Thursday, April 17, 2014

Love and serve one another

Love and serve one another
Sermon by Robin Garr
Thursday, April 17, 2014 (Maundy Thursday)
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Louisville, Kentucky

“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’.”

It must have been frustrating to be one of the apostles.  As much as they loved Jesus - or at least 11 of them did - he rarely made things easy for them.  “Not all of you are clean”?  Come on! Give us a clue, Jesus?  Who is the dirty one?  

Even a bunch like the Twelve, who were entirely capable of arguing about which one of them would get to sit at the boss’ right hand in heaven, would slouch right back in their seats and shut up when Jesus got serious about something like this.

And it got worse.  In a few verses of John’s gospel that are skipped over in tonight’s reading, there’s a little interchange that appears in similar words in all four gospels: “Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking.” 

We heard it even more forcefully last Sunday, when our young people read Matthew’s version of the Last Supper: While they were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’”

Let’s think about this:  These are the disciples who have followed Jesus on a long, hard road, three exciting, sometimes frustrating, occasionally scary years of following and serving Jesus in Galilee, in Judea, in Jerusalem and on the long and dusty roads in between.  Watching as he preached, taught, healed the sick; argued with the Pharisees and made fun of the temple authorities; stilled the storm, walked on water, fed the crowds. Preached to thousands, sought quiet space to think and pray.  

They had been there and done that. They loved Jesus, and it’s likely that every one of them, like proud Peter, would have dropped to his knees and sworn that he would die for Jesus before he would deny him.

But Jesus, it seems, knew better. He knew that one of them would betray him, and as soon as he let this mysterious warning drop, every single one of them suddenly pulled up short, wondered if he might be the one.

Think about that!  This was Jesus’ inner circle, tested and true.  But all it took was a few words, “one of you will betray me,” and all their bluster and all their hope of sitting at Jesus’ right hand slipped away, probably leaving them ghost-white and shaken, full of doubt.  

After all, this had to be a scary time.  It was Passover in Jerusalem, just as it is Passover here and now.  Passover, as we heard in tonight’s first reading, is a joyous time in Jewish tradition; a day of remembrance, a festival to the Lord, to be observed for all time in memory of the people’s escape from Egypt and journey to the promised land.  

But that very heritage, the people’s story of revolt and freedom and drowning an oppressive empire’s army in the Red Sea’s waters, meant that Passover made Jerusalem’s Roman rulers nervous. Pilate and his troops had marched up to Jerusalem, arriving at the same time as Jesus entered another gate in noisy procession, and they were ready for trouble.  

And when the Romans weren’t happy, the Temple authorities, knowing which side their matzoh was buttered on, weren’t happy, either.  If you were a band of trouble-makers down from Galilee for the festival, following a noisy rabbi who had been making trouble for months, you were at risk, and you knew it.

So even on an evening when the group had gathered for something like a celebration - if not a Passover seder as the other gospels indicate, it was at least, according to John’s version, the eve of Passover - it didn’t take much to get them worried and nervous.  

And don’t forget: In John’s story, this all happened while Jesus had stripped off his robe and was crawling around on the floor washing their feet. This gesture was perhaps even more radical in those days than it seems now. People thought of their feet as the dirtiest part of their bodies and. like Peter, weren’t at all comfortable with the idea of having Jesus doing that.

But Jesus, as he so often does, was trying to teach them an important lesson. This lesson didn’t just have to do with washing feet, or even with betraying him, but with loving each other, and showing that love through humble service.

“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.”  So there is that Golden Rule again, where we least expect it.  

And Jesus goes on:  “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.” Can we hear Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 echoing here? “Just as you did it to one of the least of these ... you did it to me.”

Wash one another’s feet. Love one another, just as I have loved you.  These commands of Jesus were so important to John the evangelist that he builds his story of the Last Supper around them.  Did you notice that John, alone among the gospels, doesn’t even mention Jesus’ institution of sharing bread and drinking wine in memory of Jesus’ body and blood?  This is surely why today’s readings give us “This is my body ... this is my blood ... do this in remembrance of me” in the reading from First Corinthians instead.

But Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet reflects the very spirit of the Eucharist, the theologian Elizabeth Stoker wrote in a recent post on the Political Theology blog.[1]  Jesus uses his service to model and exhort,  saying, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

John, more than anything, wants us to hear Jesus talk about service, and about love.  He knows, as jesus knew, that no matter how much we think we love, deep inside we worry. Like the apostles, we all know we are human, frail and weak. Yet Jesus, taking up the cross for our sake, loves us all the same.

As we live through this Holy Week and into Easter with its promise of resurrection, let’s think about what we can take away from John’s Last Supper:

* How can we love one another? What might that look like in our daily lives?  

* What does it mean to wash one another’s feet? How can we serve one another and our neighbors, and through that service serve God?

* And finally, what would we think if Jesus told us that one of us would betray him?  Would we ask, “Is it I, Lord?”  What answer would you expect to hear?



[1] Elizabeth Stoker, “All Together Now—The Politics of Maundy Thursday,” Political Theology blog,