The Rev’d. N.J.A. Humphrey
Maundy Thursday, Year C
24 March 2016
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
My aim tonight and tomorrow night is to look at the events of Holy Week through the eyes of John, the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Our gospel texts tonight and tomorrow come from John’s gospel, and contain some elements not found in any of the others. But it is not just the textual uniqueness of the gospel but also the unique personality of John as the Beloved Disciple that motivates me to approach Holy Week in this way.
To see Holy Week through John’s eyes means to see its events unfold with the clarity of one who understands what is happening in the present moment, and not simply in hindsight. Consistently, the Beloved Disciple is the only one in John’s Gospel who “gets it.” And why is this? Is it because John is smarter than all the other disciples? Is it because Jesus imparts secret knowledge to John that he does not share with the others? No, it is not because Jesus plays favorites or because John belongs with the gifted and talented disciples rather than the disciples in the remedial group. It is simply because John has learned how to abide in Jesus’ love in the present moment.
All of the disciples are, in fact, Jesus’ beloved disciples, just as we are all, in fact, Jesus’ beloved disciples. But among the Twelve, only John abides in that love. And because he abides in Jesus’ love, he walks in the light of Christ. John is not afraid of the darkness, and he cannot be cowed by the powers and principalities of this world any more than Jesus himself is. In John’s gospel, Jesus is fully in control of his destiny, and John is completely free to share in it, because come what may they are protected by God’s abiding love, which is stronger than death. We will see this more clearly tomorrow night. For now, let us attempt to see the events of the Upper Room through John’s eyes.
While the Last Supper is common to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the foot washing is found only in John’s gospel. Its moral meaning is explained by Jesus himself when he instructs his disciples, and by extension, us, “I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.” This is the example of true love expressed through the ideal of humble service: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” This moral meaning is straightforward enough, though certainly difficult to put into practice. You and I have both heard plenty of sermons on the moral meaning of the foot washing, and we are challenged every day to follow Jesus’ example.
But there is another meaning to the foot washing that up until now I had given little thought to, and that is the more purely symbolic meaning of the foot washing. When Peter objects to Jesus’ washing Peter’s feet, Jesus says, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.” Then Peter in his typical fashion says, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.” Jesus then tells him the foot washing is enough.
If we look at this exchange between Jesus and Peter through John’s eyes, we see something new: the symbolic meaning of the foot washing as a sort of baptism into Jesus’ suffering and death. Jesus uses this servant act to cleanse us from the dirt of sin, even as he knows that of those twelve sets of feet, one will betray him, one will deny him, nine will abandon him, and only one will abide with him. Yet all are offered this foreshadowing of forgiveness, even though one will reject it, one will deny it, nine will flee from it, and only one will stand firm in it. It is appropriate that Jesus does not wash the head or the hands, because he knows that by the end of this night, his disciples will be known not by what they think and say or what they handle and eat, but where they go. The disciples will vote with their feet. And thus, before they dirty their feet, Jesus cleanses them. This allows those who do later repent and return to Jesus to do so knowing that Jesus loves them, all of them, from head to toe, and it allows the one who never abandons Jesus to stand in the blood and dirt at the foot of the Cross and yet remain unstained by its bitterness and gall.
We, too, are invited to stand with John at the foot of the Cross, and to know that when we fail to abide in Jesus’ love, Jesus’ servant love has already cleansed us. Therefore we need not fear the shame of sin, but may return to Jesus, fleet of foot and full of hope. Not all of us have the quiet steadfastness and bravery of John. I know that I don’t. But if we can learn to see Jesus through John’s eyes, we will see that we do not need to be particularly steadfast or brave in and of ourselves, because Jesus is himself the source of our strength, even in our weakness.
The Beloved Disciple on Maundy Thursday invites us to allow Jesus to wash our feet, not only as an example of service to others, but as a cleansing of ourselves, that we may have a part in Jesus, and abide in him.
And so now I invite those representatives of the congregation who have been so appointed to come and take a seat for the Maundy, removing your right shoe and sock, with the prayer that all of us will be granted to see this act through John’s eyes, and abide in the love and forgiveness that Jesus wishes to convey through it, as well as be inspired to imitate Jesus as servants of all.