Rev. Teri Peterson
16 March 2014, NL4-28, Lent 2 (At the Threshold)
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. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then 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. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus 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.’ For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’
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? 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. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
When I get home, the first thing I do is hang the keys on the hook by the front door, and take off my shoes in the entryway. When someone arrives at my home, I invite them to do the same, then offer them something to drink while I take their coat. I suspect many of us have similar rituals for entering the house.
In Jesus’ day, it would be common to be welcomed by a slave, wearing simple clothes and a towel, bearing a bowl and a pitcher to wash the dust of the day from the their feet. It was only the slaves or servants who did this job—if the homeowner didn’t have any, anyone who entered the house would wash their own feet.
This custom was of course partly because feet got very dirty in those days—they were the only mode of transportation, roads were dusty and traveled by animals as well as people. It was also partly about making a guest comfortable and showing them respect, much like we would offer a drink and a place to hang their coat.
For Jesus to kneel at the feet of the disciples, wearing a slave’s towel, doing the work of a slave, was unthinkable. He even says to Peter, “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand”—and then proceeds to do it anyway, even as the disciples must have sat there in open-mouthed shock. It was not possible for them to understand what was happening. Because they knew how the world works—feet are washed on entering the house, by a slave. To have the Messiah washing their feet in the middle of dinner had no place in their mental landscape, it was simply impossible.
And Jesus did it anyway, pouring water over tired feet, gently patting them dry, looking into the bewildered eyes of his friends, followers, students, brothers. In that moment, the water was about more than just entering a house—it was about entering a whole new life. The intimacy of the moment was uncomfortable, I would imagine. The disciples cannot comprehend what is happening, but they feel the water and the towel and the look in Jesus’ eye. Something brand new is happening—they are not entering one person’s home, they are entering the kingdom of God.
And Jesus says: you do not know what I am doing…do you? I have done this so you know how to care for each other—to love each other the way I have loved you. When you do that, you will find blessing in it.
What if that’s true?
What if it’s true that we don’t have to understand in order to love? Sometimes I wonder if Peter nearly missed out because he couldn’t put the intellectual pieces together…and I wonder how often we miss out because we insist on figuring everything out before we follow Christ’s call.
What if it’s true that we are called not only to reach out, but to reach across and be vulnerable with each other? So often touch is reserved for spouses or paid professionals, prolonged eye contact feels strange, and we hide our true selves because we are afraid of being seen differently by our friends. But Jesus says that people will know we are his followers by just one thing: the way we love one another. It seems, though, that the church is mostly known for its fighting, for what we are against, for our gossip and backstabbing, our arrogance and harsh words, our veneer of politeness hiding conflict, anxiety, and hurt. What if we loved each other, our real and whole selves, right here in this room, so much that people outside this room could feel it and see it?
What if it’s true that we will experience blessing when we do the things Jesus did? He put himself in the lowest place, broke every social convention, and said: servants are not greater than their master. What does that make us, we who claim that Christ is the head of the Body? And what kind of blessing might we experience in taking these words seriously—in breaking social convention, eating with outcasts and feeding the hungry and touching the sick and washing even Judas’ feet …in loving each other the way Christ loves us? What blessing might come about if we treated each other as if each person could be Jesus?
John tells us that Jesus loved his disciples “to the end.” The word there is telos and it means complete, full, finished. Jesus loved them fully, completely. They hardly ever knew what was going on, they will abandon him and pretend they do not know him, and one will betray him. Yet come what may, he loves them fully, completely, to the end not just of his life, but the end of time. And then he gives just one commandment: to love each other as he has loved us. And we will be blessed if we do these things.
At every baptism we proclaim that God’s love covers us before we can understand or respond, and that God calls us into new life even from that moment. We talk about baptism as entrance to the Christian community, and many churches have the font right at the entry to the sanctuary to symbolize that we pass through those waters and become the Body of Christ. At every baptism we are reminded of the promises we have made, to live in faith together, to share our lives, to nurture one another, to build up the body. To love fully and completely, to the end. The water in the font is the same as the water in the pitcher and bowl, and through it we are invited to enter the kingdom, to use those clean feet and blessed hands to love, and care, and serve.
This morning we have the opportunity to experience, up close and personal, the care of Christ through the hands of a neighbor. It might feel uncomfortable and vulnerable—and that’s exactly when love can sneak through our shells. You may want to come to the front and feel the water of this new kingdom life on your feet, allowing someone to care for you, and knowing the touch of Jesus himself. You may want to come to the back and remember your baptism and feel the anointing of the Spirit on your hands. You may want to stay seated and let the hymns we’ll sing together be your prayer. However you choose to encounter the living God in this time and space, remember that you are loved, and your call is to love, until all the world has entered the kingdom of capital-L Love.
May it be so. Amen.