Summary: A Maundy Thursday sermon about the vast love of Christ, which, though hard to fully understand, we are called to share.
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? I think a great deal of the problem arises from the fact that we don’t fully understand what Christ has done for us. Did you happen to notice the question at the heart of this passage? We often consider John to be the gospel of “I am” statements, but it’s also the gospel of questions. And one of the most important ones is right here, as Jesus looks at the disciples sitting around him and asks, “Do you know what I have done for you?”
Indeed, it was a question for the twelve disciples in the Upper Room, but it is also a question for each of us. And if we cannot answer that question, or at least try to answer it, how can we know what we think we are doing, not only with the basin and the towel, but also with the bread and the wine? Jesus has very clearly said, “Do as I have done to you.” The problem is, unless we understand fully what Jesus has done, how can we imitate it?
Do you know what I have done for you? This question stands at the heart of Jesus’ final days, days shrouded in defeat and death. But this is a question that is before us every day. The “saving” work of Christ, what Jesus has done and does for us always, it’s not just about washing feet or sharing bread and wine. It’s not even just about the cross. It’s about the birth and the baptism, the teaching and the healing, the body and the blood, the life and the death.
So we ask again, do we know what Jesus has done for us? And what exactly do we think we are doing? If our washing and eating and drinking are to mean anything, it is only in our response to Jesus’ question and to his command, not only to wash one another’s feet, but to love one another as Jesus has loved us. But the problem is, we get confused about what loving service looks like and what it means, probably because we don’t fully understand what Christ has done for us. So we mistake pious imitation for the radical discipleship Christ asks of us. But Christ didn’t say, “be narcissistic like I am narcissistic.” He said, “Do what I do…Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” And to show the disciples precisely what he meant, Jesus got down on his knees and he washed their feet.
This is more than just a humble act of appreciation or admiration; it is a sermon to the world about how to love. The act of washing the disciples’ feet sheds light on the nature of Jesus’ love, the love we are called to emulate. People in the first century would have understood Jesus’ actions as an act of humility and service. In fact, John’s description of Jesus’ work in the Upper Room draws attention to the role of a slave that he assumes. In the same way, Peter’s refusal to receive Jesus’ washing implies that he found Jesus’ act improper. Until finally, Jesus tells Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no place with me.” Peter must receive Jesus’ love and service in order to remain a disciple.