Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35; Psalm 116:1, 10-17
THE REV. PORTIA SWEET
Elie Wiesel wrote in an essay for Walking With God in a Fragile World, "Created in God's image, man is as alone as He is. And yet: man may and must hope; he must rise to the challenge, transcend himself until he loses or finds himself. Only God is condemned to eternal loneliness. Only God is truly, irreducibly alone."
Perhaps this idea was never more apparent than on that night when Jesus shared his last earthly meal with his disciples and then took them to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Yes, these followers were with him physically, but the story lets us know they hadn't a clue as to what was happening in their midst. Jesus had tried three times to explain to them what would happen when they got to Jerusalem. They were going with so many others to celebrate the Passover. Upon entering the gates, Jesus was hailed and adored by the crowds - Ride on, ride on in majesty" says the hymn. And he did. surrounded by the throngs, but alone all the while. You may recall that before entering the city, Jesus is said to have opened his arms and lamented, saying he wished he could take the people under his wings."
The synoptic Gospels have this meal we recreate tonight - and every Sunday - occurring on Passover. John, however places it as the day before the festival day. The set up has been prearranged, much like if we were to have a family gathering and needed to rent a hall and pay a caterer. It begins joyfully enough, but quickly becomes somber. Jesus begins to behave in a very odd manner. The hospitality custom would have been for the host to have his servants wash the feet of arriving guests. Wearing sandals on unpaved streets can create a lot of dirty feet that you probably do not want carried into your home. This night, however, Jesus, the host, waits until the middle of the meal and he himself removes his robe and proceeds to wash the feet of his guests. Odd indeed.
Earlier, as they began the meal, Jesus breaks the bread and shares the cup of wine and talks about his body and blood and tells them to remember him when they eat and drink together in the future. What in the world? Has Jesus been having a few cocktails with the locals before this gathering?
No, but Jesus, in the midst of his closest friends on earth, is alone as he faces his gravest hour, his most challenging mission. And his actions are ones of the most profound love that ever was - love that is alive and available to us even today.
Peter - Ah, Peter, the one who forever blurts out the responses of the common man, the things you and I might have said had we been there. Yet Peter will become the rock upon which our church is founded.- Peter once more rebukes Jesus, claiming to be unworthy to be served by him - "You will not wash MY feet!"
A few years ago in another parish at this service, I was in line to wash and be washed. The man in front of me was a brilliant, highly respected professional man. He motioned to me to sit in the chair so he could wash my feet. When I explained that it was his turn to be served, he said, "No, I am not worthy." I was momentarily stunned. If this good and faithful man was not worthy, who was I? Then I thought, 'But he is as Peter was." and I said to him, "We are all unworthy and we are all, by God's grace, worthy".
It is on account of love that Jesus' washes his disciples' feet, and it is on account of Jesus that his followers will be able to live into that love with one another -- whether or not they fully understand or are able to see the outcome.
The meaning of the word, Maundy, is Commandment. This is Commandment Day and Christ gave us two commandments in his acts on this original day. He stressed that we are to serve one another with love as he served with love, demonstrated this night by serving his friends in washing their feet; and we are to forgive, even as he has and does forgive us. Alone in his knowledge and understanding of the present moments of that night, Jesus, our lonely God, nevertheless loved those who could not remain with him; could not comprehend what he tried repeatedly to teach them; could not remain awake and pray with him in the garden; could not understand the concept of forgive your enemies, and so raised a sword toward the arresting soldier.
Jesus states explicitly that his actions on this night are an example for the disciples. "You also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you" If washing feet is the particular example, the wider principle is also quite apparent: "Just as I have loved you, so also should you love one another."
Loving one another as Jesus has loved us - does love us. For, that love has not died. And it is in and by and through that love that we, unlike God, are never, never ever alone. Even when we think no one understands, no one cares, no one could possibly care about us because we are such miserable beings, Someone does. We are never, never, ever alone, for Christ, as promised, is with us.
In loving one another as Jesus loved us, we are called to forgive one another (and ourselves) as Jesus forgave. Peter denied him later, three times. Yet, in love and forgiveness which comes with that love, Jesus later gives Peter the "Keys to the Kingdom".
We know how this story ends. On the night he was betrayed, his friends did not know how the story would end. They were first confused, then perhaps amused, then curious then terrified. In the saga of this rabbi who was arrested before their very eyes, surely they would be persons of interest to the authorities. We know that the next day, at the time in John's chronology when the Passover lambs are being sacrificed, Jesus is put to death, executed, on a cross on Calvary Hill.
It is Jesus' loving his disciples that brings them into the family of God. It is Jesus' loving us that keeps us in the family of God. and it is in our loving one another and others in the world that maintains and enlarges the family of God. Tonight we break bread and drink from the common cup in remembrance of that meal Jesus shared with his disciples. We eat and drink not only in remembrance, but also as a reminder of Christ's presence with us in our very own time. In sharing this meal we are proclaiming our belief in the risen Christ which we will celebrate beginning Saturday night. But for tonight, broken and divided as we are, we come to remember service, love and forgiveness. We come, as the Prayer Book says, not for solace only, but for renewal as we remind ourselves of the immeasurable grace and love of our Lord Jesus and his command for us to do as he did. We are not alone in our efforts to follow.
"Infinite, intimate God; this night you kneel before your friends and wash our feet. Bound together in your love, trembling, we drink your cup and watch." AMEN