“Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.”
And so we come to the last great hinge of the Gospels—from the ministry of Jesus to the story of the Passion and the Resurrection. That’s what Maundy Thursday is, isn’t it? Up until now, Jesus has been healing the sick, teaching the crowds and feeding the people. He’s fed those hungry for the good news of God’s love and those hungry in the more literal sense. All along, in the Fourth Gospel, he’s been debating the authorities. Those debates are important—they’re about what God wants from us, what are God’s commandments to us. The Pharisees and scribes, the lawyers like me, have pointed out chapter and verse of the law. Jesus has answered back by pointing to the spirit of the law.
A woman taken in adultery? The law prescribes death. Jesus answers: Whoever is without sin may enforce that law.
Chalk that round up to the Spirit.
Raymond Brown, perhaps the greatest scholar of John’s Gospel, calls this part of the Gospel, Jesus’s ministry to the People The Book of Signs. The rest—the Last Supper, the Passion, the Resurrection—Father Brown names The Book of Glory.
We’re at the hinge right here, in tonight’s reading. We’ve heard the debates, we’ve eaten of the loaves and fishes, we’ve maybe hefted a rock, about to throw it at a terrified, helpless victim—and we’ve dropped it, ashamed.
What now? How does Jesus use this last night of peace, the proverbial eye of the storm?
He realizes that we’re still too dense to take onboard what he’s saying, we need him to demonstrate his teachings in a way we can’t fail to get. Jesus redefines what authority is, what it means to be a teacher and what it means to be Lord. He looks over his friends—his scruffy, well-meaning friends, including the brothers who argue over who will sit at Jesus’s side when that Twelve are enthroned in heaven, and the one who will leave in a scant few hours to sell him out. No, still not getting it.
So he, their Lord, their teacher, the Man in whose eyes they see God, kneels to them, and washes the dirt off their feet.
That image is so powerful that it’s uncomfortable for many people. Including me. I’ve been to a service where my feet were washed exactly once. I felt self-conscious, unworthy to be served in that strangely intimate way.
That’s the point.
Maundy Thursday is not comfortable, because it’s where Jesus finally demonstrates what God wants of us in an image we can’t escape.
The word “Maundy” is old French for “mandate”—command. That is what the night is named for. Not the Last Supper, not the institution of the Eucharist, but Jesus’s making explicit his command to all who would follow him, all who want to walk the Way with him: We serve.
Jesus says so, quite plainly: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
And that love is to take concrete form, as Jesus’s washing of his disciple’s feet was concrete and practical. “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
In other words, we serve. We don’t just think lovely thoughts, or say kind things. We tie a towel around our waist, we get our hands dirty, our love is to be in concrete, not theoretical, form.
We are messengers, servants, of Jesus, he reminds us tonight, and that means we aren’t more important than he is. Well. Not many people think they’re greater than Jesus—even John Lennon’s crack that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” was meant ironically. So if He can humble himself to serve the mundane needs of his friends—like Martha, serving the guests while her sister Mary listens and learns from Jesus—then that’s what we’re supposed to do, too.
Listening and learning have their place, but so does Martha’s practical activity. Mary may have chosen the better part at the moment Jesus was present and teaching, but Martha has something to teach us about how to implement Jesus’s last command to his disciples, and through them, to us. See a need we are especially equipped to meet, meet that need. Jesus has set us an example of what we are meant to do. We are, to use a legal term, his agents. That means we proceed under his directions, doing what he would have us do.
And so, we serve.
I’m not recommending an outbreak of spontaneous foot-washing in church every Sunday—and the Rector’s not the only one to be relieved, I’m pretty sure, to hear that. No, Jesus is telling us not to be too proud to serve in whatever capacity we can make a difference. If he can kneel to his students and perform the most humble tasks for them, then we can’t be led by ambition.
So we find the service that we are suited for. Not the service that makes us feel powerful, or important, but what we can be most useful at. But not in as if we’re worthless or useless either. Humility isn’t about self-hatred, or self-disparagement; it’s about being right-sized. Knowing our talents and weaknesses, and being clear-sighted about who we are. And then, in the light of that self-knowledge, finding out where we are called to be. And where is that? The theologian Frederick Buechner said that “[t]he place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
I believe that this is what Jesus is telling us to do. To get over ourselves, figure who we are at heart, and find a way to make our truest, best selves useful. So, it’s ok if you don’t want to literally wash feet or have your feet washed. Let’s just not be too proud to turn down the opportunity to use what we have to offer.
And so Maundy Thursday answers a question implied the collect for Monday in Holy Week: Mercifully grant, we asked, that we, walking in the way of the Cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.
How can that be? We follow Jesus’s example, but God knows our limits, and asks us to do that which we are made for. To come home to our true selves. And then to love each other in a way that matters.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.