(for use on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday)
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
John 13: 1-17; 31b-35
In April of 1995 (I think) THE LUTHERAN magazine ran an article called “Is it I?” It was about Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting, “The Last Supper.”
Now, while I found Pr. Schuessler’s “Art Analysis” fairly interesting, I was very distracted by the fact that none of the people in the illustration of the painting seemed to be where he said they were. What he was saying about people didn’t match up with the people he claimed to be talking about.
Having had some small experience with publishing, I thought I knew what had happened, and my idea was confirmed when the text said that Judas had the money purse in his right hand while the picture showed it in his left hand.
Either Pastor Schuessler doesn’t know his right from his left, or THE LUTHERAN printed the picture backwards. I’m putting my money on THE LUTHERAN printing the picture backwards.
After I got over being first annoyed and then amused I realized that there was a deeper meaning here. (I’m sorry, I can’t help it, I’m a preacher; there’s always a deeper meaning!) I realized that getting it backwards is what most of us do, most of the time.
In our Gospel lesson, after he has washed his followers’ feet, Jesus says to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?” And if they were honest, they would have said no. They got it backwards, and way too often, we get it backwards.
Today is called Maundy Thursday. The name comes from the command, the mandate, mandatum in Latin, that Jesus gave his followers that they should Love One Another.
Though many people think of this night as the time when we celebrate the first Last Supper; in reality this night is set apart to remind us that Jesus’ final words and deeds with his beloved friends were words and deeds of love, and his final command to his followers was to remember him with words and deeds of love of their own.
When Jesus wrapped a towel around his waist and bowed down before his students; he not only humbled himself; in their eyes, he humiliated himself. According to New Testament Scholar Robert Kysar, “Jesus’ act is a radical departure from custom, since not even servants were required to wash the feet of their master.” (Augsburg Commentary on John, p. 208)
Most often, footwashing was done by students for their teacher; as a sign of humility and respect and obedience. In washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus has turned this backwards. His action was a powerful sign of the radical nature of the new Kingdom of God being brought into the world through the power of the Gospel.
Jesus looks at his disciples and says, “You call me teacher, and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” (verse 13-14) Does Jesus really, literally, mean that? Does he want us to go around washing one another’s feet in church on a regular basis?
Well, that’s the way some folks with whom I grew up takes it; ‘course they also handle snakes and drink poison; so maybe they’re not a very good example. In this action and by these words Jesus has called us, commanded us, to be a servant people. A people who gird up their loins and get to work tending to a hurting and needy world.
He says “I give you this commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (verses 34-35)
But we get it backwards, don’t we. Instead of seeking ways to serve others, we complain about the service others render to us. Instead of looking to love others, we read magazine articles about “How to GET the love you really deserve.” Instead of thinking about how we can help others improve their lives, we plot and plan for how we can get ahead.
Have you ever thought about what those words mean, “get ahead?” They mean me in front of everyone else. They mean me first, they mean, I’ll tend to me and mine and devil take the hindmost.
Yes, we get it backwards. No matter how much we try, we get it backwards.
“This master and servant, love one another, serve the world” stuff that Jesus talks so much about is really difficult. It is because it is difficult that we get it backwards, and because we get it backwards, Jesus not only told us to love one another, He showed us how.
He showed us how when he washed the disciples’ feet.
He showed us how when he fed his friends at table.
He showed us how when he blessed the thief who died with him.
He showed us how when he forgave those who killed him.
He showed us how when he died upon the cross, “for us and for our salvation.”
We get it backwards and we can only get it right when we die to ourselves and let the life of Christ rise up within us, following him on the way of service, the way of love, the way of the cross.