The Taser's Edge


Death by Footwashing: A Sermon

This morning, as you know if you read posts from earlier this week, it was my turn to preach at Anglican Missional Pastor training, a program for ministry development within the Anglican Mission in America.  The manuscript of the sermon I preached is as follows.  Even if you don’t go around reading random online sermons, my mom does, so there.  And Holly’s mom.  And a few other people.  For those who are disinterested, I dangle this tidbit: in the sermon I talk about my recent encounter with some Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Yesterday morning, some Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door.  I assumed that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses from the beginning because they were dressed nicely and because they had publications, and then they affirmed that they were indeed Witnesses.  They were kind.  They weren’t pushy.  They didn’t come in even when I offered (part of that being because our greyhound, Prudence, also came to the door).  So I flattered myself by thinking I was hospitable and stepped out onto the porch to talk with them.

Then, standing there in my socks (because in my exceeding hospitality, I didn’t even think about my own comfort because I was so caught up in the divinely ordained opportunity to speak the truth in love to some wandering sheep) for some reason, the tact I decided to take was the aggressive and pushy one.  The “Oh, you’re a Jehovah’s Witness?  Well, I’m a Christian” approach.  The “Let me explain Hebrew vowel points and the flaws of 19th century German higher criticism and Biblical scholarship because I’m educated and you’re not” approach.  Any time I’m marveling at your smartness, I am almost necessarily not where Jesus wants me to be.  Two kind women left my porch, having heard from me that I was smarter than them.  The only love demonstrated in our brief conversation had been theirs for me.

This is my first Lent.  That is, my first observed Lent in my first observed church year.  This is our only AMP meeting during Lent, and so this sermon basically had to be about Lent, right?  Well it didn’t have to be, but I think that church planters need to take Lent more seriously than a lot of people, and that is because of the power that has been invested in you.  Yes, there is oversight in our particular system, but even so there is so much room for the abuse of power in the founding of a church that it’s mindblowing.  I would argue that it is only by the grace of God that any healthy churches have ever been successfully founded, so great is the possibility for leaders to abuse power in that setting.  This is the reason that a time of Lent, not of morbid, obsessive self-reflection, but of communal reflection and conversation (in a setting such as this, perhaps), and of allowing ourselves to have our hearts, minds, and wills examined by the Holy Spirit, is entirely necessary for us to be participants in the work of proclaiming and establishing the Kingdom of God which Christ continues to do.

From the other Gospels, we know that the night which we are reading about in John is the night on which Christ instituted the Last Supper.  John, however, doesn’t tell the story of that institution.  He is interested in telling us a different part of that same story, namely how Christ stood up in the middle of a meal, stripped himself down, got on his knees, and washed the feet of his disciples.  This morning I want to look at how John’s telling of what happened that night illustrates Christ’s preparation of his followers, who are to be the future leaders of his Church.  In John, Christ washes the disciples’ feet for a number of reasons.  I want to point out three of them, and not one is pretty or comfortable, and every one of them also applies to us.  First, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, serving them on his knees even as he sees clearly that they will be unfaithful to him.  Second, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet to prepare them for their death.  And third, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet in order to sanctify them, so that they would have a share in him and in his work.

The language which John uses is beyond fascinating.  He tells us, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel.  Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded.” That is, Jesus knows that the Father has given him all things (and when Father gives all things it really is all things), and therefore, because he has been given all things, Jesus strips down like a slave and gets to work washing feet in the middle of the meal.  Philippians tells us about Jesus taking the form of a slave, but here we see it, and the disciples saw it.

For what reason does Jesus strip himself?  In order to cleanse.  In order to cleanse whom?  All his disciples-even Judas?  Yes.  That is behind my point in saying that Jesus cleanses our feet in the same moment that he knows our unfaithfulness.  It is extremely odd for Jesus to be the one who washes feet at this meal, but what is also strange and often missed, is that everyone is eating, having a good time, and Jesus begins washing feet in the midst of the meal.  It’s difficult to communicate the social awkwardness of this move.  For our day, consider that you have arrived to eat dinner at a friend’s home.  And instead of taking your coats when you arrive at the house, the host waits until the middle of the meal to ask for your coat.  Your fork is headed for the plate, or your hand is raising the glass of wine to your lips, and your host decides it’s a good time to start tugging your coat off for you.  The disciples are reclined, eating, drinking, maybe not noticing what Jesus is up to until they feel him scrubbing their feet.  What?  What the heck are you doing, Jesus?

This is the point in the story at which, for many of us, our Sunday School upbringing gets in the way.  “Oh, there’s stupid Peter,” we say, “shooting his mouth off again, misunderstanding Jesus.  He just never seemed to get it.  When will he learn to see the obvious fact that Jesus is talking about the theology of the cross and all Peter can think about is the theology of glory?  Obviously, he should know by now.”

No!  It’s we who don’t get it!  Peter might not really understand all of who Jesus is, that Jesus is not only Messiah but is himself God, that the Father has truly given him all things that are, but Peter does know enough to call Jesus ‘Lord.’  And Peter knows enough about people whom you call ‘Lord’ to know that lords (leaders!) don’t wash feet; they have their feet washed.  Peter’s reaction is the reaction which we should have.  When we read Peter’s response, this is what we should be hearing him saying to Jesus: “You are my master and lord, and I would be unspeakably ashamed to have my feet washed by you, when I know that you are worthy of all the honor and praise I have to give.”

Peter knows his unworthiness before Christ in a way that we don’t recognize in our own lives.  Christ has called him friend to his face, and yet Peter knows that one thing friendship with Christ doesn’t mean is that you stop seeing Jesus as Lord.  Yes, Jesus is approachable friend, but he is also God.  In fact, I thank God for Lent because it gives me a time in which to rediscover my unworthiness before God.  Peter didn’t need to discover his unworthiness, didn’t need to receive ashes and be told that he was dust.  In the presence of Jesus, he knew his unworthiness.  We wouldn’t need Lent if we were as aware of our unworthiness before Christ as Peter was.

By washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus says so much that we need to hear: “The Father has given me all things and all power, and therefore I will love you to the end.  The Father has given me all power and all authority and all things in all universes, and therefore I strip down and I wash your feet.  You, Judas, will betray me.  I wash your feet, and I feed you, though I have tears in my eyes as I do it, so great is my love for you.  [Symbolic or not, this is strength for Judas’ journey of betrayal!]  You Peter, will deny me three times.  Let me make sure your feet are clean before you do it.  You, Thomas, will not believe that I am risen until you put your hand in my side.  Let me wash your feet.  You, my disciples, who know me best of anyone on this earth, whom I have called friends, I wash your feet so that they will be clean when I am struck down and you scatter.  I have called you friends, and I want you to have clean feet when you find out as I already know that you have totally misunderstood all that I have taught you in our years together.”  Truly Jesus washes the disciples’ feet (and our feet) even as he knows our unfaithfulness.

The second point is this: Jesus washes the disciples’ feet in order to prepare them for death.  The verb used here in John 13 to describe Jesus laying aside his garments is the same verb Jesus uses in Jn 10:11 to describe his laying down his life for his sheep.  He lays down to his robes to serve us in the same way (and for the same reason) that he lays down his life to save us.  That is, the response of Jesus to being given all things that are, by the Father, is to strip himself of his glory, of his honor, and, here symbolically but very soon literally, of his life.  John gives us another reason to believe that Jesus is preparing his disciples for death by washing their feet.  In John 12, Mary, sister of Lazarus, breaks a bottle of expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet and then wipes his feet with her hair.  When Judas Iscariot gets angry about it, Jesus tells him that the perfume was for his burial.  And the verb for Mary ‘wiping’ Jesus’ feet and the verb for Jesus ‘wiping’ the disciples’ feet, is the same.  By washing and wiping the disciples’ feet, Jesus is preparing the disciples’ for death, although they are still alive, just as he has been prepared for death, even while he is still alive.  And although before this sermon we might not have seen the disciples’ (and our) preparation for death in these verses, we have certainly seen in other parts of the Gospels that in the pursuit of Christ we must lose our lives, that he calls us to pick up our crosses and follow him.

To the third point: Jesus washes our feet in order to sanctify us, so that we can receive a share in him and in his work.  He says as much to Peter: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  We must recognize that any sharing in Christ is by his humbling himself to serve us first.  Moreover, for us in this millennium of the Church, who have not yet seen Christ face to face, we would have not have any share in Christ if his servants had not also stripped themselves of their dignity and even of their lives in order to stoop to serve us.  We pastors are perhaps the worst of all people at receiving.  We help people; we don’t receive.  No.  We must receive, if we are to have any part in Christ.  And we must stoop, if we are to be of any use to God and his children now.

Very practically, and especially for us as Anglicans, when John tells us of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, it casts a totally different light on our understanding of the Eucharist.  For those of you who are already priests, I wonder how much you think about it each time that you offer the body and blood of Christ to your congregations.  Do you offer Christ from a position of authority or from a place of humility?  (Maybe the two aren’t mutually exclusive.)  The image I get from John, with footwashing clearly placed in the middle of the meal-“during supper”, is that, as unhygienic as it sounds, footwashing is to have a central place in the midst of our celebration of the Eucharist.  That is, hearts which wish to break bread and pour wine but which do not wish to wash feet have no business serving at the Table of the Lord.  The two acts of washing feet and of serving are tied together intimately and inseparably as the acts of the servants we are.  Dirtying our hands with the feet of those whom we serve is what sanctifies our hands.  Without that sanctification in the grime of other people’s lives, we have no share in Christ, no share in sitting at his table, and certainly no share in serving at his table.  Those who serve at Christ’s table should expect to be washing feet even in the middle of the meal.

Jesus washes the disciples’ feet even as he fully knows that all disciples betray him to their various extents.  And how often do we refuse to pour our lives generously and without measure into people, not because we think they might betray us to death, not because we think they will deny attending our churches, not because we fear their not truly knowing us after being in years of relationship and friendship with us, but because we have differences in personality and differences of opinion?

Jesus washes the disciples’ feet to prepare them to follow him to death.  How often does any footwashing we do really have to do with loving people, and how often with getting them to serve us and our plans for the success of our churches and ministries?  How often are we honest with those whom we lead that following Christ is the way of our death?  How often are we honest with ourselves about our ambitions and desires for certain kinds of success, and how hard do we fight that death Christ calls us to follow him into?

Jesus washes the disciples’ feet to sanctify them for ministry.  How often do we realize that we have to have our hands dirtied in order to be sanctified to serve?  What might getting our hands dirty look like?  And how might serving at the table with dirty hands transform us and transform our people?  How might we be transformed to love and to serve the lost when we see ourselves not as masters sent to teach them by lording it over them “as the Gentiles do,” but as servants, people given into their lives to be a blessing, to serve all God’s children in love for the sake of Christ?

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