Loving Us to Death

Memorial Church ministers wash the feet of congregants on Maundy ThursdayMemorial Church ministers wash the feet of congregants during Maundy Thursday service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.



By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
Faculty of Divinity

(The following is a transcript of the service audio)

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thank you for joining us here tonight on this holy night. It's Maundy Thursday. This is a dramatic night where the liturgy that we share this evening is one that tries to account and remind us of the drama of the meal we commemorate. And we do commemorate the meal. And it's good news for us. We are going to celebrate communion in the sanctuary for the first time since the pandemic.

It's a blessing for us, and a blessing for me to be able to do that here. And of course, as has been the custom in this church, in the first Sunday of the month, and is a custom of many Christian churches throughout the world, communion is a central rite. For some denominations, my denomination, the central rite.

And the letter from Paul that Lori read tells the story of this. Paul says, "On the night before he died, Jesus took bread and Jesus took wine." And it's a memory the church has kept. It's why communion has become such a central rite. In the history of our practice, it's why some of the arguments have erupted over it, in the history of our doctrine.

But the sharing of that meal isn't the only thing Jesus did that night. At least not according to John. He also washed his disciples' feet. And he said you ought also to wash one another's feet. And he said, "I give you a final commandment, love one another as I have loved you." The name that we have for this day, Maundy Thursday, that word "maundy" is derived from the Latin word mandatum, which means command, because this is the day when Jesus gave his commandment.

We don't wash each other's feet very often. We are going to introduce a ritual of foot washing here tonight. And the ministers are going to wash one another's feet. And we are going to invite you to come forward and have your feet washed by us, if you like. I'll say more about that in a minute.

But it makes me wonder why. Why did communion so easily become a central rite of the church, and why has foot washing become so marginal? Part of this is just historical. Sharing the meal was part of a Jewish tradition out of which Jesus and his friends came. Giving thanks to God for bread and wine, the Passover meal, like Jesus was having, this is the tradition out of which it came. It was a central rite already of the religion they practiced.

It's also true that foot washing was highly taboo, even in the ancient world. It was an act of great humility to wash another person's feet. If you think about what the ancient world was like, people didn't really have a lot of footwear, roads were dirty, people's feet were dirty. And so it was this gesture of abject humility to wash another's feet. But it was used that way, as well.

Some folks say, "People never washed one another's feet." Actually, even in scripture, we have accounts of feet being washed. In the Hebrew Bible, Abigail comes to David, her husband has wronged David terribly, and Abigail comes to David and says, "Allow me to wash the feet of you and your servants." Begging his forgiveness.

And even in the Gospel of John, from which this lesson comes tonight, just a chapter ago, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, washed Jesus's feet. So these acts of foot washing, although uncommon in scripture, are not unheard of. And they weren't meant to be signs of great humility, gestures of great humility.

Maundy Thursday Service, 2022

So what Jesus does here is dramatic and unexpected. But there is a context for the disciples to understand it. So why doesn't foot washing catch on? Jesus was revolutionary in so many ways, called for so many changes. He says explicitly in this passage, "You ought to do this to each other." Why doesn't it catch on?

A year ago right now, I lived down in Falmouth, on Cape Cod. And I was appointed this job, and I moved up here. And it was just about a year ago, my two sons, and my boy is at baseball practice tonight, so they're not here. A year ago, I was on a baseball field by the ocean, hitting balls around with my boys, and playing catch with them. It was still a pandemic, so we weren't really going to church.

And we were hitting balls and having a good time. And we were right by the ocean. They wanted to go to the beach and throw rocks in the water. So we went to the beach and started throwing rocks in the water. I'm not very good at skipping rocks, but Danny thinks I'm the best rock skipper the world has ever seen, so I was impressing him with two of these skips of the ... And then there was a jetty there, and they wanted to see how far I could throw a rock into the water. And said, "Go onto the jetty dad. Go onto the jetty and throw a rock into the water."

And so I went out to the jetty, and I had this rock, probably slightly larger than ought to be throwing. And I threw it. And it was great throw. It went far and impressed them very much. But I lost my balance a little bit and I slipped down the side of this slippery rock. And my left foot hit another rock. And not to gross anyone out too much, but I lost my big toe nails that day. It hurt a lot. So for months when I've had my sock off, the kids will run around the room screaming because of my ugly toe.

Why didn't foot washing catch on? Why would we show another person our feet. I had to be honest with you, knowing that we were going to have this foot washing ceremony. For the past several months I've been that this toe nail grows back, just a little bit quicker, because I didn't want to gross out the ministers who were going to be washing my feet tonight.

It is an act of uncomfortable vulnerability to have a person wash your feet. Even a person you know, and know well. Sometimes more so a person you know and know well. It's also an act of utter vulnerability to take someone else's foot in your hands when you wash it. Something is going on here. It's not just a gesture of humility in Jesus. Jesus is asking something of us.

And if we think about what foot washing is and what it does. I think it might also tell suggestion something about what communion is and does. And maybe even about what's going to happen to Jesus tomorrow, in some way. I mentioned that in the Hebrew Bible we do have a story of foot washing. Abigail asking forgiveness, seeking forgiveness, comes to David and begs that she might wash his feet and the feet of his servants. And I think of our passage tonight. And Jesus washing his disciples feet.

It says in the passage that Jesus already knew that Judas had betrayed him. Judas has already betrayed him. But when we hear about the washing of the disciples' feet, the gospel writers say Jesus washed the disciples' feet, except for those feet of the betrayer. He goes to every one of them, even to Judas who betrayed him and washes his feet as well. The script from David and Abigail is flipped. Abigail washes David's feet, asking forgiveness of him because her family has betrayed him.

Here, Jesus goes to his betrayer and washes his feet instead. And then what happens right after this passage that Calvon read so beautifully? Had he kept reading in the Gospel of John, the next thing that would happen was Jesus would say the disciple says to Jesus, "Who is the one who will betray you?"

And Jesus says, "The one to whom I give bread dipped in wine, is the one who will betray me." And he takes the bread, and dips it in wine, and gives it to Judas. He shares a meal with his betrayer.

It would not be wrong to say that Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus was the first to receive communion in the history of the church. What's significant about this evening, about this story, about John's account of what happened at the last super, is not that Jesus washes feet. People washed feet in the ancient world. It's whose feet he washes. Everyone’s, even the one who betrayed him.

And what's significant about the meal he shared is not that Jesus shared this meal with his disciples, because other Judeans, and Galileans, and Jewish people across the diaspora on the Passover were sharing this same meal. It wasn't that he was sharing this meal. It's who he was offering bread and wine too. To Judas, the one who betrayed him.

Unless we misconstrue the sacrifice Jesus undertook, I want us to be careful not to blame Judas too much, even though I keep mentioning him. Jesus was handed over by Judas, but he died for us. For you and for me. We are the ones who have failed him. We are the ones who have abandoned him. We are the ones who tomorrow cry out for the crucifixion. We are his betrayers.

But having loved us, Jesus loves to the end. Just like having loved Judas, he loved him to the end. Enough to kneel before him and washed his feet. And give him bread and wine as a gesture of his grace.

And so despite all our failures and betrayals, just as he did with Judas, Jesus comes to us, and offers to wash all of our feet, and to share his bread with us. What we are told by the story, what we learn from the story, is that however much we sin, however far we fall, we cannot escape the reach of God's love. There is no end to it.

The extent of that reach, how far it goes, will be revealed to us tomorrow, and Saturday, and Sunday. But the first sign of it, the first gesture of it, is here in the washing of feet, and the breaking of bread. I hope you will receive this sign with us this evening.


See also: Sermon, Holy Week