The action reminds us of the words of that other John, John the Baptist, who declared that he was not worthy to unloose the thongs of Jesus’ sandals- yet here Jesus is unloosing many sandals and washing many feet. When Jesus was baptised, the voice from heaven declared that He was Beloved- here the beloved one, demonstrates what it is to love.
Now it is easy to see the foot washing simply as an invitation to love and service. However as Michael Mayne has pointed out, this ‘may be to miss the deeper truth. For, complex creatures that we are, our motives are often questionable and such service can be a subtly disguised form of pride. And the origin, the pattern and the constant motivation of our Christian journey has to be our willingness not simply to give, but first to receive.’ We need to receive Christ’s love and know ourselves beloved, before we can authentically show that love to others.
Yet receiving is very difficult. Peter’s reaction is understandable, for most of us like people, and especially our close friends to stay in the roles we have assigned to them and not to break out. He saw Jesus as his teacher, pastor, healer. Jesus as his slave was not a role he felt comfortable accepting. Yet notice Jesus response, ‘unless I wash you, you have no share with me’. Love is about mutuality, the giving and the receiving, without demand for control of the other. So Jesus offers this gesture of love, taking tenderly in his hands each foot, even and perhaps especially the feet of Judas. Now remember that Jesus’ touch had power to heal. The woman in the crowd had only to touch the hem of his garment to find healing for her long sickness. How much more power would have been present in these hands that bathed the feet of his friends. These were feet that were going to betray him, and feet that were going to run away and reject him, and feet that were going to hide and doubt and only so slowly dare again to trust. Yet Jesus quietly and gently washes them all, without distinction and then instructs them to do as he has done.
Jesus makes no distinction between himself and his friends, and no distinction among his friends. All are cared for equally and no one is placed higher than another. All are one in Him.
Which brings us to the bread and the wine, that Paul and the synoptic gospel writers tell us Jesus took and blessed and shared with them. ‘This is my body, this is my blood’ he says. Two thousand years of church practice have ritualised those words for us. Can we hear them afresh?
Jesus identifies himself, his flesh and blood, with the common stuff of life, with the most frequently offered foodstuffs of any meal. He is expressing his oneness with these material things, and in so doing reminds us that all matter, matters. He looks at the bread, and sees that the bread is one body with him, and that in a sense there is no distinction between himself and the bread. The bread does not just stand in place of him, it is him and is all of us who share it, for in Christ we are all one, with the One who makes us all, disciples, bread, wine, everything that is. This is the paradox - on the one hand the bread is just bread, the wine is just wine; on the other hand they are Christ, the maker of the stars and sea, all that is and ever shall be.
So what is it to receive this bread and this wine? Is it not to take into ourselves the very essence of Love, of the love that is constantly giving itself in order that anything can be, that holds the very universes in being? Is it not to receive, in order that we can ourselves give and be given away for the healing of the whole world. It is an action on the one hand so small and so ordinary, to take a piece of bread, to drink a sip of wine, and on the other hand so momentous.
And so we do these simple things. We wash each others feet. We take the bread and the wine. And we remember. We remember that we are beloved, and because we are beloved, that we can love. May we receive that love in full measure, that our words and our actions may be shaped by it, and the world transformed. Amen.
by Penny Jones, for Maundy Thursday 2018