“I have set you an example…”

Lessons for the Feast of Maundy Thursday: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Gorgonia was the sister of the more famous Gregory the Theologian. But her contributions to the church, her example of saintly love are perhaps more precious. Gorgonia was married and a mother to several children – “three daughters and a number of sons.” But this was not enough for her so she began to take in orphans and other children in need in her Cappodocian home. So much so that even in her lifetime she was known as “The Mother of Orphans.” Gorgonia washed the dirty feet of disciples.

Radegund of Poitiers was a Frankish Queen in the 6th century. After renouncing her wealth and position, she was appointed deaconess in Poitiers. In 560 she founded the monastery of Sainte-Croix where she housed and made community for dis-abused and abandoned women. Her community became a haven for the infirmed poor whom she cared for with zeal and without discrimination. She became known as Reines des pauvres – Queen of the Poor. Radegund washed the dirty feet of disciples. 

Born about 1865, Anna Alexander was the first African-American set apart as a deaconess in the Episcopal Church. She worked in rural southeast Georgia, in Pennick, Glynn County, a community of former slaves and poor whites. In the 1890s, she founded the Church of the Good Shepherd and then a school where she taught young boys and girls to read—according to legend, from the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible. Anna washed the dirty feet of disciples.

Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian on the faculty of the Divinity School at Duke University, believed that living as true disciples of Jesus in the world would necessarily put us in conflict with the culture in which we live. Hauerwas once remarked that participating in the Eucharist was one of the most radical actions any Christian could undertake.  Tonight we will understand why this is true.

Tonight we watch in wonder as the only-begotten Son of God, the Eternal Word who was “in the beginning with God” and through whom “all things came into being” (Jn 1:1-3), stoops to wash the dirty feet of his disciples.  Tonight we behold the Incarnate Son of God, the “King of kings” and the “Lord of lords,” tying a towel around himself, pouring water into a basin, and assuming the role of a slave. The King kneels before his subjects; the Master washes the feet of his disciples.

This is not how the world works.  In the world there is a pyramid of power.  At the top are the rich, the powerful, and the intelligent.  They set the standards and enforce the rules. At the bottom are the weak, the poor, the powerless, the vulnerable: the immigrants and refugees, the unemployed and destitute, the mentally ill and physically disabled, the uneducated, the exploited and oppressed, the excluded and marginalized, those without power and without a voice.  This is true of every human culture. In every human culture there is a pyramid of power.

Jesus subverts the pyramid of power by taking the place of the least and the lowliest.  He stoops to align himself with those at the bottom; those in the last place, the place of servants and slaves.

For Peter this is unacceptable.  “You will never wash my feet,” he insists (Jn 13:8).  He does not yet understand that the Kingdom of God which Jesus has come to inaugurate and proclaim is an “upside-down kingdom,” in which the first are last and the last first, in which the greatest are the servants of all.  He does not see that in this Kingdom, there are no second- or third-class citizens: Every person is valued, every person is honored, every person is loved. Jesus subverts the pyramid of power, turns it upside-down, and then replaces it with the image of his Body.  In the body, every member is precious, and each part – whatever its abilities or limitations – contributes to the whole.

Jesus insists on washing Peter’s feet, not because he is instituting a new ritual in which all must take part, but because what he is demonstrating here is essential to his message of love.  Unless Peter can grasp this, he will have no part to play in the New Community of Christ’s Body.

“I have set you an example,” says Jesus, “that you also do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:15).

Just as I have knelt before you as a servant, so you are to kneel before one another, rendering loving service.  Just as I have gazed into your eyes to behold your dignity and worth, so you are to gaze into the eyes of the lost and the forgotten, the poor and the marginalized, and reflect back to them their dignity and worth.  Just as I have lovingly washed your feet, so you too are to touch the lowly with kindness and gentleness, lifting them to their feet so that they may stand with you, in freedom and dignity, before the God who has created and redeemed us all.

“I have set you an example.”  Seek out the broken and the lost.  Listen with compassion to those whose dignity has been trampled upon, who have come to see themselves as failures in the world, who have forgotten – or never really known – what it is to be loved, truly loved, just as they are.  What a contrast this is to the ways in which the powerful so often act to promote their own interests!

By washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus does not diminish his authority.  He is still their “Lord and Teacher” (John 13:14). But he has come to show them a new way of exercising authority, a new way of being with others that is characterized by humility, compassion and loving service.  He exercises authority not from above, but from below.

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants over them,… It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:25-28

To walk in the footsteps of Jesus is to catch his vision and to follow his example. It is to kneel with the lowliest and the neediest, and to raise them up.  It is to gather with them around the Table of the Lord, recognizing our oneness and unity. It is to stand together before God as equals, all with our hands outstretched to receive the gift of life that nourishes and sustains us in our struggle to make real the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven.

In the 3rd century CE, the Roman emperor Valerian regularly persecuted the church.  One day he summoned a deacon of the church named Lawrence and demanded to see “the treasures of the church.”  The emperor intended Lawrence to bring the golden and jeweled vessels used for liturgical purposes. Lawrence returned instead with a gathering of the poor, the lame, and those without a home.  Angered, the emperor demanded to know where the treasures of the church were to be found. Pointing to these people gathered around him, Lawrence said, “these are the treasures of the church.”   

Hold that image in your mind this night “of the poor, the infirmed, those without a place to call home, as the treasures of the church”.   

What is so unexpected, and so radically loving, about this foot washing is not just that it is the teacher and master doing a servants work.  What sticks out in my mind is that Jesus held their dirty feet (which undoubtedly they were dirty indeed)…and in that moment of intimacy– held so much more.  Jesus held their untrusting hearts, their weak spirits, their calloused egos, their unwillingness to be so vulnerable!

When you come to this meal, you have a chance to align yourselves with this alternative vision and give witness to its values, which stand opposed to the values of the world.  Here you have an opportunity to pledge yourself to participate in the subversion of pyramids of power that benefit the strong and oppress the weak.

Richard Gillard, the New Zealand composer, is known for penning the words to a hymn called “The Servant Song”. He gives language to the symbolism of the foot washing action we perform in his powerful words. These words ring true on this Maundy Thursday.

Brother, sister let me serve you.
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant, too. 
We are pilgrims on a journey.
We are brothers on the road.
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.
To let you be my servant too.

Soon we shall remove the trappings of the feast, and leave the altar bare and cold, for tonight is the night of betrayal, and tomorrow is the day of despair. But he has called us his friends, and we must watch with him, and “not fear, though the earth be moved, and the mountains shake.” (Psalm 46.2) We must watch and pray that the bond of charity may hold us firm as his friends, and friends of one another. The fruit of the vine is crushed in the press, but we shall drink the wine new with him in the joy of his risen kingdom.

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