John 13:1-17, 31-35
If we were to discover some never-before seen manuscripts from the ancient world, entitled something like, “Jesus – the Missing Years,” I wonder if we might see Jesus doing ordinary, everyday things in ordinary, everyday ways.
During those missing years, I wonder if Jesus enjoyed a mundane existence while he grew up. Did he do what was expected of him as a kid, did he blend in with the crowd at Nazareth Senior High as a teen?
Unless such a tome were found we never will know, but I doubt it.
After all, the gospel accounts we do have acquaint us with a Jesus who is unexpected; counter-cultural and even revolutionary. Throughout the gospels, we find a Jesus who repeatedly does the surprising thing; the shocking thing.
Instead of the ordinary, we have in our gospel accounts extraordinary stories about Jesus, like the time, as a 12 year old boy, he went missing, causing his parents to search high and low for him - and finally discover him in the temple, teaching his elders about the scriptures.
Then we have the other stories, the ones that took place after the missing years, stories that surprise us and confound us in so many ways. Stories like Jesus turning water into wine, cleansing lepers, giving sight to the blind, healing the lame, and raising Lazarus from the dead. This Jesus taught in parables and was transfigured on the top of a mountain.
It occurs to me that rarely, in any of the gospels, do we see Jesus doing what might be expected.
On one hand, you might think that if Jesus wanted to serve as an example for us, he might have, sometimes at least, behaved in ways that we could understand. If he wanted to model what discipleship looked like, he might have done it in ways that we could recognize and through such recognition, hang on to. On the other hand, Jesus certainly does get and keep our attention as he turns expectations upside down teaching what it means to live a life of discipleship, with him at the center of our being.
So, instead of the ordinary, sensible, comfortable things we might like him to do and demand from us, Jesus consistently does the challenging; the counter cultural – and in so doing reveals more to us about how the love of God changes our world than could ever be taught through the laying down of books of laws.
On the night he was handed over to die, Jesus shared what he knows will be his last meal with his disciples. In the middle of a meal, he gets up. He takes off his outer robe and he ties a towel around himself. Then he gets a basin of water and he goes from person to person around the table, washing the feet of his disciples. Then he takes that towel, the one he had tied around his waist – and he dries their feet for them.
This action is thoroughly shocking. Jesus is their rabbi. They have called him Master, Teacher, and Lord. He sits in the place of honor at this table.
And yet, he lays aside his divine dignity as he easily as he lays aside his robe. He takes on the role of a slave to wash their feet, just as later, he will slavishly bear our burdens to the cross. With the water in the basin he carries, he cleanses the dirt off the feet of his disciples just as the next day, he will cleanse us all from our sins, with his very own blood shed upon the cross.
We can hardly blame poor Peter for becoming practically apoplectic with such a shocking sight as the Lord kneeling at his feet like a servant, preparing to wash his feet.
With this act of servitude, and the words that follow, the disciples are reoriented to a new and different reality through the light of Jesus, the Word of God, now kneeling and pouring water over their feet. This light of Jesus reflects the deeply moving waters of rebirth; a rebirth that is brought about by Jesus himself.
Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world. John points to the final words that Jesus utters from the cross in his gospel – “it is finished.” The very next sentence defines what this night is all about. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” He loved them utterly, profoundly, deeply, unhesitatingly, devotedly.
Jesus demonstrates this love by taking on the role of the slave and performing this deeply humble, profound, intimate, uncompromising loving action. This night, my friends, is all about the incomprehensible love of God.
God knows more than anything else in heaven or on earth, what we need most is this pure, most extravagant love.
We, who arrive at this day with our brokenness a banner around our being, who frequently lose our way, who have suffered defeat, who know just how much grime has gathered in the creases and nailbeds of our misshapen, abused, calloused feet struggle to reveal the innermost parts of our being.
Like Peter, we struggle to accept this profound washing of Jesus. God knows just how hard it is for us to not only understand – but to accept love as God bestows it. God knows that the only way to break through the barrier of our stubborn resistance to God’s pursuit of our hearts is to completely empty himself in slavish service, service that takes our breath away.
And so, in startling servitude, Jesus demonstrates revolutionary love. The disciples will remember this startling act of love. And as Jesus is all too aware, it is only the beginning of what God in Jesus will endure for the name of love that will play itself out over the next three days. Jesus knows that very soon he will be given over to his passion – God’s action of supreme love. Jesus’ passion is, in fact, God’s compassion, poured out for the whole world.
The very name we give this night, Maundy, comes from the Latin, mandatum – to love, and comes from the command that Jesus himself gives before that departure.
In this final meeting of Jesus and his disciples before he is taken away to be crucified, Jesus gives them this final teaching – these final instructions – this final demonstration of his own humble, perfect love.
Knowing that it is nearly the end of his walk with them, Jesus gives the disciples this commandment that is passed down to us tonight: love one another.
It is framed by Jesus’ words but even more strongly through his action –love one another – like this. Serve one another; open your hearts broadly to both accept this generous love Christ is offering and to love others in return.
In this humble, profound act, Jesus embraces us all. In his love, we are made new. In his love, we serve each other and we serve our neighbor. In his love, we remember his words, his prayers, his acts of compassion, his selflessness and obedience to God the Father. In his love, our fears, our hesitance, our doubt, and our exhaustion are overcome.
For Jesus, to wash each of us clean from sin is more important than life itself. And soon, the disciples will confront the reality of that unbelievable, counter-cultural, revolutionary truth. Because it invites and commands us to act in ways that run counter to the prevailing norms.
God sent Jesus to be love for us, that invites us to love others in ways that do not entirely make sense. But the good news of this gospel is that the water that Jesus offers, whether poured on our head, over our feet, or into our being, is given freely of God for the sake of the world. It is meant to be shared, splashed, and poured out for others. It remains as a reminder that on the night he shared his last meal with his disciples what was of paramount importance to our Lord, was to issue this commandment to love as we have been loved by him.
It is not always an easy commandment to perfectly obey. But the cross ensures forgiveness when we fall short and calls us to try again, by forgiving, showing mercy, carrying out justice, healing, and serving one another in compassionate love. This is what Jesus calls us to on the night before he died. It is what we strive for every day, that we may live. Let it be so.