Maundy Thursday: Washed into New Life

GOSPEL: John 13:1-17, 31b-35

 And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. (Read the whole passage)

And so tonight we begin the journey of the Three Days, the most important observance of our liturgical year. So important that worship that begins on Thursday continues through Friday and finally concludes with the great feast following the Easter Vigil on Saturday. 

The cheering crowds lining the streets just a few days ago on Palm Sunday, ushering Jesus into Jerusalem have given way over the past days. Their enthusiastic Hosannas have faded from our hearing. No one is shouting ‘Save Now’ thinking that Jesus is the Messiah long hoped for. 

Today, the enemies are plotting. The expectant crowds of Palm Sunday are now frustrated, soon they will be shouting something else, demanding blood.  But tonight a much smaller group gathers around a meal. A group still larger than we can imagine. 1 teacher, 12 disciples, but also servants, perhaps some unnamed women (whom are always there though often forgotten). It is a dinner party that we still cannot quite imagine in our world these days. 

But it isn’t just any dinner party. 

If there is ever a night for us to gather and share in a meal as a community of faith it is on Maundy Thursday. And usually we do. We gather around a table, we worship in the context of a meal, rather than share a meal in the context of worship. 

Yet tonight, there isn’t a meal as we are used to. Instead we continue to fast, not by our choice, but by necessity. We fast as an act of sacrifice. We fast from the meal, because we are fasting from each other. We cannot shared in the Bread that is the Body because we aren’t sharing in the in-person gathering that is the Body. 

And yet despite this being the night of the Last Supper, curiously John’s Gospel doesn’t actually include a description of the meal. Rather, John focuses on water, on washing. 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus begins by washing feet. Not his own, but the disciples’.

He bends down as a house servant would, and washes his the feet of his dear followers and friends. 

What a striking image in the time of Pandemic. 

In the before time, foot washing was often an uncomfortable idea a best, and usual a no-go zone for many of us. Showing our feet to another human being is a step too far. Too private. Too personal. 

And to wash someone’s feet, in our day, is an intimate and up close experience. If you have ever received a pedicure you know that it is, at least at first, an exercise in trust and vulnerability. 

But tonight the feet aren’t really the point. Foot washing wasn’t so intimate in Jesus’ day. It was routine and normal. 

It is the water, the washing, the act of service. 

Because in our time of pandemic, washing has taken on a brand new meaning. 

Not washing someone’s feet, but washing our own hands. 

What was an afterthought for most of us up until a few weeks ago, is now an important act of service. To wash our hands is a lot more like Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet than we ever imagined it would be. We wash in service of our neighbour, we wash to stop the spread, to flatten the curve, to care for our neighbours. Just as we are physical distancing and staying home. 

And perhaps in a way we have not understood before, Jesus’ act of washing feet in service of his disciples, in sacrifice of his usual status and position in the group becomes a sign of what is to come. 

Washing isn’t just about clean feet and clean hands. 

Jesus is foreshadowing what is to come, in just a matter of hours he will kneel not before his disciples, but before judges and authorities. He will be pushed down and treated as less than a servant. A criminal. A death row inmate. 

And Jesus will give of himself for the sake of others, for the sake of the world.

This act of humble service reveals to us anew where Jesus has been headed this whole time. And not just towards the cross, and not just to death. 

But to us. 

Jesus has been on his way to us since that the Angel visited Mary. Since being baptized and washed in the river. Since preaching and teaching, healing and working miracles all over Galilee. Since riding into Jerusalem just days ago.  

Jesus has been headed towards us, towards humanity. 

Jesus has been coming to bend down to wash our feet. 

Jesus has been coming to wash his hands and self isolate on the cross for our sake. 

Jesus has been coming to assure us that even though we cannot share in the promise of his presence of bread and wine, his promise of presence among gathered bodies in community, that he is present among us now none-the-less. 

He is present in our quiet places, in our homes and among families. 

In our hand washing and isolation for our neighbour.

He is present in hospital rooms and intensive care units.

Behind face masks and personal protective equipment.

Present in much needed packages dropped off on door steps and in mailboxes.

Present behind plexiglass shields showing up all around.

Present in meals for one, and FaceTime being the only source of human contact. 

Present in the fear, anxiety and uncertainty that abounds among us. 

And so on this night of foot washing, and fasting and commandments to love… we witness again the Christ who bends down to serve. To wash us in the waters, to meet our judgement and death, and give us God’s very self for the sake of the world… especially this world that is desperate and needing God’s presence.

Thus begins our journey of the Three Days, our journey to Good Friday and the Vigil of Easter, with the Christ who reveals himself as the one giving himself in service of world, for our sake, washing us into new life. 


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