To prepare for theological study in graduate school, I had to study German in college. I wished I could have studied it in a semester abroad program in my senior year, but I studied it only enough to attain a passing reading knowledge of it. At any rate, I at least learned enough to recall that the German word for worship is literally “service of God.” That makes sense, right? By serving God, we worship God. But then I learned that the great sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther, for whom the Lutheran churches are named, thought otherwise. He claimed that it is not the service that we perform for God, but rather the service that God performs for us. A God who serves people? Does this even make sense? Does not this reverse the relationship between God and people, creator and creature? But the gospel lesson designated for Maundy Thursday tells us that at the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus ties a towel around his waist, pours some water in a basin, and begins to wash his disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel tied around him.
On one level, it a very simple act. It may not be one to which we relate very well today, since we don’t do it in public. But in the desert villages of Jesus’ day, washing feet was necessary. The dust and the mud and the dirt had to be removed before one could enter into a house. While a necessary task, it was also a menial one, which was assigned to slaves or servants of low status.
No doubt this helps us understand Peter’s reaction. “You will never wash my feet!” In Peter’s mind it’s offensive for his honored teacher and Lord to perform this servile act. Peter is thinking that, if anything, he should be washing his Lord’s feet. It could be a gesture of devotion performed by a servant on his master, or, in this case, a disciple on his Lord. But never the other way around! It is Peter who is the disciple here, and it is Jesus who is breaking the rules.
But Jesus’ answer is firm: “unless I wash you, you have no part in me.” Author Mark Villaino interprets this to mean: “unless you accept me in this role, you have no part in what I came to bring.”
Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus’ actions are meant to be seen as signs. That is to say, as signs they point beyond themselves to a deeper meaning. The action of washing is likewise a sign, pointing to the deeper meaning of Jesus’ life and death. It contains the meaning of his saving actions, his self-emptying. He is inviting Peter and the rest of his disciples into the meaning of the laying down of his life, in which our salvation consists.
So, yes, Jesus is reversing roles here, not just of Lord and disciple, but of God and humanity. For the Gospel of John, the Word made flesh, the Lord of the universe, in the words of Villaino, “gets on his knees for us, humbles himself for us, and serves us.”
That’s the shocking reality of God’s love for us in our need. He loves us so much that he is not ashamed to assume the role of the lowest household servant and perform the most menial task in the household. By abasing himself, he lifts us up. By coming down to where we are, he brings us up to be where he is. This is unfathomable love. We cannot grasp it on our own. That is why the author of the Letter to the Ephesians feels compelled to pray for the believers in the church at Ephesus in these words:
And I pray that you, being rootedand established in love, may have power, together with all God’s people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (3:17-18).
When we are loved, we can in turn love. To be a Christian is not to try harder to be a good person. It is to allow God to love us, accepting Jesus Christ in his role as servant to us. It is to receive first and then to give. For one cannot give what one has not first received.
Here we come to the lesson that Jesus draws for his disciples from his actions. Villaino defines a disciple as one who accepts Jesus in his role, and, in turn, takes on that role in his or her own life for others. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” By loving and extending ourselves for others, we follow the example that Jesus set for us. We participate in Jesus’ own life and service.
Over time, this produces in us an inner transformation. We become less concerned about controlling and manipulating others, less consumed with satisfying our own wants, less inclined to think first of what’s in it for us. We become so full of life that it is a joy to extend oneself to another, to empty oneself on behalf of another.
Villaino recounts occasions of self-emptying service that remained with him many years after they happened. He tells of a friend, who, while traveling alone in Europe, found himself in a Greek city, hopelessly lost at a bus station. He didn’t know the language, and as much as he tried to make himself understood, no one could help him. Then, one man, who was waiting for his own bus, noticed his distress, and decided to go and sit next to him. He looked at his map, accompanied him to another bus station, and then waited with this stranger till the bus he needed came. He did this for him even though it meant that he missed his own bus.
On another occasion, a college student was planning a ski trip with a group of her friends. The weekend for which they scheduled the trip finally arrived, but the night before, she came down with the flu and had to cancel. Another member of the group, one who also had been very eagerly looking forward to the trip, decided that she would cancel too, so that she could take care of her sick friend, make her soup, and go to the pharmacy for her in case she needed it.
Perhaps these don’t seem to us to be heroic acts of self-sacrifice. But it is significant that the stories stuck with Villaino several years after he had heard of them. Imagine how those who were on the receiving end of those acts of self-emptying service felt. We can imagine that they made a lasting impression.
Jesus knows that people are affected by what they see and hear. That is why he tells his disciples that by showing this kind of love, the world will know that they are indeed his disciples.
The gesture by which Jesus demonstrates his love for his disciples occurs during a final meal he shares with them before his betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion. Our Gospel lesson does not recount it. For this, we have to turn to our Old Testament lesson.
The meal is associated with Passover. The purpose of the annual Passover rite is to celebrate God’s gracious acts that delivered his people Israel from their Egyptian oppressors and make them his own people by entering into covenant with them. The meal includes the unleavened bread and bitter herbs that signifies a meal eaten in haste as Israel prepared to flee the land of slavery. Lamb is eaten to remember the blood of the lambs smeared upon the doorposts as a sign to the angel of death to pass over the firstborn in that home.
Jesus takes the bread, and says: “do this memory of me.” In effect, he is telling his Jewish followers to celebrate Passover in memory of him, not just their liberation from slavery in Egypt. He later takes a cup of wine—the cup of blessing –drunk after the meal, and makes it a sign of the covenant. Matthew and Mark’s version refers it to the blood of the covenant. In Luke and Paul’s account, it is called the new covenant in his blood.
The term covenant refers to a relationship. It signifies an inviolable bond between two parties. God enters into covenant with his people Israel. Jesus Christ extends this covenant to include us, seals it with his own blood, with his sacrificial death on the cross, on which he shed his own blood.
Never will this covenant be broken. God can no more deny this covenant with his people than can he deny his own Son. Together with him and in him, we are the recipients of all the covenant blessings that God gives.
In this light, it makes sense that at a very early stage, the church referred to this meal that Jesus invites his disciples to repeat in memory of him the agape meal. Agape, as many of you no doubt know, is a Greek word that means love. In it we recount the self-emptying love of Jesus, to which he gave ultimate expression on the cross. It is there where we contemplate the unfathomable love of God. Amen.