Readings Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Preacher Ruth Martin
What is it about love? One of the most moving, deeply human and memorable human occasions is when individuals, knowing that they will die imminently, focus their remaining and limited time on messages to loved ones, preparing loved ones, and seeking to leave something of themselves that will strengthen and encourage long after they gave passed on. How can we forget the messages sent by passengers on the planes destined for the north and south towers in New York in 2001? As Rowan Williams said at the time in his book Writing in the Dust they represented ‘the triumph of gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness’. Or how can we forget the careful preparing of loved ones by parents in particular facing cancer and knowing that their families need to rise above their loss and move on? Here in our community we remember Ruth Scott for example.
Tonight as we begin the celebration of the passion and resurrection of the Lord, and prepare ourselves for the Eucharist of the Last Supper, our Gospel tells us how his disciples should live after the death of their Lord and so it is for us too, and so points to our mission as a church.
Firstly Jesus is preparing his disciples for his human death. Whilst of course today we know this was to happen none of the gospels – Mark, Luke, Matthew and John – display any indication that the disciples were aware of the imminence of Jesus terrible death. Yet in the days beforehand Jesus had turned over the tables in the temple, ridden into Jerusalem to adulation and joy from impoverished people longing for relief from oppressive government. He had clearly angered the Jewish leaders seeking a quiet build up to the Passover festival when Jerusalem would be full of Jews celebrating Gods rescue of them from the Egyptians through another if their great leaders-Moses. It was a potent gathering and for Jews living under yet another oppressive regime, this time the Romans, a dangerous time for anything that resembled a rebellion.
It is in this tense atmosphere that the disciples and Jesus gather for their meal. Foot washing was a daily essential in a hot dusty dirty terrain and so the lowliest servant was assigned this task. It is only in John’s Gospel that we have this rich example of servant leadership. Jesus took this upon himself, to the horror of his disciples, but of course to model for us servant leadership and love for each other. Foot washing fits so well with Jesus ministry, from his humble beginnings in a stable, his care and love for those of lowest status and of no use economically – the women, children, disabled – and any outsider. His Kingship is always one of serving. Jesus undertakes this task not out of duty but out of love; He knows he is running out of time even if the disciples seem oblivious to it, he knows he has to prepare them for life after he has died. And so he commands his disciples and us, his servants, to love each other and serve each other. So secondly he is preparing them not only for His death, but also for life afterwards – a life of servant leadership and love.
Most human beings gain great fulfilment from serving others, from doing good, but we often find it harder to receive service from others, and to love and serve each other we have to learn to accept others washing our feet, and Jesus the great teacher, is summoning his strength in his last evening, to teach his disciples about His Way, The Way, which is loving service. I only managed to have my feet washed for the first time a few years ago in Christ Church, Clapham when I was helping prepare a group of children for First Communion to take place at Easter and Maundy Thursday foot washing was part of the preparation. One little boy didn’t want to go up so we went up together. Allowing ourselves to be served by each other.
One of my last memories of our dear brother Peter Forster, who died so suddenly recently, was after the memorial to Ruth Scott – Peter was handing out the refreshments to the hundreds there, round and round and round, gently and humbly.
Whereas foot washing was a daily part of life, and the Passover an annual event, it is of course the institution of the Eucharist that we experience regularly to nourish us in our faith and strengthen us in seeking to do Gods will. It is an interesting reflection that if foot washing were also more frequent would we find it easier to be the loving servants to each other? Foot washing is our message of love. And it is in this passage that Jesus gives the great commandment ‘just as I have loved you so you are to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.
It is also in John’s Gospel that we have the nearest indication that Judas might have been a bad sort, as Jesus refers to one if the twelve being unclean. I have some sympathy for Judas because we do not know how deeply intentional his actions were, whether they were the result of the kind of brooding anger that all of us are capable of, but triggering events that were momentous. As Jesus knew he was going to his death, almost inevitably pressure on betrayal would be in the air as it is in any toxic political environment; the pressure to betray in territories where Isis ruled, the pressure behind the scenes in our own Brexit savaged government. How many of us have drafted an angry email and then had the wisdom to sit on it overnight and change our minds. Jesus is teaching us the importance of loving each other, through our limitations and pettiness. We all sin.
Whilst foot washing is teaching us how to live and love and serve each other, it is the Eucharist which nourishes us and enables us to be resourced to live our Christian lives with renewed spiritual energy in remembrance of our Lord. In preparing for death, in preparing for how we should live our lives, we are thirdly prepared for how we can be nourished in our faith, by entering into a relationship with God where we know the love of God at our toughest times and we learn that Jesus died for us, to set us free, and in remembering the sacrifice of His son through the Eucharist enables us to make a fresh start.
For me this extraordinary appeal to us, today, to enter into the mysteries of Jesus’ betrayal and imminent death ….. as we prepare to watch and wait in the garden, at the foot of the cross, as God’s son is put to death ……. as we grapple with our own self-doubts, and how to love and serve is best expressed in one of my favourite poems by George Herbert
Love bade me welcome
But my soul drew back, guilty of dust and sin.
But quick eyed Love observing me grow slack from my first entrance in
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning if I lacked anything.
A guest I answered worthy to be here.
Love said you shall be he.
I the unkind the ungrateful, Ah my dear I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand and smiling did reply
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth lord but I have marred them
Let my shame go where it doth deserve.
And know you not said love, who bore the blame?
My dear then I must serve.
You must sit down said Love and taste my meat
So I did sit and eat.