Sermon preached by the Revd Hilary Fife
on Thursday 18th April 2019 (Maundy Thursday)
Exodus 12.1–4,11–14; Psalm 116.1,10–end; 1 Corinthians 11.23–26; John 13.1–17,31b–35
A good few years ago, on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, on day two I managed to spend most of the money I’d allotted for extra spending for the whole week. What occasioned such extravagance? The purchase of a beautiful olive wood carving depicting an event at the heart of this evening’s gospel. My small olive wood sculpture shows Jesus kneeling at Peter’s feet, the bowl beneath the feet Jesus cradles and the ewer of water to the side. It has always been an event that has had a profound impact upon me, as it clearly had upon the disciples. Imagine the scene – Jesus and his closest friends have gathered in a borrowed, but well-appointed, upper room, prepared for their Passover celebrations. While outside the storm clouds gather and those who wish Jesus dead progress their plans with chilling speed, aided by the offer of an insider betrayal, he and his disciples have time together, time that will become even more precious in retrospect – as they, with the exception of Jesus himself, seem to have no idea of what is to come, or at least no intention of allowing their repressed fears and anxieties to surface. One imagines them settling in, chatting, talking over the events of the day and probably not noticing Jesus removing his outer robe, collecting the basin and ewer, preparing to wash their feet. One imagines silence quickly fell as he knelt at the first pair of feet and started washing. Later he will ask them if they understood what he has done for them – he might ask us the same question.
At the most basic level this is not a custom we are familiar with. A guest at my home, arriving after a bit of a journey, might ask for the bathroom – which I’ll point out (“Upstairs, first door on the left”). I will have cleaned it ahead of guests arriving and put out a new hand towel – but that’ll be it. In Jesus’ culture good hospitality involved the provision of water, towels – and a servant – to wash the guests’ feet, tired and dirty after their journey. The washing of feet was a menial task so, if households didn’t have servants, bowl, water and towel would be offered so the guests could do it themselves. But a group who were known to have the odd argument about which of them was the greatest find their Lord and teacher on the floor at their feet, taking the form of a slave… it is a very intimate act. Feet are not usually the object of attention and for most of us perhaps not the most handsome or fragrant part of our body. Most people, myself included, who have taken part in the foot washing that forms part of our Maundy Thursday liturgy will probably have washed and scrubbed and powdered their feet to a state where they have no need of washing long before the service. So you can imagine the awkward silence, the shuffling of yet to be washed feet, the puzzled embarrassment in that upper room – and possibly also the humble grateful feeling of delight as feet were taken, held, massaged, refreshed… What was Jesus doing now? What would he do next? Of course what he does next will be even more challenging to understand and receive. Peter, as he usually did, takes on the role of spokesperson for the rest. He voices their shock, he – thinking he is demonstrating his understand of Jesus’ authority – questions what Jesus is doing “You Lord, washing my feet?”, but straight back comes a challenge: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me”. Peter must accept the tender, humble service of having his feet washed – and accept even more tomorrow when Jesus lays down not his outer garment to wash feet but his life for us.
To return to Jesus’ question – “Do you know what I have done for you?” – what he has done is shown them the merciful humility of God. What he has done is shown them what love looks like – and having done so he gives them a new commandment – “Love one another as I have loved you” – show that love in the way I show my love – God’s love – for you. What he has done is show them what grace is – and how challenging it is. John Wesley once wrote, “There is nothing more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace.” Hold on – isn’t that a bit strong? But, if we’re honest most of us would rather be doing the foot-washing rather than being on the receiving end – just like the disciples. Most of us would probably prefer to approach God at Easter with our hands full of the good things we’ve done, the quality of the contrition we’ve shown, the charity gift receipts we’ve amassed, the sins we have overcome this Lent to offer as we realise just what God in Jesus has done for us – but that’s not how God works. There is nothing God wants or needs from us, nothing we can do in any way to deserve or earn the divine love and service he offers us – all we can do is accept it on his terms as the undeserved, unearned free gifts of the one who is mighty, humble, merciful, the one who is love. Tonight, Jesus pours water to cleanse and refresh, he shares bread and wine and tells us this is a gift not just of food and drink but of himself. Later on in the garden he pours with sweat like blood as he fearfully accepts the cup he must drink to fully express God’s love and he says to us, as he said to the disciples – “Let me wash you, share my bread, drink my wine, love – as I have loved you”.