If any of you has ever traveled to England or become familiar with English place names, you’ve no doubt become aware that the English have a long history of wearing down their words to where their pronunciations and their spellings seem to have little to do with one another. A word spelled Featherstonehaugh is pronounced “Fanshaw.” Cholmondely is pronounced “Chumlee.” Wriothesley is pronounced “Roxlee.”
|About This Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
April 9, 2020—Maundy Thursday
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Which is how we wind up with Maundy Thursday. Long ago it was known as Mandatum Thursday, from the Latin word for “commandment.” The Thursday in Holy Week is so called because it is on this Thursday that we read the story of Jesus giving to the disciples a “new commandment”: that we love one another as he has loved us.
Jesus makes a very interesting observation when he speaks to the disciples. He says, “You call me your lord and teacher, and you are right, because that is what I am.” But then he goes on to describe what that means. What it means to call Jesus Lord and teacher. In the Gospel of Matthew a very similar statement that “Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord, Lord’ will see the Kingdom of Heaven but only those who do the will of my Father.” Here Jesus is making a connection between what it means to be saying “Lord,” and what it means to do the commandments of God and to live lives of faith.
This all takes place in the context of the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. There is no more humbling act in the ancient world than that of washing the feet of another person. It’s what servants do. It’s what household slaves do. In John’s gospel, Jesus is many things. He is the Son of God, the Messiah and God’s agent in the world. In the very beginning of John’s gospel, we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” And that the Word takes on our flesh and becomes a human being. What then does it mean that the Word of God in flesh, the Son of the Living God, should reach out in humility, should wash the feet of the one who would betray him? What does that mean for us, who proclaim Christ to be our Lord and our Teacher? If it does not mean that we turn around and we go back into the world as servants, in humility, in compassion, if it does not mean that we wash others’ feet metaphorically, perhaps even literally, if it does not mean that we are willing to serve one another, that we are willing to take on the burden that Christ bore for the sake of others, then what does it mean when we say that Christ is our Lord and Teacher?
Jesus says, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” Well there are a lot of things that we ‘know.’ There are a lot of things that we proclaim on a regular basis in church. We proclaim Christ crucified. We proclaim that the one who comes to us knows our life, sorrow, suffering and death on a cross, that he was raised to new life on Easter for our sakes and for our salvation.
We know that in Christ God is acting for our salvation, transforming our reality and showing us the depths of God’s love in his self-sacrifice. If we know that, how much more blessed are we if we respond to that message and live out what it means? How much more would it mean to be a disciple of Christ if we serve one another, if we put our money where our mouth is, if we walk the walk and did not simply talk the talk? If we know these things, how blessed we would be if we would do these things?
II. IMITATIO CHRISTI
One of the most ancient Christian spiritual practices is something called Imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ. It consists of following the example of Christ. Some, like Francis of Assisi argued that the imitation of Christ extended to emulating his poverty. Others like Thomas À Beckett argued that the imitation of Christ was focusing on the inner state and withdrawing from the world.
However it was understood, following Jesus’ example is a staple of Christian observance.
And such a thing is at the heart of Jesus’ commandment: love one another as I have loved you. In effect: “Imitate with one another the way I loved you.”
This is made even more clearly in his instruction:
So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.John 13:14–15
This is one of those Biblical examples that is hard to translate into the modern world. Not living in a dry, eastern Mediterranean climate, traveling by foot, and wearing sandals, we don’t frequently have the opportunity to extend hospitality by washing someone’s feet. And so, while, on occasion, churches will have foot-washing ceremonies as part of their Maundy Thursday services, they don’t have them regularly. And truth be told, getting volunteers for the foot-washing is never easy. People are reluctant to take off their shoes and socks and have their pastor or fellow congregant or even a stranger wash their feet.
So, what then would it look like, for us as Christians, to imitate Christ by washing feet today?
III. FOOT WASHING
On May 9, 1969, the 1065th episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood aired. It was an episode like all the others: King Friday XIII learns a valuable lesson about understanding people’s feelings to learn why they’re upset. Miss Vija Vetra performs an East Indian dance to demonstrate communication through movement. There’s a little singing. But what stands out in people’s memories of this episode is the way it opens.
It’s a hot day in the neighborhood and Mr. Rogers has set up a small plastic pool in his backyard that he fills up with water and soaks his feet in to cool off. Officer Clemmons comes by and Mr. Rogers invites him to take of his shoes and cool off with him in the pool, which Officer Clemmons does, taking a short rest in the cool water before putting his shoes on and singing a song before leaving.
What’s remarkable about this is that Officer Clemmons, played by François Clemmons, a Black actor, was invited to share in Mr. Rogers’ small pool at a time when many Black Americans were prohibited or discouraged from swimming in the same pools as Whites.
In this simple act of literal foot-washing, Fred Rogers—a Presbyterian minister—displayed Christian compassion, Christian inclusion, and the Christian witness to justice and equality. The very things Jesus did for us and modeled for us. He knew these things. So he did them.
The imitation of Christ is not limited to literally doing everything that Jesus did; it is understanding the spirit of what Jesus was doing and translating that into our present context. We can wash feet without ever pouring water into a basin. When we view foot-washing as a metaphor for serving others as Christ would serve us, then it opens us up to so many possibilities of mission.
Our work to build communities of welcome and inclusion, our work for justice and peace, our work to extend compassion to the marginalized, even our staying home so that we reduce the spread of the coronavirus is a way of washing the feet of others. Whenever we engage in Christian witness through service and justice, we engage in foot-washing. In fact, the mission statement of a United Methodist Church near where I live makes just such a point: “Wash More Feet.”
We have been given a fair amount of instruction in this regard. Jesus preached a Sermon on the Mount outlining the core of Christian ethics. Jesus embodied this service to others, this witness to radical love of neighbor, this willingness to wash his disciples’ feet, this witness to the self-sacrificial love of the cross. Mr. Rogers does not possess special insight into the gospel just because he was an ordained minister. He has access to all the same instruction that we do.
In fact, while the scripture tells us that Jesus gives his disciples a “new commandment,” it’s not new for us. We’ve been aware of this for quite a while. We have known what we’re supposed to do.
Now, it so often happens that as a church, we can get accustomed to the rituals and the remembrances and the calendars and the liturgies of the church. We know that this is a time of the year when we again read the words of Jesus that we are to love one another as he has loved us. The danger of a cycle of readings like that is that we can begin to associate this text simply with special occasions. We can associate Jesus’ command for us with a special kind of need. And one that we read on one Thursday in particular. And sometimes we might wonder whether we just fall into a liturgical rut.
We trot out these scriptures because they’re on the schedule to read, and we might wonder whether we’ve become so familiar and so comfortable with them that we forget to actually listen to what they are saying to us.
In the same way, the power of a lesson can get worn down over time, the way that the pronunciation of English place names does. What was once powerful and convicting—like a master washing his disciples’ feet—becomes a nice story we drag out every year but doesn’t have much relevance. The words which spoke so clearly with power, now get mumbled in the mouth. Featherstonehaugh becomes “fanshaw.”
But that’s why we repeat these stories every year. It’s why we proclaim this witness. It’s why we gather during Holy Week to recount Jesus’ passion and suffering, his witness and example.
So, we know these things.
And if we know these things, how much more will we be blessed if we do them.
John 13:1-17, 31b-35 • Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 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.”
Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 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.”