The Saints of the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights like churches around the world, gathered virtually on Maundy Thursday (April 9) this year. We sat with the disciples as Jesus washed their feet in John 13. We shared the sacrament of Communion and thought about what love looks like and what love does.
To see the entire worship service, visit the YouTube link below!
If you’ve been around the Crafton Heights Church for a while, you’ll have heard about the Texas Mission Team. For more than a decade, adults from this congregation have traveled, usually in February, to work in partnership with churches in southern Texas to make the love of Jesus more tangible to our neighbors. The size of the team has varied – once we sent five men, and another time we had a crew of nearly 30 if you count our colleagues from the John MacMillan church. And as with all such experiences, the Texas Trip has produced a pool of memories – stories that are told and retold.
Some things happen every year, no matter who is there, and every single participant can point to these as personal memories. For instance, if you’ve ever been to Texas with this church, you have teased someone about birdwatching. It happens every year. And you’ve marveled at how good the fresh citrus fruit tastes in Texas in February. Those are core memories shared by every traveler.
And some things happen once, but are retold enough to make you think that everyone was there. I’m thinking now of the time that Jon Walker crashed through a window, causing Eddie Schrenker to rename him “Wounded Elk”.
And other things happen enough that you’re not sure if you’ve ever actually seen it, but you know that it’s true. I would suggest that many of our Texas trip participants know what it feels like to be working away on a project and have Steve Imler come and watch you for a moment, and then sidle up next to you, and then take the tool out of your hand while saying, “Here, let me hold that for a second…”
When Steve does this, you can see the task on which you were working being done properly and quickly. And then Steve hands you back your tool, and says, “Oh, sorry man, I just saw something…” and he walks away, confident that you were paying attention while he was “holding” your putty knife or hammer, and expecting that the quality of your work will improve as a result.
A lot of people, myself chief among them, are better drywall finishers, carpenters, musicians, parents, and teachers because someone has practiced “the Imler method” in our lives – they stood next to us and showed us how it can be done, and expected us to learn.
That’s exactly what Jesus was doing in John 13. Perhaps you’ve noticed this, but when the other three Gospels talk about the night before Jesus’ death, they emphasize the significance of the meal that is shared, and they point to the bread and the wine as representative of Jesus’ sacrifice. John has already made that point back in chapter 6, where he quotes Jesus as saying “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” When John tells the story of the Last Supper, he talks about something else.
First, he sets the stage for us. Most of us, praise God, do not have to live with the knowledge of which day, which meal, which interaction will be our final one. We blunder along, ignorant, sometimes afraid and sometimes cocky or overconfident, day after day after day. Yet John reminds us that Jesus knew. Because he knew that he was going to die for the world, he also knew that there was no hope in the world to save him. He knew, and yet he kept on going.
As Texas Pastor Steve Bezner once tweeted, “Sometimes I joke about what I’d do if I had one day left to live. Eat junk, go crazy, etc. Today it hit me: Jesus knew. And he washed feet.” And I would suggest that in choosing this course of action, Jesus gives us not only a new command but a model for daily living.
I find it noteworthy that Jesus had allowed the meal to begin before he interrupted it with his act of love. We are presented with a room full of people, reclining at table as would have been customary in that time and place. As they lounge, there would have only been one place for the legs and feet to be – right in front of everyone else. And because there was evidently no domestic staff on duty that evening, nobody had taken it upon themselves to perform the humiliating, menial task of washing the feet of those participating in the meal. Each disciple knew that it should have been done – but nobody thought it was his job to do. They all thought it was beneath them… until Jesus got up and did it.
Note this, beloved: before Jesus gives a “new command” to “love one another”, he shows us how to do it. This evening, I’d like to look at two aspects of the demonstration that Jesus offered and invite us to reflect on what that might mean for our own lives in the age of COVID-19.
For starters, there is a call to yield one’s self. Simon Peter thinks that he is fundamentally OK and therefore he is not willing to accept any service from the Christ. He stands in opposition to Jesus, and says, essentially, “Look, man, we’re good here. There’s no reason to get into all of this now, Jesus. Let’s just let this go…”
To which Jesus replies, effectively, “Come on, Simon – you’ve got to get over yourself. You need this. Let me serve you.”
Beloved in the Lord, I am not entirely aware of all of the realities of your present life. But I am utterly convinced that Jesus longs to bring you relief and release, and that he is willing to enter into this very moment with you. Jesus of Nazareth, the one that is called “Immanuel” – God with us – is seeking to embrace the you that is at the very heart of your being.
And some of my friends have heard this, and they reply by saying, “Oh, look, I know – Jesus is a great guy, all right. He’s super forgiving, and kind. I mean, Jesus is the best… It’s just, well, I can’t believe that he’d be willing to bother with me. I’m just so… I mean, I’m too angry, or I’m too drunk, or I’m too guilty…”
It’s as if some of us might have the chutzpah to say, “I know, Jesus is all right for the normal, run-of-the-mill sinner like you, Dave, but you don’t get it. I’ve been damaged. And I’m not in a good place. You don’t know what you’re talking about…”
Relax. I’m here to tell you that nothing you’ve done and nowhere you’ve been is going to shock Jesus. You pretending to be some sort of “untouchable” so that you don’t have to think about the things that Jesus has already forgiven is simply a way for you to avoid confronting the unpleasant aspects of your own story.
And it may be that a few of us have the opposite problem. We hear Jesus talking about belonging to him and being cleansed and made whole and we say, “You know what? I’m good, thanks. There’s nothing to clean here. You know what? My feet don’t even stink. But thanks for the offer…”
And I get that. I mean, you didn’t travel all the same roads that your reprobate sibling or cousin did; you’ve got a clean record, you’re a basically moral person and you’ve worked to keep your side of the street clean. But here’s the deal – not even you can walk all day on these paths that fill our world without getting marked by them. We are surrounded by brokenness and crap, and it gets on us. Let us accept the cleansing that is offered and look for a deeper wholeness in Jesus.
In addition to this idea of yielding yourself to the Lord, let me beg you, people of God, to quit worrying about who else is standing in line to be cleaned. We get so worked up about those who surround us…
- This guy is almost there, but you know, he’s soft on the Trinity… I’m not sure he can be trusted.
- Her? Oh, please, be real. You know she’s not even pro-life, don’t you? She is on my last nerve.
- This other person? That one is such a mess that they use “they” to refer to themselves. Come on, pal, pick a pronoun! How can I be in the same church with people like that?
As if those behaviors – or any of a million others – are cause to treat someone less than lovingly. Listen to me, church: Jesus looked Judas in the eyes and then knelt down and washed his feet, and I’m going to claim that we can’t worship together because you belong to a particular political party or have a different view on gender roles than I do?
Give me a break!
Here. Let me hold that for a second. Pay attention. Love one another. Period.
Here’s something that you might not have noticed in the reading for this evening: after Jesus washes their feet and invites them to participate fully in him, he does something that he does only one other time in the entire Gospel of John. He offers a beatitude.
I know, I know, if you’re a churchy person, you think of the Beatitudes as that list of eight affirmations found in Matthew 5. “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are the peacemakers… blessed are the meek…” You know this, right?
And if you’re a really churchy person, you’re thinking, “Yes, and when Luke tells that story, he uses four blessings and adds four woes.”
While Jesus uses the word makarios – meaning “blessed” or “happy” a number of times in those other accounts, he uses it exactly twice in the fourth Gospel: here, in verse 17, and after the resurrection, where he commends Thomas for his belief even though he doubts.
The way to makarios – to wholeness, to blessing, to completeness – is through love. And in this act of service, Jesus shows us what love looks like. In sitting by each of his friends, holding their feet in his hands and wiping them with a towel, Jesus shows us what love does.
And I know – I get it. It’s hard to imagine being a disciple two thousand years ago, following a Rabbi through ancient marketplaces, in dusty villages and cow paths, surrounded by hostile enemies and treacherous friends. We don’t know how we could do that, and this act of love looks, well, a little curious to us.
A month ago, it was hard for any of us to imagine being cooped up at home, watching church on a screen, staying away from work or school or even grandma’s house. If you’d have asked us on March 9 to give up all of that, we’d have said we didn’t know if we could do it or not.
Beloved, the call of the Gospel is a call to live with the imagination that no matter where you are, no matter who you are, no matter who you are with, and no matter what you or they have done – you can imagine that you can love your neighbor.
We can do that, because he has shown us how. Let us now, in the realities of this evening, use our imaginations and dream of what love looks like in this new reality. Thanks be to God for the One who shows us what love is and what love does. Amen.
 I am indebted to Frederick Buechner for helping me to grasp this. His treatment of this notion in The Faces of Jesus (Stearn/Harper and Row, 1974) pp. 126ff.