John 13:1-17, 31b-35
For many years the pope of the Roman Catholic Church has been washing feet on Maundy Thursday. Before 2013, the mass was held in St Peter’s basilica or the basilica of St John. However, in 2013 a recently consecrated Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 teenagers in a juvenile prison. Previous popes typically washed the feet of clergy. Since Pope Francis was elected, he has washed feet in prisons, a center for asylum seekers, and a home for the elderly and disabled. This year, he will once again wash the feet of 12 men in a maximum security prison.
Pope Francis has been determined to wash the feet of people of different faiths, genders, and ethnicities. In these 5 years, he has washed the feet of convicted felons, women (which was previously unheard of), Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Evangelicals, Muslims, a Buddhist and a Hindu person. For the pope, the symbolic act of foot washing is not merely an act of humility, it is an act of love and bringing people together.
If you look at the verses we read for the Gospel reading, you will see that there is a huge part that is skipped over. We go from verse 17 to verse 31. We go from Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and telling them to do likewise to the verses about Jesus being glorified and then the love commandment, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” It’s a sweet gesture, washing the feet of his 12 disciples, his inner circle. It was gesture of humility and love. No one likes to wash feet, so it is nice that he would do this for his friends. If we did not read verses 17 to 31, we could leave it at that, a nice gesture by Jesus for his friends.
However, if you read those middle verses, this symbolic act becomes much more radical. In these verses Jesus told the disciples that one of them will betray him. He told them by saying, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread…” It was Judas, the man whose feet he had just washed, the man with whom he had shared a meal.
When Jesus confronted Judas, Judas left to accept the bribe and betray his friend. It was only after that confrontation when Jesus told his disciples, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Right after that command, he told Peter that he would deny him. These are the bookends of this commandment to love one another, one friend who will betray him and one who will deny him.
What Jesus was showing was that despite what these 2 men would do…Jesus would still love them. Even knowing what would happen—that one would betray, one deny and the rest abandon him—he still washed their feet and told them he loved them. That is what makes this more than a sweet and sentimental gesture. This is not just about how we treat our friends and family. It is about how we treat the people who have hurt and betrayed us.
In 1981, Pope John Paul II was shot 4 times. The man was arrested and the pope not only forgave him, he visited him in prison. He then advocated for his release many years later. The would-be assassin left prison in 2010 and made news when he visited the grave of the late pope and left flowers. That is an extreme example of loving those who have hurt us, but it’s a pretty good example.
While most of us have not been shot or turned in to the police for crimes we did not commit, we all know what it is to be betrayed or abandoned. We all know what it feels like when someone we love says one thing and acts in an entirely different way. Imagine what it would feel like to wash their feet, or maybe just look them in the eye and smile.
At another church I served, I had someone who yelled at me after the service. He really yelled and did it in front of other people. I knew it had nothing to do with me. It was something else going on in his life, but it hurt me and made me angry. The next week he came up for communion and I thought “please don’t let him be on my side of the rail”—but he was of course because God likes to challenge us. I would like to tell you that I gave him communion and my hurt and angry feelings just went away. But they didn’t. I was still mad. But I smiled and I kept smiling. It took a couple weeks, maybe even more, but eventually those smiles became genuine and I got over it.
That’s the thing about symbolic gestures, they don’t always represent exactly what is going on inside of us, but they do represent what we hope will happen, what we hope we will become. If we continue to try, eventually the symbolic gesture becomes more than a gesture. It becomes real. Jesus was upset with Judas. He called him out in front of the disciples. He did the same thing with Peter. But he still shared the meal. He still washed their feet.
We do more than foot washing at this service. As we do every Sunday, we read the confession together. Typically before launching into the confession, I like to give a moment for everyone to silently consider the sins they have committed. Tonight I will give us all a little longer to consider what sins are keeping us from loving people. Then we will share communion together. We will crowd around the altar in this rather tight space and we will accept the gift that God has given us, the same gift that he gave his disciples, a love that knows no boundaries, a love that is meant to unite instead of divide.
After that, the altar and this whole chancel area will be stripped. It will be laid bare, which is what we are all trying to do before God. Then finally when you leave, I encourage you to drop a coin in one of the buckets. The coin represents a way we have betrayed, denied or abandoned God. When we drop the coin, we leave that sin behind and we journey toward Easter with the knowledge that we have moved this much closer to loving others as God loves each one of us.