Text: John 13:1-17, 31b-35.
Gospel for Holy Thursday
✠ In the name of Jesus. Amen. ✠
In the reading from St. John’s Gospel we see something very odd: our Lord Christ washing the feet of his disciples. It might be strange to us because we do not have the custom of washing the feet of others. In the Ancient Near East, people wore sandals. The roads were unpaved, filled with garbage, and dusty. People back then did not eat sitting down on chairs, but reclining on their sides upon couches. So, unless you wanted stinky feet in your face as you ate, you made sure to wash your own feet, or if you were well off, to appoint the lowest slave in the house to wash the feet of others. This helps us to understand why it is that none of the twelve present did the washing.
Consider for a moment, not one of the disciples performed this service for the others. In fact, St. Luke reports quite the opposite! “A dispute also arose among them, which of them was considered to be the greatest.” (Luke 22:24) Washing the feet of others was a slave’s task, and each of the disciples thought they should be considered the greatest. Each of the disciples thought he was too good, too important, to serve others. Each thought he should be the one being served. So, their Lord and teacher takes off his outer garment, and puts on the garments of a slave. The Word made flesh does the servile task of washing the feet of his disciples.
Now, I’ve heard many sermons which at this point focus on Christ’s example of self-humiliating love, and how we should follow his example in self-humiliating service to our neighbours. While the point of the text certainly is no less than that, it is indeed far more than that. There remains another important point which can be explained by way of an example.
Imagine if her Majesty the Queen has invited you to a dinner at Buckingham Palace! It’s a black-tie affair. How would you go? I’m sure that in such a situation you would pay careful attention to your appearance. But, most important of all, you would be sure to bathe beforehand.
Can you imagine the alternate situation? Can you imagine yourself showing up for this exquisite dinner, having not bathed in three months? Can you imagine yourself sitting next to the Royal Family smelling funny and looking dirty? Certainly not! We understand that it would be profoundly embarrassing, even shameful to come to such an event without having given proper thought to our appearance! But why so much fuss for a dinner with an elderly lady? Because of who she is! She is, (by the grace of God), our sovereign lady, the Queen of this Dominion! Her office as Queen requires a certain amount of respect. Showing up unclean and unkempt would indicate a profound amount of disrespect towards her and the office she holds.
Just like there are certain standards and protocols required when having an audience or a dinner with the Queen, so too, under the Old Covenant, there were certain ceremonies and standards required to enter God’s presence. In the Old Testament, each Priest had to wash his feet because he was going to be performing his sacrificial duties in God’s presence. Also, attending the Passover meal required all to have bathed before hand. Just like being in the presence of the Queen would require of us respectability and formality, so also being in God’s presence requires us to be clean.
Now why do we care about the ceremonial rituals for Priests over three thousand years ago? When Christ our Lord said, “If I do not wash you…” he implies that we need to be washed, we need to have our feet cleansed. Under the Old Covenant having clean feet was a ceremonial matter. What Jesus is getting at is not really about ceremonial cleanness but the spiritual cleanness implied by it. “That which enters into the mouth does not defile the man;” Christ said, “but that which proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man…The things which proceed out of the mouth come out of the heart, and they defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimony, and blasphemies. These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.” (Matthew 15:11, 17-20)
Before instituting the first Communion Service, our Lord washes the feet of the disciples. As Christ the Lord begins to wash their feet, Peter objects. In Peter’s mind, social hierarchies and good order must be maintained. We can’t have the Messiah doing slave work! But how does Christ respond to Peter’s objection? “If I do not wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8). Suddenly, more is being implied than just good hygiene, the appropriate amount of hospitality, and a lesson in self-humiliating service. Before going to the very first Divine Service, the disciples needed clean feet! By washing the disciples’ feet before the institution of the Sacrament of the Altar our Lord indicates that there is a connection between being spiritually clean and the Divine Service.
Think about how we prepare for the Divine Service each week. Is there a need to be spiritually clean before we enter God’s presence? How do we begin? We start with the Confession. The cleansing we need is not physical or ceremonial, but spiritual. We come to him and confess that we are spiritually impure and unclean. We are defiled, and out of our hearts come all sorts of evil thoughts, desires, and actions. God said to Moses, “Man may not see me and live.” (Exodus 33:20). If the Priests did not wash their feet before the Divine Service, they were struck dead. If we come before God’s holy presence in our state, he would have to destroy us because of our impurity!
Even worse, we cannot cleanse ourselves, and must depend entirely upon another to cleanse us. Notice that Christ did not say, “If you wash yourself,” nor does he say, “If you submit to my washing.” No, he says “If I do not wash you.” Here, man is completely passive. Christ is the one who cleanses us. Christ is the one who sanctifies us! Sanctification is a word which indicates how Christ prepares us for being in his presence. In our culture which values independence and self-sufficiency, this is deeply humbling. Sometimes we get the notion that our religious actions or cleaning up our lives will cleanse us of our sins. But we have to set aside our pride. No amount of self-imposed religion and no amount of moral improvement can ever make us clean enough to be in God’s presence.
Yet God has not abandoned us. Consider for a moment, why the disciples were surprised that Jesus rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and wrapped himself with a towel to perform a slave’s task? Shouldn’t they be more surprised that being in the form of God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being made in the likeness of man? How does he do that? Here, he laid aside the garments that he wore; but soon he was about to be stripped of his garments when crucified. Here he wrapped himself in a towel; but soon he was about to be wrapped in linen clothes when dead. Here he poured out water and washed their feet, but soon he shed blood and water to cleanse us from our sin and defilement. As our text says, Jesus “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
It is this self-humiliating love of Christ which cleanses us. When we begin the Divine Service, we do so “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We remember that in our Baptism we have been made clean. In Holy Baptism we are baptized into Christ’s death. We were buried with him. We were raised with him (Romans 6:3-4). Although the penalty for being spiritually unclean is death, by Baptism we are dead to sin, buried and raised in Jesus. “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except his feet, but is completely clean, and you are clean.” Jesus declared us clean in Holy Baptism. Those cleansing waters prepare us for the Divine Service.
In Baptism, we have been washed and made clean, but the Old Adam is apparently a good swimmer. Jesus warning to Peter applies also to us, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with me.” If we think, “In Baptism I’ve got my ticket punched, and I don’t need anything else,” then we’re in trouble. Sin still clings to us. No matter how hard we try to keep them clean, our feet still tend to get dirty. Our heart still defiles us and out of it still come all sorts of evil things. But, as Christ washed the feet of the disciples in preparation for the first Divine Service, likewise he prepares us for the Divine Service each week with Holy Absolution. Each week we return and confess that we are “poor, miserable, sinners” and each week we are cleansed anew. By his Word he sanctifies us, and we return to our Baptisms. We return to being completely clean. He does this so that we can enter his presence, enjoy fellowship with him, and receive his Holy Body and Blood for the remission of all our sins. Christ washes our feet, “he daily and richly forgives us, enlightens us with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps us in the true faith.”
We might not have received an invitation to dine with the Queen, but we have received an invitation to dine with the King of Kings, and he has shed his own blood and given it to us in order to prepare us to enjoy his presence. Thanks, be to God. Amen.
✠ And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding,
keep our hearts and minds through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ✠