April 14, 2022 (Maundy Thursday)
If you had twenty-four hours left to live, how would you use it? For almost everyone, the answer would come down to making sure every moment could be spent with loved ones—telling them all the things you ever wanted to tell them, and making sure they knew just how much you loved them. Some people are given the opportunity to know (to some extent) how long they have, and they get to do just that. In tonight’s gospel, we see just how Jesus chose to use the time he had left before he would go, as he said, where his disciples couldn’t go.
This is an emotional scene, where Jesus has his last supper with the disciples who had followed him for around three years at this point. He needs to tell them everything that’s left, making sure they have the right takeaways from his teachings. He prays for them, and he offers all the comfort he can muster to get them through the next few days and all that would come. He knows he doesn’t have a lot of time, and maybe it’s for that reason that he takes the time to show them, rather than just tell them, what the most important part of their identity as his followers will be.
Y’all know the story. He got up, took off his outer robe, and washed the feet of each of his disciples. It was an act that, in that culture, wasn’t intimate. It wasn’t something that showed a unique level of closeness to his disciples. It wasn’t touching or kind or brave. Washing feet was something that slaves did, and no one paid attention to them while they did it. So it’s a big deal that Jesus, as the master and rabbi of his followers, not only took on the role of a slave by washing their feet, but also forced their attention to an act that they wouldn’t have taken the time to notice before.
There was a story I read recently about a medical student who was finishing up her exams for one of her classes. And, naturally, the exam was filled with important medical questions about procedures and diagnoses and practical things that she learned during her rounds. But there was one final question on the exam that caught her off-guard. The question was, “what is the name of the custodian in this building?” She wasn’t sure this was a real question, so she checked with the professor, who confirmed it very much was part of her grade. The professor told her that dignity and respect belong to everyone, not just the people we think are important.
There are people in the world who are easy to ignore. The waiter who makes sure to silently refill the waters at the table and is ignored during the lively conversation going on. The custodian who makes sure the building stays clean and sanitary but always seems to be out of sight. The orderly who ensures the patients at the nursing home have fresh sheets and is considered good at their job if no one notices what they do. The stay-at-home parents who provide a stable and loving home to their kids. The trucker on the interstate driving for eight hours to get deliveries where they need to go. The countless others who do things that aren’t given the dignity they probably deserve, but who the world would very much notice if they stopped doing what they do.
Jesus, by putting on a towel and doing the indignity of washing his disciples’ feet, wants us to pay attention to people, and to give them the dignity they deserve because they are people. His disciples would never again be able to look at a slave in any household in their culture and not see Jesus at their feet, washing the dirt off. And it’s by using this example that Jesus brought it home and gave them a new commandment.
“Love one another as I have loved you. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples.”
Love alone is the sign of who we are as Christians. Love is what shows the world who we follow. It’s not doctrine. It’s not knowing all the words to the Apostle’s Creed or memorizing certain verses in the Bible or being able to explain what happens in communion. It’s not personal morality, abstaining from swearing or drinking or dancing or card playing. It’s not about having an impeccable reputation for clean living. It’s not even about coming to church enough. It’s about love, and love alone, that marks us as disciples of Jesus.
And what does that love look like?
It looks like what Jesus showed us tonight. It looks like visibly and clearly giving each and every person, no matter what they do, who they are, how they behave, who they vote for, what their personal morality is, the kind of dignity that each human being deserves simply for being a human being. It looks like becoming vulnerable in our humility, literally or metaphorically washing the feet of others in our service. It looks like assuming everyone, without exception, deserves the same kind of dignity and respect and love and support that we hope for ourselves. It looks like sharing that kind of love, the kind of love that transforms the world by making us care about one another deeply and wholly into a reality.
So listen to the commandment of Jesus. Love others as he loved us. Pay attention to the ignored. Give dignity and respect to all people. Because love is what we do. Let God change the world through this love.
Thanks be to God. Amen.