Summary: A Maundy Thursday sermon focusing on the pattern which Christ has given us to follow so that we might know joy and happiness in the presence of the Father.
I have in my office a beautiful needlepoint of the United Methodist cross and flame. It was a gift to me one Christmas a few years ago from a parishioner. The piece is not huge, it fits into a 5x7 frame, but I know the woman who did this needlepoint spent hours and hours weaving this beautiful tapestry, a true work of art. Though I’ve dabbled a bit in counted cross-stitch, I’ve never done needlepoint. But I have watched, and I know how it’s done. You need the pattern, the outline: someone has to design it, and color it on the canvas so the artist can see which colored threads go where. Then that pattern has to be followed very carefully, stitch by stitch. It is quite laborious work, and it can even be a strain on the eyes, but as the work develops, there is a growing sense of excitement as the picture begins to come alive. There is even a sense of great anticipation of the completed work. Finally, it is framed, ready to be displayed as an object of beauty and interest, a sign of devotion and love.
In our reading from John’s gospel this evening, Jesus speaks of giving us a pattern to follow. “I have given you an example; just as I have done, you also must do.” The word Jesus uses, the one translated as example could mean, in the ancient world, a picture showing how something was to be done, a tracing that someone else would follow, filling in the details. Jesus, having washed his disciples’ feet, declares that he has established the pattern for them to follow; a pattern of unconditional love and humble service. And this pattern sets Jesus’ followers on an extremely intensive task, requiring such strain not only on the eyes or the fingers, but also on the nerves, the will, the heart and soul, that we shouldn’t be surprised at how many of us fail to get it right.
But why is it so hard? Why is it so difficult for us to follow this pattern from Jesus? Why does Jesus have to go on to insist that the slave is not greater than the master, that the person who is sent is not greater than the person who sent them? It’s hard because we are proud. We are above the demeaning tasks of a servant. We are too good to give someone a position higher than ourselves. We even go so far as to serve others, but we do it so that others will see just how humble we are, so that we can be proud -- of being humble. But the thing is a true Christian disciple follows the pattern created by Christ at that very moment he wrapped a towel around his waist and stooped and washed the disciples’ feet. A true disciple embraces with ease and even spontaneity the little, annoying, messy things -- the things which in the ancient world the slave would do. There is no place for pride in such service.
I don’t think it would take any of us very long to think of hundreds of ways we have lifted ourselves above others in the last several months. Even if it wasn’t through actual actions; we have thoughts all the time in which we compare ourselves to others; and most of the time we reason that we are the better party, don’t we? And so that’s why we are here tonight. We need to be washed again of our pride. This is why year after year Christians around the world relive that Last Supper Christ shared with his disciples. This is why we get out the basins and towels and we take time to wash; because we need a good dose of humility. Because we need to remember what it feels like to truly serve another. To kneel down on achy knees and to touch grimy, smelly feet, and to wash them until they are clean. And then to admit that we are not so great ourselves. To expose our nasty feet and allow another to wash them clean. It’s uncomfortable. There’s nothing glamorous about serving others. When we follow the pattern Christ has set for us, it strips away every ounce of pride and perhaps even all of our dignity as well. But the promise Jesus makes to his disciples is this: “Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.”
You see, it is here in the foot-washing and the Lord’s Supper that follows that we begin to see the way to happiness, the way to the Father; the way that will be fully opened through the crucifixion and resurrection. Indeed, tonight we begin the long, slow build-up to the crucifixion, a death that only Jesus, the sacrificial lamb, could die. But beyond the dark days of the crucifixion is Christ’s resurrection, a resurrection that can be shared by any and all who dedicate themselves to following Christ’s pattern.