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Maundy Thursday, March 29, 2018 | 12:10 p.m.
Judith L. Watt
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
John 13:1–17, 31–35
More than twenty years ago, shortly after my father was diagnosed with cancer, he sat in my living room and, after some heavy silence, began to speak. He was a man of few words. He was not one to shower any of us with emotional language. But I knew that what he was about to say was important. The words came haltingly. What had been most important to him throughout all of his life, he said, had been his family—us. There were a few more words, which I have forgotten, but that was the gist of his statement. It might not sound like much, but in this case, coming from my father, at that particular moment in his life, it was big.
There remained about nine months left of his life, but at the time we didn’t know how long he had. There was much suffering to come, but we had no idea what that suffering would entail, and though we went through those last nine months with him, wondering why any of this was taking place—his suffering, our suffering, our grief, our lack of any kind of control—I remember little of that. What do I remember? His statement in my living room that day. I remember how he said it. I remember the sense of emotion that came with the words. I remember what was left unsaid. I remember the spirit in the room. I remember feeling loved.
This day, though, is not about my father. His death was a long time ago, and my grieving is well past. This day is about Jesus. I told you that personal story because it helped me get in touch with what was happening for Jesus and the disciples on that day. Jesus had become very clear that he was about to die. “His hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.” And then John’s Gospel continues, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
He loved them to the end; he knew he would die. And he took advantage of the moment to pass on to them something he wanted them to remember beyond the suffering, beyond the loss, beyond the bewilderment. What he was about to do he did out of love beyond measure. I want us to remember what he did on that day and why he did it, what he said and why he said it, and that those actions and those words came out of a deep, deep love for those disciples but also for each one of you and for me.
So he stood and got up from the table, and he took off his outer robe and then tied a towel around himself.
I would love to have seen the looks on the disciples’ faces at this point. No rabbi, no teacher, no master, no person in any kind of leadership role would ever do this, because taking off an outer robe and putting a towel around one’s self were the actions of a servant. Jesus was turning the disciples’ world upside down, topsy-turvy. After taking off the robe and wrapping himself with the towel, Jesus got ready to wash their feet. Their dirty, dirt-covered, scabby, rough, and ungroomed feet. Again, no rabbi would do this for his disciples. No master would do this for his servants. This was a class-bound society. The disciples could not fathom what was going on.
The message in that act was love one another. We know it. We’ve heard it. But there’s more. Love one another as I have loved you. In other words, take off our outer robes of pretense of position or whatever we think is owed to us or however too busy we think we are or whatever we believe makes us better than someone else. Instead wrap ourselves up with the towel of humility and service, compassion and connection, so that we can serve one another. It’s a topsy-turvy thing to do. And it’s hard, because we are all so surrounded with messages that tell us to clamor after more and protect ourselves, to win rather than to risk losing, to stay on top, to believe that nothing can be done. Even if we don’t act any of this out overtly, we’ve got those messages speaking to us all the time in our hearts. That’s the Judas piece of us.
Love one another as I have loved you. Throughout all of the suffering to come, I hope we’ll remember the action—that Jesus stooped to wash their feet—land his words—love one another as I have loved you—and the reason for all of it: that he loved them and us so much that he needed to leave us with the core of his life’s work and purpose.
Peter is so uncomfortable with all of it. Jesus’ actions mess with who Peter thinks Jesus should be, but Peter is also narcissistic like the rest of us. It is difficult for him to accept Jesus’ love and care and concern. None of us likes feeling vulnerable. It puts us in a one-down position. But all of our discomfort and self-consciousness is just another form of narcissism, as if it’s all about us. “Oh no,” Peter says to Jesus, “don’t wash my feet. I don’t need you to serve me.”
Jesus says, “If you don’t let me love you, serve you, help you, you will have no share with me.” I wonder how we keep Jesus at arm’s length. I wonder how we keep one another at arm’s length, too.
This moment today with Jesus and his disciples is filled with emotion: impending doom, an anxiety about the future, a knowledge that something big is going to happen, that the world will be turned upside down, and a sense that we won’t know what to do or won’t do enough. What Jesus wanted his disciples to hold onto after all of the trauma and suffering was past was how much he loved them, how very much he loved them, so much that he became their servant and kneeled before them. So much that he wanted them to be able to do the same for one another. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Amen.
• • •
We invite you to come forward in the next moments to have your feet washed or, if you prefer, to have your hands washed, perhaps as a symbol of your renewed desire to love others as Jesus has loved you. Or maybe as a symbol of your desire to be vulnerable and to let Jesus have something to do with you. Or simply as a step of faith, with no guarantees. You may choose instead to stay where you are and to join in the singing as others come forward or to pray. Afterwards you’ll be invited to partake in the Lord’s Supper. You need not be a member of this church in order to partake but simply desire to learn how to love Jesus and to know more about him. In these next few moments, we want you to know that what Jesus did was an act of love for you beyond all