Text: John 13:1-17, 31-35.
Gospel for Holy Thursday
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
What’s the dirtiest and grossest job you’ve ever had to do? Washing someone else’s dirty feet must be right up there. The reading from St. John’s Gospel is a bit odd to us because we don’t usually wash other people’s feet. In the ancient world, people wore sandals as they walked on the dusty roads. And then when people went to dinner, they didn’t sit 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 appoint your lowest slave to wash feet. Not the most appealing job in the world, is it? This helps us to understand why none of the apostles did the washing.
Not one of the apostles performed this service for the others. In fact, quite the opposite happened! “A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” (Luke 22:24) Washing the feet of others was a slave’s task, and each ofthe 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 humility and love, and how we should follow his example in humble service to our neighbours. Now that’s an important point, and it’s a main point of our text. Are you too important to serve others? Are there tasks which you think are beneath you? Do you think you should be the one being served? But there’s another point I’d like to focus on which is just as important.
I. We mustbe cleansed to enter God’s Presence
Imagine if you received an invitation to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding reception. How would you go? 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 really embarrassing, even shameful to come to such an event without having given proper thought to our appearance.
Just like going to a Royal Wedding would require of us respectability and cleanliness, so also being in God’s presence requires us to be clean. That’s why, under the Old Covenant, there were certain ceremonies and standards required to enter God’s presence. Each Priest had to wash his feet before going into the Temple because he was going to be performing his duties in God’s presence.
Now why do we care about the Temple rituals for Priests over three thousand years ago? When Jesus said, “Unless I wash you …” he implies that we need to be washed, we need to have our feet cleansed. Under the Old Covenant being washed was a ceremonial matter. What Jesus is getting at is not really about ceremonial cleanness, but about spiritual cleanness. Christ said, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile” (Matthew 15:18-20) God said to Moses, “No one shall see me and live.” (Exodus 33:20). If the Priests didn’t wash their feet before the Divine Service in the Temple, 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!
Consider it then: before Jesus began the very first Communion Service, our Lord washed the feet of the disciples. Peter had an objection though. “The Messiah shouldn’t be doing a slave’s work!” But how did Christ respond to Peter’s objection? “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” (John 13:8). Jesus was saying that washing their feet was more than just good hygiene or lesson in humble service. So, what’s the point? Before they went to the very first Divine Service, the disciples needed to be spiritually clean! Our Lord indicates that there is a connection between being spiritually clean and the Divine Service.
II. We arecleansed through the Divine Service
When we begin the Divine Service, we do so “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” These words remind us of our Baptism in the name of the triune God. We remember that in our Baptism we have been made entirely 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). Jesus warning to Peter applies also to us, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” We need to be washed by Jesus in Holy Baptism, or else we have no share with him. We won’t be admitted into God’s presence. Our culture places a high value on independence and self-sufficiency. Sometimes we get the notion that our religious actions or cleaning up our lives will cleanse us of our sins. But no amount of self-imposed religion and no amount of moral improvement can ever make us clean enough to be in God’s presence. Notice that Christ did not say, “Unless you wash yourself,” nor does he say, “Unless you submit to my washing.” No, he says “Unless I wash you.” Christ is the one who cleanses us in Holy Baptism. We don’t do anything. We’re completely passive
But, if we think, “In Baptism I’ve got my ticket punched, and I don’t need anything else,” then we’re in trouble. No matter how hard we try to stay clean, we still tend to get dirty. Our heart still defiles us and out of it still come all sorts of evil things. We still cannot cleanse ourselves. We need to continually depend upon someone else to cleanse us. Confessing that we are unclean and need to be cleansed by someone else is deeply humbling. That’s the lesson Christ is teaching the Apostles by washing their feet. Christ is teaching the apostles that they are unclean and need to be cleansed by Him. Christ washed the feet of the disciples in preparation for the Last Supper. Christ is a similar way prepares us for the Divine Service each week with a confession of our sin. In the Confession, we are saying “Amen” or “Yes, yes, this is true” to God’s righteous judgment against our sin. Each week we return and confess that we are “poor, miserable, sinners” and each week we are absolved and forgiven. Our Lord declares through the mouth of His servant, the pastor, that by His grace and mercy our sins are forgiven. Through these Gospel words we receive the salvation earned by Christ upon the cross of Calvary; every sin is covered by His blessed death. We are sanctified and prepared to enter into God’s presence. Sanctification is a word which indicates how Jesus prepares us for being in God’s presence.
God has not abandoned us. Why were the Apostles 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 have been more surprised that although he was in the form of God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness? During the last supper, he laid aside the garments that he wore; but on Good Friday he was stripped of his garments. During the last supper he wrapped himself in a towel; but on Good Friday he was wrapped in linen clothes after he died. During the last supper he poured out water and washed the Apostles’ feet, but on Good Friday 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.”
Christ, in humble love, endures the shame of the Cross, so that he can cleanse us and prepare us to enjoy God’s presence. As the Psalm says, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts.” (Ps 24:3–4.) If we are ever going to enjoy God’s presence and have fellowship with Him for all eternity, then we must be cleansed. Each week, through the Divine Service, God is preparing us to enjoy His Presence in Heaven. We might not have received an invitation to dine at the Royal Wedding, but we have received an invitation to dine with the King of Kings. He has forgiven us in Holy Baptism, he continues to forgive us through Confession, he has shed his own blood and given it to us, all of this in order to prepare us to enjoy his presence. Christ cleanses us, “daily and richly forgives us, enlightens us with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps us in the true faith.” Thanks, be to God. Amen.
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding,
keep our hearts and minds through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Note : In Lutheranism, the term “Divine Service” is the normal English name used for “the Mass,” “The Eucharist,” or “Holy Communion.” The term comes from the German word Gottesdienst (literally “God-service” or “service of God”), the standard German word for worship.