.
The man who brought me a beaded pouch and later a necklace. When I told him I loved them, but I didn’t want him spending his money on me, he replied that he used to buy gifts for his mother. Now that she was gone, it made him happy to give them to me instead.
“This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples,” said Jesus, “if you love one another.” (John 15: 35)
That comment comes from today’s Scripture passage. This morning, since we are observing communion, we are going to read John’s story of the Last Supper.
It is quite different from the story we get in Matthew, Mark and Luke. We don’t get instructions for this communion meal. But we do get an incredible picture of Jesus, setting an example that my friend Alec followed to the letter.
Please turn to John 13: 1-15, 33-35.
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.
2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.
5Then 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.
6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ 7Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’
8Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ 9Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’
10Jesus 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.’ 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’
12 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? 13You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’
Then jump to verse 33. This is still Jesus talking:
33 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.”
‘34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
Jesus knew that this last meal with his disciples signaled the end of his time on earth. His hour had come. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them (right through) to the end,” as one translator put it.
And the way he loved them right through to the end is this quirky story of washing their feet. Look at how John words it: “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.
“ 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.…”
This act was not just one of many things Jesus could have done to exhibit servanthood. It was integrally tied to coming from God and going to God. It was integrally tied to being God.
This God who, the very next day, was going to ascend a cross for these people, was now bending to wash their feet. This is an incredible picture of divine humility.
These days, to call someone a foot-washing Baptist is about the same as calling him a snake-handling Baptist. It carries the same connotation of fundamentalism, backwardness, Clampetts come to town.
We more sophisticated types shy away from it, just as I shied away from touching the foot of the man in the wheelchair.
But our Catholic friends, and those of some other denominations, have long practiced foot washing on the Thursday of Holy Week.
The current pope, Francis, has taken the practice of washing the feet of 12 fellow priests and turned it into a practice of washing the feet of 12 prison inmates.
In 2013, right after he became pope, he performed the ceremony in a youth prison in Rome. He caused quite a stir by washing the feet of two girls and two Muslims. He washed their feet, then kissed them, black, white, male, female, tattooed.
This Maundy Thursday just past, he went to a prison 45 miles outside Rome, and washed the feet of 12 prisoners, including three women. And he explained to them that he did so in order to emulate Jesus.
In the first century, it was customary for slaves to wash the feet of household guests. But Jesus was illustrating his often repeated teaching that the last would be first, and the first would be last.
“This isn't a folkloric ceremony,” Pope Francis told the inmates. “It is a gesture to remind us of what Jesus gave us. After this, he took bread and gave us his body; he took wine and gave us his blood. This is the love of God.”
We see by Peter’s reaction how upside down Jesus’s action was even in a time and place where foot washing was standard. For what Jesus was proposing to do was simply not done by teachers and rabbis. It was done by servants.
That’s why Peter pitched such a fit. Oh, no, no, no. “You will never wash my feet,” he told Jesus.
And Jesus responded that accepting this act of service was a necessary part of discipleship. “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” In other words,“If I don’t wash you, you don’t belong to me.”
We get a glimpse of the power of those words by Peter’s immediate capitulation. Oh, OK. Then in that case, wash my hands and head, too. Wash every part of me if it means I belong to you.
The symbolism of Jesus’s act is not terribly deep and certainly not hidden. He lays it right out.
“If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s….”
He has set an example for the disciples. He has offered them a pattern of the most humbling kind of service.
This is why we learn in seminary: Let your parishioners see you moving the chairs. Obviously my professors never worked at Triune. When I try to move a chair, Don has 10 people leaping up and tearing it out of my hands. When I pull a weed, I never make it to the trash can without someone grabbing it from me.
But this passage is why we all do this work together. This is why we invite everyone, everyone, to greet worshipers, lead the responsive reading, lead the prayers, take up the offering, serve communion, sing in the choir, play in the band, to usher.
No one job done in the Lord’s name is any more important than any other job. We all must serve each other. We all must be served by each other.
I always marvel at our parishioners who prune the roses, mop the floors, scrub the walls, haul the groceries, empty the trash, move furniture from floor to floor to floor. There is a man named Mr. James who vacuums our offices and empties our trashcans every week. Visitors assume he’s on staff. But he’s not. He simply comes in to serve 20 or 30 hours a week.
It is amazing to me how very like Jesus’s example these folks’ actions are.
There is one more important piece of this passage that is easy to overlook. It comes in verse two.“The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas … to betray him.”
Judas took part in the Last Supper. Judas got his feet washed.
In coming from God and going to God, in being God, Jesus dealt with humanity in all its raw ugliness. He was not protected from evil. In fact, it was next to him daily in the most painful way possible. He was betrayed by a friend.
And still he humbled himself. He washed the feet of his betrayer.
I haven’t seen my friend Alec in quite some time. I hope he’s somewhere living out his unique discipleship, this man who gently washed and bandaged the foot of a fellow addict.
Very few of us are all good or all bad.
Jesus knew that as he washed the feet of his betrayer. He provided grace for little sinner and big sinner alike.
Then he said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”