Every Sunday, we celebrate Christ’s life, death, and resurrection when we gather for worship and share in communion with God and one another. The Holy Spirit brings us together, whether here physically or apart through prayer, and we share, as one body, with God in God’s unending and abundant life. And yet—the centrality of Sunday for us comes from this time where we remember vividly Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. These Great Three Days—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday—are the high holy days of the Christian year because on these days we recall God’s mighty acts for us. Each day leads to another, and to appreciate one, we have to appreciate the other two. And so as we go into the sermon today, consider what it means that the story of our high holy days begins with a story rooted in a commandment to love one another.
How does that set the tone for the rest of these days, and for the coming celebration of Easter?
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
“Do you know what I have done to you?”
Those are interesting words that stuck out to me as I thought about this text for this evening. Do you know what I have done to you? On one hand, it’s clear what Jesus has just done to the disciples. He’s washed their feet. We saw the interaction between Peter and Jesus where Peter first doesn’t want to have anything to do with the footwashing, but when Jesus tells him that he can’t have any part of Jesus unless he lets him wash his feet, then Peter wants his whole body washed. Jesus quickly says that’s unnecessary. Or does he? Do you know what I have done to you? An interesting question, really. And one worth pondering tonight, the night we begin the journey with Jesus to the cross, the tomb, and to newness of life in the resurrection. Do you know what I have done to you?
This night is often, rightly so, celebrated as the night that Jesus instituted the sacrament of his body and blood—the sacrament of Holy Communion. Matthew, Mark, and Luke recount this story as Jesus sharing the Passover meal with his disciples. In those gospel accounts, Jesus changes the nature of the Passover from one of remembering deliverance in captivity under Pharaoh to one of celebrating deliverance from captivity to everything and anything that would take us away from full relationship with God—that is, sin. When we say that Jesus blood is poured out for the forgiveness of sins, we understand it too narrowly if we think of it as just pardoning us for doing something bad or failing to do something we should. Forgiveness in this sense is more than merely saying that God isn’t angry. Forgiveness in this sense is saying that God literally abolishes, voids, wipes out everything that stands in way of good relationship with him. Jesus body is broken and his blood poured out for us and our salvation—our restoration, our healing.
But John doesn’t recount the story this way. John’s account of the night of Jesus’ betrayal begins with his Last Supper—a meal, to be sure, but not the Passover meal. The reason for that is simple. When Jesus is sacrificed in John’s account, he is the Passover lamb whose blood is spread on the wood of the doorway between heaven and earth—the cross. Already in John 2 we see this foreshadowed when John the Baptist cries out upon seeing Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus, in John’s gospel story, is crucified on the same day that the lambs are sacrificed for the Passover. Jesus is the Lamb of God…and death will pass over us because his blood is spread over the cross for our sake.
So, in this meal, this Last Supper that Jesus shares with his disciples, Jesus does do something different than in the other accounts. He washes his disciples’ feet. This is a well-known story from the final moments of Jesus life. But what does it mean? Do you know what Jesus has done to his disciples?
To more fully understand what’s going on here, in John 13, we have to go back to John 10, where Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd. Here he says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” and then says, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” As if to make the point patently clear, Jesus says, again, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”
Here John’s gospel is simplistically complex and complexly simple. At face value, these words are easy enough. Jesus lays down his life, as a good shepherd will do for his sheep to protect them. Jesus isn’t doing this under compulsion, but willingly. But at a deeper level, we know that Jesus is making clear his role as the rightful heir of David, the beloved shepherd king of Israel whom God promised will rule over God’s chosen people forever. Jesus fulfills God’s promise to David. And what’s more, these words, “lay down” and “take up”—these words point to the way for Jesus’ final task, the task of deliverance from all the forces that defy God’s goodness, light, life, and love. The task of our salvation, the forgiveness of sins. Do you know what Jesus has done to the disciples?
In this Last Supper, Jesus sets aside his robe, and puts on a towel. Then he pours water into a basin and begins to wash the feet of the disciples, drying them with his towel. After he finishes washing their feet, he takes his robe, puts it back on, and goes back to his place at the table. Do you see what Jesus has done here? John, in telling this account, uses the same words in chapter 13 as in chapter 10 when Jesus lays down his life and puts aside his robe and when he takes up his life again and picks up his robe and puts it back on again. Jesus lays down his robe to do the work of a servant, of washing the dirty, smelly, gnarly feet of his disciples, and then puts it back on again—the same way that the Good Shepherd, lays down his life for the sheep that they might live.
The work of protecting the flock of God’s sheep, the chosen people, the work of the true king of Israel—that work is one of servanthood, even to the point of washing dirty, gnarly, feet. The work of Jesus is, as he said, to serve, not to be served. He washes the feet of his disciples because that’s who he is. He is the one sent into the world to save the world, to heal us, to cleanse us, to protect us, to forgive us of our sins, to right our relationship with God. The footwashing on the night of his betrayal, at a meal intimately shared with his disciples, whom he no longer calls servants, but friends—that footwashing shows us vividly what Jesus has done to us. He cleanses us for right, pure, honest relationship with God, even down to the dirty, smelly, gnarly parts of us that we’d rather no one have to deal with, the parts we’re most embarrassed or ashamed to bare to the rest of the world.
And so what are we to do with this? On this night, when Jesus stoops down before us and shows us what sacrificial love looks like, we are also given a new commandment—that we love one another as Jesus has loved us. Jesus charges us to be toward one another as he is toward us—to be each other’s servants. And by this, they—whoever “they” is, be it our fellow sisters and brothers in Christ or the whole world—they will know we are Jesus’ disciples when we love so completely that we don’t regard ourselves so highly that we can’t stoop down into the dirty, smelly, gnarly mess of life to serve others and creation. Jesus has cleansed us that we might cleanse others in his name. “As the Father has sent me,” Jesus will later say in John 20, after completing his work as the new Passover lamb for us, “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Just as God sent Jesus into the world as the means to healing, so now does Jesus send us to continue that work.
The prophet Isaiah proclaims, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” Jesus has made our feet beautiful. God himself washed them. And what’s more, Jesus preserves us from corruption of death as our new Passover lamb—his body led to the slaughter and blood spread over the cross for us, his life laid down for us and taken up again for our sake. And yet, God reigns victorious over all. God has taken up his robe of glory again.
“Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asks…
Tonight, and these high holy days, let us embrace and hold fast to what God has done to us in Christ Jesus and continues to do to the world through us, as we enter in the sacred mystery, the holy revelation of love’s unquenchable power to defeat anything and everything that defies God’s goodness. Nothing stands in the way of God’s love of us in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.