March 29, 2018 A+D (reworked from 2014)
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 beleaguered, grieving, scared group. And I don’t mean the disciples that night Jesus was betrayed. I mean you, sitting here, now. What comforting words to you who mourn the loss of loved ones, the illness, disease, or depression of family members, the divorce or estrangement of families; you who fear the loss of jobs, income, and medical insurance. Yes, you are buffeted by sin and death all around you. But tonight, you hear again how our Lord loves you who are in the world and still loves you to the end.
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 large 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 vocation. When it comes to a Lutheran sermon on Maundy Thursday, more time is normally spent on the Last Supper than on the Lord’s act of service in washing the Apostles’ feet. There’s good reason for that, of course. 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 the importance of Christ’s bodily presence in the Sacrament.
But preaching on foot-washing, properly understood, has a place too in comforting Christians, and the Church points us there tonight with John 13. Jesus performed this sign right after His last meal with His disciples, just hours before being betrayed to death. Foot-washing is connected to Christ’s death and resurrection.
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 His own to the end. As He says: “I have given you an example that you are to do what I have done for you.” This does not mean merely washing your brother’s feet. This means that the 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 buffet the true Christian Church after His death, resurrection, and ascension. He was teaching them how they were to cope when (not if, but when) sin and human weakness inevitably come. 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 before sitting down for the Passover. That washing was like telling your children to wash their hands before eating. That was already done. Jesus’ washing was different. From the outset it meant something other than washing dirty 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.” After “what?” After His resurrection. We know also by Jesus’ question after He resumed His place at the table that they did not understand. “Do you understand what I have done to you?” 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 their bodies. He was demonstrating Christian, brotherly love, by taking care of their souls.
Since walking around in this sinful world will no doubt continue to “dirty” our 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 set out to hurt someone, it is possible and probable that we will give offence. This doesn’t even take into account the times when we vindictively say and do things to hurt our neighbor out of our own weakness, malice, pride, 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 Jesus even washed Judas’ feet that night just hours before he would betray Him with a kiss. But even by this washing, Judas’ heart was not softened and he abandoned their fellowship not long after, rejecting Jesus’ invitation for repentance.
The Christian Church is not a place for perfect people. It is a refuge for repentant 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 someone talks about you behind your back, or talks down to you, or walks past you when you really needed a listening ear, or doesn’t ask about your obvious pain, or speaks to you in an unkind way, you could take offense. It hurts when this happens. Your pain may well cause you to talk about that person behind their back and feel justified in doing it. That’s the nature of dirty feet. Feelings get hurt and pride becomes 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). St. Paul mentions several more in his Epistles. Christians are not perfect. They sometimes hurt one another.
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, forsake Him, and 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. His blood does cover you.
In washing His disciples’ feet, our Lord wanted to leave an example for how you are to act, to direct all of you to perform spiritual foot-washings, namely, to humble yourselves, repent of sin and guilt, and to speak the words of forgiveness and reconciliation to one another. “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 the large part of 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, prideful, and fearful 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 pray for this 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. Your grieving and fear will have an end, but He has promised that His love for you will be without end.
In Jesus’ X Name. Amen.
 Here I lean on Luther and Johann Gerhard for guidance on how to handle this sign.