(A sermon based on John 13:1-7, 31b-35 for Maundy Thursday 2013)
I’ve never been to a foot washing service. I think I’d like to. Of course, I’d be like those women I’ve heard about who clean their house before the cleaning lady gets there—I’d have my feet so clean before I went to the service that they’d hardly need washing. On the Thursday night that he was betrayed, the Synoptic Gospels tell us, Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. Only John tells us that Jesus did something else on that night—he washed the disciples’ feet. Tonight we will observe the Lord’s Supper. We won’t wash feet. I wonder why.
We observe the Lord’s Supper because it reminds us of the love that Jesus showed for us in giving his life on the cross. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said, and Paul added that in so doing we remember the Lord’s death until he comes. When we remember the Lord’s death we are surely remembering his love. He died to show us his love but also to cause his kind of love—totally selfless, redemptive, sacrificial love—to be activated in the lives of his followers.
After he had washed the disciples’ feet Jesus said to them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” Now, those words aren’t so hard to hear, are they? If that’s all there is to the new commandment, that we love one another, that’s not so difficult—especially if we are allowed to define the term. We all too often define love in terms of feelings. So we might try to convince ourselves that we are keeping this commandment so long as we have good feelings toward someone or at least don’t have bad feelings toward someone. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet in order to teach them the truth about the love of which he was speaking. He furthermore left no doubt as to the actual difficulty of fulfilling his new commandment that we love one another when he said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” And he went on to make a statement that revealed just how much was at stake in this matter: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
How much did Jesus love his disciples? He loved them enough to die for them. So when you get right down to it the truth we need to get hold of is that if we love each other like Jesus loves us we will die for one another in the literal sense. The truth is, however, that very seldom is such an extreme sacrifice required of us. We should be willing, though. The story is told of a little girl who was very ill and who needed a blood transfusion. The closest match in blood type was with her brother, who was a couple of years older than she. The doctor and the parents carefully explained to the boy what was needed. They told him that his little sister was very sick and, that unless he gave her his blood, she would almost surely die. They made it clear, though, that the decision was his. He thought for a few moments and then said he would do it. Trying hard to be brave, he watched as the team prepared his sister for the transfusion and as the process began of drawing blood from him. After a few moments he turned his eyes to his parents and asked, “When will it happen?” “When will what happen?” they asked. “When will I die?” he replied. He had misunderstood, but what a glorious misunderstanding. He thought that for his sister to live he would have to die and that was the choice he made. We are to love each other that much.
That ultimate sacrifice will likely never have to be made by one of us on behalf of another. Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet was an object lesson for us in how to give our lives away for each other on a daily basis. Perhaps the main thing that has to be sacrificed if we are going to love each other as Jesus loved us is our pride. After washing their feet, Jesus said, “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” (vv. 14-16).
Now, I’m not too concerned with foot washing per se but rather with the kind of mindset and lifestyle that are demonstrated in foot washing. It is that way of thinking and that way of living that are to be pursued by disciples. As we die daily to self pride is one of the things that has to be set aside. Loving each other, you see, means humbling ourselves before each other. It means being willing to get down into the very bowels of life with each other. It means regarding everyone else as more important than ourselves. It means doing whatever we can do to help out and to help up. It means to be downright foolish in the ways we give ourselves to each other. How could we possibly think that we’re too good to serve someone when on that Thursday night so long ago the Son of God, the Savior of the world, the King of Kings, knelt before his rag-tag band of frail followers—even the one who would deny and the one who would betray him—and washed their feet?
The Lord’s Supper should bring such truths to our minds as well. “This do in remembrance of me,” we will say, but what are we remembering? We are remembering our Lord who was such a servant that he willingly went to the cross. We are remembering our Savior who loved us so much that he voluntarily died for us. How do we best remember him? We best remember him by truly being his followers—by loving each other like he loved us and by serving each other like he served his disciples.