Text: John 13:1-17
This sermon was preached in conjunction with the weekly worship of the staff of the United Methodist Church’s board of pensions in Evanston, IL.
Grace and peace to you, my brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s good to be with you this morning, and I’m genuinely appreciative to our friend David Foster for extended this invitation to me. Although I’m a Lutheran pastor, serving a congregation in Logan Square, I’m also a graduate of a fine Methodist seminary – Candler School of Theology at Emory University. I have a deep love for you Wesleyans, and worshipping with you feels kind of like a junior high sleep over at your best friend’s house: it’s not your home, but you feel almost as comfortable.
As a drop in to your weekly worship I wasn’t entirely sure what to do, so I opted for the service of morning prayer out of the United Methodist hymnal and used a daily lectionary from the ELCA’s hymnal to select this morning’s passage from the gospel of John. It’s curious to read this passage from the thirteenth chapter of John away from its usual Maundy Thursday context. Every other time I’ve preached this passage it’s been in preparation for a liturgical foot washing, a re-enactment of Jesus’ act of service on the eve of his death. I’m always juggling the dual tasks of interpreting the meaning of this sign act while reassuring a room full of people anxiously awaiting the unveiling of their funky feet and twisted toe nails.
So, let me assure you – there is no covert foot washing on this morning’s agenda. You can rest a little easier in your chairs, knowing that I won’t be asking you to uncover your feet this morning.
The readings in the daily lectionary we use are organized around the Sunday morning gospel texts, beginning the Thursday before and concluding each Wednesday. So this passage from John 13 is the final reading in a series that relate to the passage from the tenth chapter of Mark preached this past Sunday wherever the revised common lectionary is used. Those of you in church last weekend recall that the gospel text revealed the disciples James and John asking Jesus for positions of honor, but Jesus responds to them by declaring,
"You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
So here, in John 13, we get a glimpse of the kind of service God in Christ Jesus has in mind.
Since we’re using this text not in the context of a Maundy Thursday foot washing, but instead morning prayer, I’d like to invite you to hold on to this image of Jesus bending to wash the feet of his disciples as a touchstone throughout your day. Martin Luther is often remembered to have said, “when you rise in the morning to wash your face, remember your baptism,” and I think this passage – with its watery element and Jesus’ declaration “unless I wash you, you have no share with me” can have a similar effect.
So, let’s try just a bit of guided meditation to set this image in your mind to hold you throughout the day. I’ll invite you to close your eyes and imagine yourself in the text as we work our way through it again.
With your eyes closed and your mind open to this scene as though you are there, imagine the feelings that may have filled the disciples as they gathered around the table with Jesus. There was surely exhaustion, as these people had known each other and worked with each other for a long time. They had shared ministry with each other, they had been sent out in pairs to work miraculous healings together. They had also squabbled with each other over rank and position, jockeying for promotions and currying favor with their supervisor. They were as we are, very human, and at the beginning of their time together they might have been wondering when the host would send a servant boy or girl to wash the dirt of a long journey off their feet so they could relax and enjoy this supper with their master. Let your mind’s eye see who is sitting at this table with you and notice any feelings you may have about them, individually or as a group.
Now, as you imagine yourself seated around the table with these disciples, as you feel the dirt and dust that cling to your toes, as you are filled with whatever feelings mark your relationships to the disciples around you – pleasure in their company, pride in your work, resentments at being passed over, concerns about evaluations – notice that Jesus has gotten up from his place at the table and is wrapping a towel around his waist. He has picked up the bowl of water you’d have expected to see in the hands of a servant, a restroom attendant, a custodian. What feelings does that evoke in you?
You watch as Jesus washes the feet of people you love, people you resent, people you admire, people you endure, and now Jesus bends before you to wash your feet. Take some time with this image. Remember what your feet look like and hold that image in your mind. Imagine your feet hot and dry, dusty and cracked. Imagine the hands of Jesus as they cup your heel. Imagine the cool water as it washes over your feet. Notice that Jesus, your Lord, is touching parts of your body you neglect – parts you take for granted – parts you rely on – parts you cover up – parts that are sensitive – parts reserved for lovers. Jesus is holding those parts of you now, at the beginning of your day, in front of your colleagues. Jesus is holding and washing you now. What feelings does that evoke in you?
And then Jesus moves on to the person sitting next to you, and you have the faces of all the people sitting next to you in your mind when Jesus sits back down, with all eyes on him waiting for an explanation of this action, and he says, “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash each other’s feet.”
Open your eyes if you haven’t already. Jesus says, at the conclusion of this passage, “if you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” I don’t read that so much as a promise of compensation, a defined benefit for people who take up the work of discipleship – do this and I will bless you. I read it more as a statement of fact, a description of reality – an acknowledgment that when we hold one another with the compassion, humility, and tenderness with which we are held by God, then God’s peace, God’s shalom is built between people, and that is a blessing that transforms us.
Here, at the beginning of your day of work, you have already had to navigate some kind of traffic. Perhaps you have already had to manage your children, or negotiate with your spouse, or wait on your rideshare. You are preparing for another day of work with people you may love, or resent, or admire, or endure. You have shared both accomplishments and disappointments with each other. It is easy to move casually, even carelessly, through those relationships.
This morning, which is not Maundy Thursday but just another Wednesday, remember that the servanthood of Christ is both an act of cosmic importance culminating
in his death and resurrection, but also a way of being that draws us away from fantasies of importance to care for one another tenderly.
Hold the image of Jesus kneeling to wash your feet throughout this day. Let it be a touchstone when you are feeling frustrated with yourself, stressed by your workload, tired of your job. Jesus is here, God sees you and loves you.
Remember the image of Jesus moving on to wash the feet of the person sitting next to you. That person is also carrying an invisible load this morning. See them, attend to them, serve them.
If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
In the name of Jesus,