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.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
“The Word became flesh and lived among us.”
“Truth and grace came into being.”
The Gospel of John is ethereal. It presents a kaleidoscope of images of Jesus, primarily through a series of “I am” statements.
• I am the way, the truth and the light
• I am the bread of life
• I am the bread of heaven
• I am the vine
• I am the good shepherd
• I am the Lamb of God.
Quite honestly, I find many of these statements, although rich metaphors, ambiguous and leave me wondering: who is Jesus and then, how do I relate to him?
This is not the first time we have been confused over the words “I am”. Think back to Exodus when Moses is on the mountain with a burning bush, a bush that is on fire but does not get consumed, does not die. When Moses asks God “who should I say that you are,” God responds; “tell the Israelites ‘I am who I am’, ‘I will be, who I will be.’”
Biblical scholars and preachers have struggled with God’s statement for centuries and probably will continue to wrestle over the meaning of “I am,” whereas the burning bush is actually much more descriptive of something that is beyond our comprehension but at the same time something we can understand. The burning bush represents God’s ability to survive amidst what we believe causes death and life to end. If I were Moses, I think seeing the burning bush would have meant more than hearing “I am”.
The Gospel of John seems so ethereal. Cynthia Campbell, former president of McCormick Seminary and a rock star preacher, gave me permission to admit this as she once said, she sighs when John’s gospel rolls around in the common lectionary. It demands more from a preacher than other gospels; to wade through the illusions, to make meaning we can grasp, and then guide us in common life.
Life, light, believing, knowing, glory, love— the meanings of these words may be in a dictionary, but definitions do not always lead to understanding. In fact, I am not sure we can ever understand them, but we can grow to believe in Jesus as he reveals God through his actions.
Tonight we are not wrestling with conceptual images of God and Jesus. Jesus is washing feet: it is concrete and specific. As a humble servant, who despite facing his death, cares for our bodies, and in doing so tells us about our relationship with our creator and redeemer.
At the time of Christ, foot washing was a common act. When you went to someone’s house, a slave would greet you, help you with your sandals and wash your feet so you did not track-in all the dirt from your journey. It was practical. It was also theological in that the Israelites placed a profound, religious imperative for cleanliness to create holiness. Cleanliness and holiness were paramount of the food they ate, whom they invited to table, and what they touched.
Tonight’s reading is one instance in the Gospel of John in which Jesus’ actions and words were direct and unambiguous: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…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 (13:4).”
Foot washing is really a dirty, earthy task. It is more than that; it is a revealing, intimate, and humbling for both parties, the one kneeling with the towel who baths and caresses the foot. Then, the one who is exposed, who shows the evidence of where he or she has walked, the scars, the calloused places is also humbled. The intimacy this demands, almost makes us, 21st century sophisticates, want to retreat back into the ethereal, mystical portrayal of Jesus as the Christ.
Jesus poured out his love by humbling himself to wash the disciples’ feet. This was not just a gesture. True love is not caught up in gestures nor is love a fleeting emotion. Too often we substitute gifts for affection, words for actions, or jewels for kindness; all in the hope of signifying we love someone without really engaging ourselves.
To truly express his and God’s love, Jesus silently bathed each disciple’s feet; silently washed them clean; silently spoke an “I am the one who loves you.” By humbling himself to the lowest servant to serve us, Jesus taught us to love, not in empty gestures, shiny objects or frantic grasps for power, but by serving us.
In the quiet of the room that night, Jesus spoke the most powerful “I am the one who loves you.”
Tonight is a night to honor the body. Tonight commemorates Jesus’ final practices of loving his followers. The bodies of those who lived, slept and ate with Jesus; their bodies and our bodies. Tonight honors the love Jesus has for our bodies.
Each and every time I have mentioned the focus for tonight’s sermon would be, God loves our bodies, some would giggle, or dismiss this with “really? I’m not sure God loves my body.” Seriously, how often might you stop to say to yourself, “God loves my body”?
The authors of scripture are forever holding up a mirror to our bodies, trying to make us see the imprint of the divine on our unruly flesh. “So God created humankind in God’s image,” the author of Genesis writes, “in the image of God he created them” (Genesis 1:27). “I praise you,” sings the psalmist, “for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14). “Do you know,” Paul asks, incredulous, “that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” (1 Cor 6:19).
We hear over and over again, we are gifted in this life with bodies that are sacred. We have religious practices that honor our bodies – think of the Sabbath Day – a day of rest and a day to draw close to God. At a time when certain foods could not be healthfully consumed, religious practices labeled them as profane to keep our bodies sacred. Think also of our sacrament to bath our bodies in the waters of baptism – to be joined together into the body of Christ, to share in Christ’s death and then Christ’s resurrection. God created our bodies and God loves our bodies.
When we recall Jesus’ actions; he healed wounds, restored sight, cured leprosy and in doing so rearranged faulty relationships in families, communities and with one’s self-image. Jesus confirmed each day; we are all children of God and loved by God.
Perhaps part of the reason we giggle at the notion of God loving our bodies is that we don’t practice these acts of love often enough.
Tonight is a night to honor the body. To cherish our bodies as Jesus did. Yet, I can imagine this is not what you expected to hear tonight. This is the night of Jesus’ last supper. A night when one of his beloved will walk into the night and deny him three times, another will betray him, and several fall asleep. The disciples represent you and me as followers who want to believe, but fall short. It feels rather guilty to lift up God’s love for us when we know what will happen in the next three days; Jesus nailed to a cross to die and Jesus buried in tomb.
Yet, this is precisely what Jesus wants us to remember and uphold through a new commandment for which this night is named – Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin mandatum translated as command – Jesus’ command to love one another as he loved.
Tonight honors the gift of being in a body, of feeling vulnerable and sacred, and to be cleansed, fed and loved. We need to be open to receiving this love tonight, so we can endure the pain of tomorrow and most of all, to more fully believe in the love we will find on Sunday morning is a love our bodies will receive. For God so loved the world.