April 18, 2019 A+D
St. John 13:1-15; 34-35
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our Lord washed the disciples’ feet as an object lesson. This is explicit. He both asks them if they understand what He has done and says that what He has done is an example for them.
This is markedly different from what He says about the Sacrament of His Body and Blood as recorded by the Holy Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and St. Paul. He does not call the Sacrament an example. Ever. He does not ask them if they have understood what He has done. It is unlikely that any mother has ever given her hungry toddler a piece of bread and then asked if the toddler understood what she had done. The Sacrament of the Altar is not an object lesson. It is food. It is not a ceremony about the death of Jesus or a vivid reminder that we should feed the poor and love one another. Rather it is the wholesome food that all men need, given for the body and soul, medicine of immortality. It both bestows and joins us to the life of the risen Christ. For life is in the Blood.
The eating and drinking of Jesus’ risen Body and Blood is a proclamation of His death and is done in remembrance of Him. We do not proclaim that He is dead nor are we trying to keep His memory alive. Rather we are proclaiming the kind of death He died, that is, substitionary, for the forgiveness of sins, and we remember what He has left us to do: eat His Body and drink His Blood.
When the Small Catechism asks, “What does this mean?” it is not asking what the Sacrament of the Altar means, but rather what the words of Jesus which instituted the Sacrament mean. Those words mean that in the Sacrament Christ gives His true Body and Blood through bread and wine into the mouths of His children for the forgiveness of their sins.
Foot washing means something. The Sacrament doesn’t mean anything, but it is something. Christ gives it as His last will and testament. This Sacrament is the lifeblood of the Church, what we have been given to do, while He comes now in grace by Word and Sacrament, until He comes again in glory. By this gift, Christ fuels His church and enables her to continue the war even as He delivers the victory of that war and prepares God’s children for the transition to the Church Triumphant by the same gift.
The foot washing was a real service to apostles. It did something. It removed dirt and grime and it refreshed the apostles. But it was meant as more than simply as something useful to them and it could have been accomplished in other ways. He might have washed their hair or given them a glass of water. The ceremony was meant to teach something about the Kingdom and about the role of the apostles and also to show us something of our place and relationship both to one another and to Christ. The point wasn’t foot washing but love and service. In the Sacrament of the Altar, the point is not something that the Sacrament illustrates, but is actually the eating and drinking that bestows that which Christ promises. It is the way that Christ joins Himself to us flesh and blood humans with His flesh and blood and makes us one with Him.
Now the apostles owed Christ allegiance and perfect obedience, yet He was there to serve them. Though He served them, He was still over them. That is the point of the authority which He will bestow upon them after the resurrection. It is to be used for the good of the subordinates. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve. As He is, so are His apostles and ministers: servants and stewards. The Christ is not a conquering military genius who sends his boys into battle to die for his victories. Rather it is He who lays down His life as a ransom for His enemies.
That is no way to run a war, but that is how He does it. The foot washing is an illustration of that and so He asks if they understand.
This is closely related to His new command, that is, that we love one another. His fulfilling of the Law and laying down His life are more than substation. They are also an example, like foot washing. They are to be emulated, not in the exact details, but in principle. We aren’t called upon to die on the cross in order to forgive the sins of the world, but we are called upon to suffer for one another, to turn the other cheek, to explain things in the kindest way possible.
In the first few hundred years after the Resurrection, it was obvious to the pagans who the Christians were. They could tell that they loved one another even though they weren’t perfect.
It is a bit different in our society because our society isn’t pagan in the same way. Ours is an apostate society, that is, a society that was once Christian or at least had the trappings and outward forms of Christianity but fell away. It complains that we don’t act like Christians because it thinks that its own values are Christian. They say, for example, that we must not be Christians because we condemn homosexuality and they think that is hateful. So they say they can’t see our love, they only see hate.
In fact, even though they call it hate, they do actually know us by our love. They just don’t know what love is and they set up impossible ideals for us so that they can reject us. Some minister once had an affair and stole money from the offering plate? There you go. All ministers are bad and can’t be trusted. One Christian along the way was an alcoholic? See. They’re all rotten hypocrites. Having fallen away from the faith, our society is worse than the old pagans. They call love hate and hate love. They are the self-righteous hypocrites who claim to hate self-righteousness and hypocrisy above all else but engage it constantly.
What do they see in us, though? This: our concern for doctrine and morality and the life of the world. That is love but they think it is hate. So they do know us by our love even though our love is imperfect and thus it is for our love that they hate us and increasingly persecute us.
In the face of such growing hostility, a ceremony and object lesson isn’t enough. We need more. We need the food for the fight, strength for the day, forgiveness, and grace lest we faint. The Church has never more needed what Christ instituted and promises. I pray that our age, for all its flaws and weaknesses, would be the generation known in heaven for the highest and most appropriate Eucharistic piety and practice, that we would have the benefits that God so wants to give and which we so need.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.