Summary: Our sharing in eternal life with Jesus Christ begins and end when we follow his example of the Upper Room, serving one another and sharing in the Lord's Supper.
Ever since we were children, old enough to toddle on our own two feet and reach the faucet, we have been told to “go wash up!” You’ve got mud all over yourself, go wash up! Your grandparents are coming, go wash up! Tomorrow’s church, go wash up! It’s dinner time, go wash up! It’s like the parental mantra. The children are never fully ready until they are all washed up!
In a sense, this is what tonight’s gospel lesson is about. It’s about washing up in preparation for the meal that is to follow. But it’s about much, much more than that too. I mean, after all, we know the disciples weren’t going to be eating the Last Supper with their feet! So why is it important that Jesus wash the feet of his disciples? And why is it important that they share in this Last Supper? In the very simplest words, I offer that the importance of this night that Jesus spends with his disciples is that it is both the beginning and the end. It is a beginning and an end both for Jesus and for us.. As we explore the activity in the Upper Room on that Holy Thursday so many years ago, I think we will begin to understand together what that means; what it meant for the disciples then, and what it means for us now.
Foot-washing was common in Jesus’ time. For the most part, people had no shoes, or only sandals to cover their feet, and they spent their days walking around in the dusty roads of their towns and villages. So, upon entering a house, it was common that a person’s feet would be washed so that the dust would not be tracked throughout the house. Surely, this needed to be done as the disciples gathered with Jesus in the Upper Room. But usually, servants did the foot-washing, not hosts. Yet here in the Upper Room, in a supremely humble act, Jesus marks the end of all the he has done so far, and the beginning of the long, slow build-up to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the climax of Jesus’ life and ministry. And even in the midst of that, Jesus brings to us a profound example of what it means to follow him; to be a disciple.
You see, it is here in the foot-washing and the Lord’s Supper that we begin to see the way to the Father; the way that will be fully opened through the crucifixion and resurrection. On this night, Jesus is showing us a way to share in his ministry, and through that, ultimately to share in his offer of eternal life. But if we truly desire to share in that Last Supper, that great heavenly banquet where all are gathered with Christ as the host, then we too have to be willing to humble ourselves before one another in love just as Jesus did on this night so many years ago. This is the great importance of the foot-washing. As Jesus ties the towel around his waist and kneels to wash his disciples’ feet, he points to his action of supreme love, even as he says to us, “love one another, just as I have loved you.” At that moment when he might have been puffed-up with pride at the great accomplishments of his ministry, Jesus had great humility. Love is always like that; never self-seeking, always humble.
Jesus knew that he was Lord of all, and yet he washed his disciples’ feet. Then Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” In other words, Jesus is saying to the disciples, to us, “I am giving you an example of how you ought to behave towards each other.” Here, Jesus teaches us that there is only one kind of greatness, the greatness of service. And it is when we respond to this call of service that we begin to experience eternal life – life that will be fully realized when we gather together at that great heavenly banquet with Christ as our host.
The meal, which the disciples share with Jesus after he has washed their feet, anticipates a much greater meal to come, and Jesus’ humble servitude continues. This meal that Jesus leads his disciples in is one with which many of us are quite familiar. We hear the words of the communion meditation often; the words we heard read from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians earlier this evening. For all but the youngest in this crowd or for those who are new to the faith, we have taken Communion hundreds of times in our lifetime. But this night, the night on which we specifically recall the first Lord’s Supper, we have an opportunity to experience more fully and tangibly both the great power and great mystery of this table. Friends, what I want to try and articulate this evening is that ministry, our work as those claimed by God, begins and ends when we gather to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Because of the words that Jesus spoke and the communion that was shared between Jesus and the disciples, and because of what happened in the days following that meal, our lives are impacted.