April 2, 2015

Do You Know What I Have Done to You? (Maundy Thursday)

Passage: Exodus 12:1-17, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-35
Service Type:

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you?

As we reflect on this story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples I invite you to go back in your imagination to Sunday—the day we Christians mark as Palm Sunday.

It was time to celebrate the Passover, the most sacred of Jewish feasts. Upwards of three million people might spend the week in Jerusalem. Word had spread that Jesus of Nazareth was on his way to the feast and that he had raised from the dead a man named Lazarus of Bethany. That news spread faster than wildfire. No wonder, then, thousands lined the road as Jesus made his way into Jerusalem. "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David!"

It is important to remember what the crowds were affirming by their words and actions. Placing palm branches on the road before Jesus is reminiscent of the welcome given Simon Maccabaeus in 141 B.C. on the eve of his triumphant conquest of the occupying Syrian forces. The shout—"Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"—comes from Psalm 118. The psalm was written at a time when Israel was surrounded by warring nations, but God rescued her. "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" is sung to the conquering hero who liberates the people. The word hosanna means "save now." It is equivalent to "God save the King!"

It is later in the week now. Jesus and his friends had gathered for the Passover meal. Since the streets and the roads of Palestine were dusty and the shoes of that day very simple—a flat sole, held onto the feet by a few straps—then every walk in the streets soiled the feet. Just inside the doorway of most homes sat a basin of water with a towel. Often a servant would greet visitors and wash their feet.

On that night as they gathered with Jesus for this meal, none of them had carried out this menial task. Perhaps their minds were occupied with thoughts of the coming kingdom of God. The triumphal entry had set their imaginations on fire with dreams of thrones and power and glory. Luke tells us the disciples were engaged in a dispute as to which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom Jesus was inaugurating. No one deigned to carry out the courtesy of washing feet.

You can picture then why it was such a shock when Jesus took up this task. Against every assumption normally made about the one who would rule, Jesus took that towel and basin of water and began to wash their feet. Little wonder there was stunned silence when he asked, “Do you know what I have done to (for) you?”

1. “You call me Teacher and Lord”, Jesus continued, “and you are right, for that is what I am.” These terms Teacher and Lord were terms of great reverence and respect. Jesus said the disciples were right to hold him in high esteem. There were not wrong about who he is—the Messiah of Israel. Indeed, it is because the towel is in his hand makes that this story so bracing. Everything is turned upside down. Bottom is top and top is bottom.

The towel in Jesus’ hand washing feet isn’t atypical of Jesus; the towel dramatizes the whole of this King's career. Washing his disciples' feet is no isolated event. What he did that night in the upper room vividly portrays the whole journey he made from the Father into the world and back to the Father.

Rev. Darrell Johnson observed (Vancouver, BC): “John says that Jesus rose from supper, just as he had risen from his eternal throne. Jesus laid aside his garments, just as he had laid aside his glory in heaven—just as he had chosen to lay aside his privileges as the Son of God. Jesus wrapped a towel around himself, just as he wrapped around himself our humanity. Jesus then washed his disciples' feet, performing the most menial act of service, just as the next day he died the degrading death of a common criminal. When Jesus had finished washing their feet, John says Jesus took up his garments and returned to his place of honor, just as after he cried from the cross, "It is finished," he was taken up from the grave and seated again with God the Father.”

If then, this act of Jesus to wash their feet is not an isolated act but congruent with who he is the whole scope of his life then Jesus' use of the towel that night points to his death on the Cross. John tells us that Jesus' hour had come. John also mentions Judas's betrayal of Jesus so that we will associate the foot washing and the Crucifixion. John uses two words to describe Jesus' actions: lay down (or lay aside) and take up. Those two words are used earlier in the Gospel of John to refer to Jesus' death. Jesus says in John 10: "I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one has taken it from me. I lay it down on my own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again."

"All of this," writes Raymond Brown, "serves to relate the foot washing to the death of the Lord." It helps us understand this interaction between Jesus and Peter. "You shall never wash my feet," Peter says, and Jesus responds, "Then you shall have no part in me." It is as if Jesus were saying "Peter, if you do not let me be who I am, if you do not let me stoop down and act on your behalf to cleanse you, you will have no fellowship with me, and you cannot enter the kingdom. Peter, something needs to be done to you, and unless I do it, you have no part with me."

2. There is more here. In taking up the towel Jesus sanctifies every task, no matter how menial we regard it to be, for the kingdom of God. Yes Jesus enacts this and says it is an example for his disciples in how to live serving one another but it is not merely an object lesson. Jesus doesn’t wash their feet, whisper under his breath, “I’m glad that is done” and commit himself to never doing that again. This is genuine for Jesus. There is no duplicity between his heart and his actions; as if acting our something externally and internally despising that he had to do it. This menial task really was sanctified by our Lord. I have often seen a spouse wipe the face of an incapacitated loved one as their spouse lays dying—this too is the Lord’s work.

Martin Luther maintained that the first level of Christian community, the first stage of our life together, is putting our time, talent and treasure at the disposal of everyone else in the congregation. One member fixes things, simply has the knack to see what is wrong and fix things. Another member bakes shortbread someone else knows how to carve a roast for a dinner. There’s nothing extraordinary about this, because what these people contribute they can do with their eyes shut, so to speak. Furthermore, what any of us can do to help, we do without expecting extraordinary recognition for it. All of us bring forward our natural gifts and abilities, as well as our money and our time, wanting only to be helpful in any way we can. This “physical service,” as Luther called the first stage of Christian community, we offer readily and gladly.

It sounds so very ordinary, doesn’t it. In fact it is ordinary. But 95% of life is ordinary; and therefore the ordinariness that we offer up on behalf of the community of Christ’s people is always vastly more important than many think.

We are tempted to think that what is meant by gifts and abilities and talents belong to those we commonly call “talented people”. Their talents are dramatic, eye-catching, sensational, striking, and we are grateful that there are some with extraordinary talent who lend their gifts in service of the Saviour. In my older age I have come to esteem more and more the non-startling, non-sensational gifts that finally help us much more profoundly. All of these our Lord sanctified as he stooped with towel and basin to wash feet.

3. ‘Do you know what I have done to you? Jesus tells us what he has done in this act. “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:15-17)

Albert Schweitzer, the great missionary doctor observed: “One thing I know: The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”

You are blessed if you do them.

I read of a study of 132 patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) that researchers formed into two groups one of people who met weekly to learn coping skills and another of people who met monthly and received support from another person with multiple sclerosis. The goal was to see which group fared better, those learning coping skills or those hearing from another MS sufferer.
The surprise finding was that neither group fared as well as did the five MS sufferers who had been trained to offer support. The study found that "giving support improved health more than receiving it." Those five MS sufferers felt a dramatic change in how they viewed themselves and life. Depression, self-confidence, and self-esteem improved markedly. The main researcher said, "These people had undergone a spiritual transformation that gave them a refreshed view of who they were." Caring for others brought healing for the caregivers.

This is no surprise for the believer who has done as our Saviour has shown us.

3. I ever marvel that at this point in the story Judas is still in the room. I wonder what was going through his mind as Jesus stooped to wash his feet. Did he despise Jesus for so un-kingly a posture? Our Lord quotes Psalm 41:9 in reference to Judas; “The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.” It is a Psalm of lament likely written by David’s about his trusted advisor Ahithophel who deserted David to Absalom when Absalom rebelled against David and usurped the throne. Jesus takes up this lament for Judas. His heart is broken that he would betray him.

As Jesus comes and wipes his feet is this not an invitation for Judas to change course just as when he handed him the cup and bread at the meal? Our Lord’s question, “Do you know what I have done to you,” was for Judas as well. Our Lord’s love is indeed steadfast, enduring forever.

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you?