the gospel of john 13:1-17, 31b-35
for St. Luke's Lutheran Church of Logan Square, April 18, 2019
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Tonight, Jesus shares a meal with his friends and washes their feet. These are some of his final acts of ministry, before he is handed over to Roman and religious authorities. After being handed over, Jesus will be executed by the state, because his way of love is too dangerous. Jesus knows this is his ‘last supper’, and that his work of healing, teaching, mending, feeding, and subverting has always led him to the Cross. He’s tried to tell the disciples this, many times, but they deny the truth of Christ’s inevitable death.
Because while we all know death, and grief, and loss, we don’t always know what to do with those realities. How to care for each other and ourselves in the midst of them, or how to care for each other when we know grief is coming, or when grief has written itself onto our bones.
Jesus knows the disciples aren’t prepared for his death. They aren’t ready. And that doesn’t matter. We are often caught off-guard by death, or by feelings of grief.
There are days where it feels like I can’t fully inhale when I am struck by the fear and reality of climate loss, or police brutality, or how many people the system has deemed expendable. Even losses that I imagine I’m ready for, like the death of a loved one after a long and painful illness, catch me off-balance. We are mortal, and we know this, our cells know this, but we deny this reality, and are unprepared.
But Jesus tries one last time to prepare the disciples, modeling that in the midst of grief, of loss, of pain, the most worthwhile thing to do is spend time with community, offering mutual and vulnerable care. That’s how Jesus spends his last night, instituting rituals of welcome, blessing, and thanksgiving.
He washes the disciples feet. This is a shockingly intimate act, because our feet are vulnerable, and we’re often embarrassed by them. They tell us about our health, the type of job we hold, our social status. They can show poor circulation, trauma, or nerve damage. Foot wounds take longer to heal, and are at a higher risk for infection. For those without shoes, feet pick up dirt and debris and cuts. Feet are especially tender in wilderness spaces, on dirt roads, on farms.
In Jesus’ time, footwashing was a necessary action before being welcomed at the table for a meal. It was a matter of hospitality and inclusion. Usually, this action reinforced a social hierarchy. Those who are said to be of much lower status wash the feet of those said to be more important, and only those whose feet were washed could take part in the meal.
But Jesus had already experienced this action as one of radical love, not hierarchy. Earlier in his journey, Jesus had his feet washed by Mary with costly oil and her hair. She understood that in the face of death, sometimes the best action is one of sacred celebration and service. Jesus, by turning around and washing his disciples feet, upsets the social hierarchy. He breaks down the barriers between those who are welcomed and those who aren’t.
Simon Peter is still surprised by Jesus. Even after witnessing the full arc of Jesus’ ministry, Simon Peter is taken aback at the thought of God’s Anointed washing his feet – shouldn’t it be the other way around? His reaction betrays the ways systems of oppression weave themselves into our bodies. They entangle themselves in us, making it harder for us to live into the abundant life of community God so desperately wants for us. Simon Peter’s reaction embodies the ways we try to put limits on God’s love, on God’s actions, and God responds simply: washing your feet is exactly the role of God’s Anointed. Live into my example.
And then Jesus continues to share a meal with his friends. After breaking bread and blessing it, after washing feet, removing all barriers to participation, and commanding us to love, Jesus passes the cup, promising grace and forgiveness.
I can’t imagine this meal as a somber affair. And some of that is my own bias, that even in the face of death, and grief, and loss, there has to be laughter and breath. There has to be celebration and renewal. But some is also born from reflecting on how Jesus lived. So many of the stories we remember and retell about Jesus’ life and ministry center restoration, abundance, community. Those are joyous, if hard, things. And that joy is resistance against the forces in the world designed to separate us from each other, and from God. Breaking bread, sharing the cup, these are actions of solidarity. These are acts of love so radical they threaten those in positions of power and privilege, acts of love that hand Jesus over to the Cross.
This bread is not ours. This cup is not ours. They are God’s, given freely and joyously to us so we can be with each other in celebration and mourning. This transformation, of everyday objects into sacred ones, allows us to imagine ourselves and our lives also being transformed into the sacred. Into being blessings for each other. How we pattern our lives can either glorify God or glorify power. Jesus, again and again, calls us and the disciples to follow God. To follow love. Especially when that love is so strong that it comes with risk.
On the night Jesus knew he was going to be handed over, he practiced hospitality and thanksgiving. He spent time with his loved ones, knowing some would disappoint and betray him. He reclined, and ate, and talked, and worried and laughed. He knew that old systems and old ways needed to be handed over and buried for new life to sprout and grow. He knew that as we don’t know how to pray, we don’t know how to grieve. We have forgotten how to be blessings, how to offer radical care and welcome.
Every year, we remember Jesus washing the disciples feet, scandalizing Simon Peter, and commanding us to love. Every week, we remember the meal he shared. We center the physical, embodied nature of water and bread in our worship and faith practice. These simple, sacred actions are meant to be carved daily into our spirits, replacing and renewing those parts tangled with oppression and harm. Because as often as we embody Christ’s love, we betray it. Jesus tasks us to care for each other, in our sorrows and our celebrations. Jesus loves by tenderly washing and feeding us, nourishing our whole, embodied, spiritual beings, and by commanding us to do the same.
Tonight, Jesus institutes rituals of welcome, blessing, and thanksgiving. They allow us to imagine a different possibility for the future, where our everyday, domestic care for each other is how we live into the work of Christ. Where death and grief are known to us, are coming, but are not the end.
But no spoilers. Tonight, we break bread and care for each other, with Christ.