And so we have gathered here in this sacred Cathedral this Maundy Thursday night in the year two thousand and nine. We join the greater community of millions of other Christians around the world … some are just beginning to learn of the love of God in Christ. Some have welcomed the presence of Jesus Christ for years in their joys and in their own deepest suffering…. Huddling in the hills of Afghanistan they are praying, in the refugee camps in Darfur they are praying, in the earthquake ravaged villages of Italy this night they are praying, and they are praying in the sacred chapels of Jerusalem and Gaza and in war-lord ridden Mexico. On this night together we, the body of Christ, will hear, watch, and experience Jesus demonstrating God’s all encompassing, unconditional love for humankind. And we will pray. On this holy night, the night we mark the last gathering of Christ and his disciples, we too gather around the table with Jesus and begin the long, slow, hard, listening and watching and praying that sets in motion the reconciliation of the world. Tonight we begin this journey together enveloped in the intimate love of God.
On the night before he was to die, we learn in John’s gospel that Jesus knows his hour had come. He knows it is time to depart from this world and go to his Father.
So Jesus gathers with his beloved disciples in what was probably a large dining space common in a Jerusalem home of the time. Imagine an open area with a beautiful mosaic on the floor and large pillows surrounding it for reclining while eating as was the custom… A sacred setting for an intimate, somber evening with friends.
All of a sudden, Jesus does something astonishing. He gets up from the table, takes off his outer robe, ties a towel around himself, pours water into a basin and begins to wash and dry the feet of his friends. Here is their Lord and master, their teacher, the great healer, the one who seemed to know all… He who just a few days before had had his feet anointed with expensive oil by Mary of Bethany… this Jesus of Nazareth who had raised Lazarus from the dead … is suddenly the servant. Jesus had been teaching the disciples all along about humility, that whoever wants to be first must be humble enough to be last. But the disciples just didn’t get it and so Jesus shows them as you would a little child, and honors them in this most humble act of honoring another …he tenderly washes their feet.
When he comes to the feet of Simon Peter, Peter refuses saying “Lord are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus says, “Peter you don’t know now what I’m doing, but in time you will understand.” And Peter says, “You will never wash my feet!” Peter probably spoke for most of the disciples in the room. But Jesus answers, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” And Peter, perhaps afraid of alienating himself from Jesus, gives in to this invitation from Jesus to be washed. After Jesus finishes, he puts his robe back on, and returns to the table and says, “Do you know what I have just done to you? I’ve given you this example of how you are to serve others as I have served you.” And then he gives them a new commandment, “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
And then comes the moment that we celebrate every time we come to this altar. It is at this dinner that Jesus institutes the blessed sacrament of Holy Eucharist. It is this night that Jesus says, “Take, eat, do this in remembrance of me. Drink this, all of you.”
It is this night that Jesus gives us an invitation to intimacy in three essential ways. He demonstrates how we are to serve others in the foot washing. He then commands us to do so in the words to love one another as he loves us. And finally, He invites us to communion in the Sacrament of Bread and Wine.
In the rare, timeless act of foot washing Jesus demonstrates both symbolically and literally how he commands us to treat one another. In this ritual we are actively pursued by God in Christ and God longs for us to respond. We are invited to surrender, be refreshed and healed bodily, emotionally, mentally and spiritually in this sacred, intimate act of love.
We will experience this ancient ritual this night. However you choose to enter in, the opportunity for transformation exists. You might choose to accept this invitation by physically coming forward and honor someone by washing their feet and then allow someone to wash yours. Or, you might choose to yield to God’s touch within yourself privately uniting with us in prayer. Or, perhaps, you will choose to observe. Regardless of how you enter in, I invite you to consider and hopefully to embrace just how deeply you are loved by God. … for you are loved with a love that passes understanding… a love greater than we can ever ask or imagine.
When Jesus demonstrates and gives us the new commandment of love, it is really a mandate to be our true selves. In the Greek, the word for new is kainen and it doesn’t just mean ‘new’. It also means ‘renewed’. It is about taking on an identity in union with Christ. We are to embrace, once again, that for which we were made: to love and be loved. We then renew our core identity in unity with all humanity… and come back to our roots… we come home.
We must ask ourselves anew: do I dare allow myself to be so intimate with God that I will be transformed? Can I allow this Suffering Servant Jesus to care for me, to wash me, cleanse me, prepare me, unveil me? Can I humbly receive that love and then give it to others? Do I dare to hope for… to believe in reconciliation in this hurting world? The answer is as close as the needs of your neighbor, your family member, the stranger.
In closing, I’d like to share a story with you about my father who taught me in a most unusual way about giving and receiving love. My father was not what you would call ‘touchy-feely’. He was not a man who would have embraced having his feet washed by someone else… especially a stranger… especially in church! The night before he died, some five years ago now, he was in a hospice, in and out of consciousness. At one point, he seemed a little restless, like he was trying to tell us something and he just couldn’t get it out. I noticed that he hadn’t been shaved in a few days and asked him if he would like a shave. Now I had never shaved my father, but I felt that I had to do something for him. He didn’t respond so I got a basin, filled it with hot water, took a washcloth and towel, his razor and cream and brought it to his bedside. I drenched the washcloth in the water, squeezed it out, and laid the steaming cloth gently across his face. He took in a deep breath, and then let it out with a big sigh, visibly relaxing. When I removed the cloth he had a little smile on his face that I will never forget. After I finished his shave, he squeezed my hand and mouthed, ‘thank you’. That he allowed me to serve him in this way, was a great gift of love to me from this private, proud man.
Albert Schweitzer wisely makes the point, “The only ones among you that will be truly happy are those who will have sought and found a way to serve.” May we all yield to the loving intimacy of Christ.