April 17, 2014 A+D
St. John 13:1-15, 34-35
In the Name of the Father and of the X Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” What comforting words to a scared, worried group.
On the surface, the Christian Church does not do much with foot-washing. We don’t number it among our sacraments; we don’t have a regular way of practicing or reenacting it as we do with Christmas Pageants or Palm Sunday processions. We don’t spend copious amounts of time in Bible Classes on foot-washing as we might do with other Biblical instruction on topics such as prayer, fasting, tithes, and offerings. I haven’t even heard very many Lutheran sermons on it when this passage is read annually on Maundy Thursday. (But maybe that is saying more about me as a pastor and preacher than about the topic itself). Honestly, when it comes to a sermon on Maundy Thursday, I think I’m safe in assuming that more time is spent on the Last Supper than on the Lord’s act of service in washing the Apostles’ feet on that same night in which he was betrayed. The OT and the Epistle both point to the Lord’s Supper, but the Gospel is about the command to love one another and Christ demonstrates this by washing feet. They obviously both have their place when understood correctly.
The Lord’s Supper is the Sacrament par excelance. It is the last will and testament of our Lord and is His true Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins. This was the night when He instituted it for the Christian Church for all of time. No amount of teaching and preaching will ever exhaust its import to us as Christians. But teaching and preaching on foot-washing, properly understood has a place too. It has a particular setting within the night when Jesus was betrayed. Foot-washing is as connected to Christ’s death and resurrection as the Lord’s Supper or Baptism. Christ’s greatest achievement and service to mankind was His sacrifice of atonement on the cross.
Here I look to Luther and Johann Gerhard for guidance. Jesus wanted to demonstrate true brotherly love to His disciples and exhort them to practice love among each other. This was one of the ways that He loved them to the end. As He says: “I have given you an example that you are to do what I have done for you.” This means that disciples of Jesus are to love one another and bear each other’s failings and shortcomings. You see, Jesus knew that He was about to leave them. He knew that pride and sin would still exist in the true Christian Church even after His death, resurrection, and ascension. He was teaching them how they were to cope when sin and human weakness inevitably comes. Love one another, serve one another, humble yourselves to one another especially in weakness.
This foot washing happened after supper. It was not the customary purification right that every Jew would have engaged in when coming in for supper. That washing was like telling your children to wash their hands before supper. That was already done. Jesus’ washing was different. From the outset it meant something other than washing dirty, stinky feet. We know this by Peter’s reaction and Jesus’ response “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” We know this by Jesus’ question after He resumed His place at the table. “Do you understand what I have done to you?” They did not. It would only be after His resurrection, when He would breathe on them in the upper room, when they would receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus was not washing off dust from the road. He was demonstrating Christian, brotherly love. This washing is connected to repentance and reconciliation.
Since we walk around on such filthy pathways in this world, it can’t be avoided that even the baptized at times “mess up their feet.” It can’t be avoided that we say or do things that offend and hurt our Christian brothers and sisters. Even in the times we don’t mean to hurt someone, it is possible and probable that we could give offence. Let alone the times when we vindictively say and do things to hurt our neighbor out of pride, weakness, malice, and jealousy. That means that there is the need to humble ourselves and serve our brother or sister in the midst of sin. Jesus said it would be this way. He has shown us how we are to act in such cases. Remember that Judas was sitting at that table during the washing. Jesus washed the feet of the man who was about to stab Him in the back. But even by this washing, Judas’ heart was not softened and he left their fellowship not long after.
The Christian Church is not a place for perfect people. It is a refuge for repentant, forgiven sinners. We have an obligation to one another to fulfill the Law of Love (Gal. 6:2). For love covers a multitude of sins (Prov. 10:12; 1 Pet. 4:8). We are called upon to swallow our pride and our place to be right in order to restore peace. Jesus’ foot-washing account is a show of humility, where He takes the lower position in order to serve His people. Although He is their Teacher and Lord, He stoops to serve.
When so-and-so talks about you behind your back, or walks past you when you really needed a listening ear, or doesn’t ask about your obvious pain, or doesn’t volunteer to clean the church or bring a pot of soup to the dinner, you may take offense. It may hurt you. Your pain may well cause you to talk about that person to someone else and make you feel justified in doing it. That’s the nature of dirty feet. Feelings get hurt and pride gets wounded. That’s how it was among the disciples and the first Christian congregations. The book of Acts records several of these episodes. (Disagreement about the daily bread distribution, Peter and Paul, Paul and John Mark, etc).
But in washing the feet of His disciples, Jesus shows His willingness to suffer, to serve on His way to shed His blood on the cross, to die for people who betray Him, abandon Him, and even deny Him. For the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from sin (1 John 1:7). If He does not wash you, you have no part in Him. Therefore, if Christ had not washed you with His blood, you would have been excluded from the kingdom of God on account of your sins. But He has washed you.
In washing His disciples’ feet, our Lord wanted to direct all of us to perform spiritual foot-washings, namely, to humble ourselves, repent of sin and guilt, and to speak the words of forgiveness and reconciliation. “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.” That is to say, you have already been washed entirely clean in Baptism, yet the unclean, sinful deeds of the flesh still continue to stick to you. They need to be confessed to one another and forgiven. This is daily contrition and repentance.
And notice that the foot-washing account comes before He sits back down at the table and institutes the Lord’s Supper. The Christian is to first be cleansed through Baptism, then to repent and be forgiven, and then to partake of the Lord’s body and blood.
How we act toward each other matters. How we deal with the shortcomings and sin of one another affects the whole body of believers. Jesus did not suffer and die for perfect people. He stooped to serve unclean, betraying, back-stabbing, denying, prideful, and ignorant men. He redeemed all these sins in the blood that was soon to come from His hands, feet, and side. Remember, having loved His own, He loved them to the end.
Everyone who kneels at this altar to eat His body and drink His blood is united to His suffering, death, and resurrection. Everyone who kneels here, at this altar, is joining into a body of imperfect yet forgiven sinners. And in the participation of this supper you come away with strength in your faith toward Christ, and with strength to love one another. We say it every week in our post-communion collect. It is after all, a communion, a participation in the Body of Christ. Foot-washing and the sacrament are tied together. Repentance and forgiveness, faith and love; they are two sides of the same coin. Faith in Christ and love toward our neighbor are involved in every celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It was like that since the night on which our Lord was betrayed. You are His, and He has promised to love you to the end.
In Jesus’ X Name. Amen.