Those who know me well attest to my utter dislike of being touched by feet. Cold feet, wet feet, small feet, large feet, any feet at all—I do not like them placed against me. I see no reasonable rational cause for feet to be near me. In fact, if my wife with her feet touches me as we sleep, I wake up and put covers, pillows, or even better, both between us. Neurotic? You betcha. Irrational? Totally. The way it is? Always.
At the heart of this neurosis, I suspect, is discomfort with vulnerability. Feet often stay hidden in shoes and socks. Much of who we are we hide in metaphoric shoes and socks—not unlike feet.
And now Maundy Thursday is coming this way. And what do we do on Maundy Thursday? I’ll tell you—we wash feet. This one act is hard on me like no other pastoral act to be founding the pastoral office. And as calloused as it might seem, it really is easier for me to hold hands with a dying person than to wash feet. Again, I suspect, at the heart of this challenge for me is vulnerability.
And here’s where the vulnerable foot-washing practice gained its foothold:
13Now 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. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then 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. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10Jesus 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.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12After 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? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
18I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ 19I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. 20Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” 21After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” 22The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. 23One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; 24Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” 26Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. 27After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” 28Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. 30So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.
31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little 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.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (NRSV John 13:1-35, the colored portion is not include in the RCL pericope)
This text is such a matter of the heart, such a matter of vulnerability, such a clear window into the emotional, relational dynamic in effect between people. It’s such a stunningly simple window into how God up-close-and-personal loves others. And I surely hope preachers don’t turn their Maundy Thursday sermons into teachy-preachy, didactic, scholastic valleys of dry bones. My mom would say to such preachers, “You have a head-knowledge of Jesus but no heart-knowledge.” And at the risk of triggering the apocalypse, I’d have to agree with Mom. There’s no way the humbling of Jesus to eat with people, to hand himself over for betrayal, and to wash sweaty filthy 1st century feet can be contained in matters of the head—for these are all matters of the heart.
Last Easter I was “troubled in spirit.” I felt that although sermons were being faithfully crafted, that once proclaimed, they’d crash land only inches from the pulpit or music stand. Now I didn’t say the sermons were sorry material offered by a poorly prepared cleric, but I will say that they were more head than heart. (typical of much Lutheran preaching that I’ve heard in the past 27 years since becoming Lutheran)
So there I was “troubled in spirit” and then I realized the reality of it all—-I’d somehow forgotten that I was telling a life-changing love story about a prodigal God and the objects (passive recipients) of that God’s prodigality. I’d somehow come to that space that Mom calls “head-knowledge but not heart-knowledge.”
And once I realized it, I changed my preaching style. Over the course of a month I gradually moved from a story-telling preaching style to a prophetic preaching style. And this move connected my head and my heart. For almost a year now my preaching has sought to move people from taking amazing head knowledge and moving it through the knowledge of the heart. Too much faithful stuff gets lodged in the intellect and never gets actualized through the heart. And again, I believe this all comes down to vulnerability. I even think we’ll intentionally operate out of our heads rather than our hearts because that means we can reason or rationalize Maundy Thursday (and faith, too) into a formulaic disconnect that insulates us and isolates us from coming to terms with things like human relationship, betrayal, self-giving love, and the connection to be had in touch.
And this is where Jesus meets us and leads us into a dramatic night filled with heart-melting acts that we should not seek to think through, or deliberate, or intellectualize. Shouldn’t we simply receive the touch of God at Table fellowship, the touch of God in the realities of human relations, the touch of God in the sadness of betrayal, and the touch of God through feet? None of it can make sense—it can only be received.
What if we were simply to receive, to cop a plea and embrace the loving sentence dealt upon us even as we prepare to deal a blow upon God in Jesus the Christ? What if we were to receive, rather than extenuate?
Peter tries to reconcile the intimacy of it all by his extenuation:“You will never wash my feet,” he declares to Jesus.
He just doesn’t get it, can receive it, simply can’t make allowances as to why Jesus would wash his feet. Maybe Peter, at least when it comes to feet, was every bit as neurotic as this blogger.
For to Peter this does not compute—-just doesn’t add up. To Peter this is totally wrong and all the same it is totally right. It must needs be this way. The option is clear—-to do anything else is to “have no share” with Jesus.
“You do not know what I am doing,” says Jesus to Peter, “but later you will understand.” So there it is—we are to yield ourselves to the intimacy of Maundy Thursday and receive that which Jesus offers. We may come to it all later, further down the road, perhaps along the unfolding journey that is faith.
Yet, should we hide away and use reason to ply ourselves from being passive recipients, to beat feet in the other direction, to logically avert that which Jesus offers us, aren’t we opting to “have no share” in Jesus?
Jesus stands there, ubiquitous, entirely present through Maundy Thursday offering us a chance to stand together in intimacy with Jesus while fully bearing our load of hopes-and-fears-of-all-our-years. For isn’t it true that we carry these and all that is ours with us as we receive the Meal, the Mandate to “love on another,” the physicality of awkward touch, and receive our share in Jesus. This is not reasonable, rational, or intellectual—it’s a matter of the heart—and it is right. Irrational? Totally. The way it is? Always.
Right there in the intimacy of it all, an altar is stripped and a sanctuary becomes tomb-empty; where all the hubris and lost hopes, the joys and feelings of inadequacy, the crumpled dreams and ill-suited images stand with us ready to be stripped away—laid bare and open to receive the corpse of Christ.
Intimate? You betcha. Rational? Not a bit? Loving? OMG-yes!
For step by step, footfall by footfall, Jesus is coming into the stripped out, opened up, hollowed out space inside of us. Feet fall upon the way to bring healing, hope, touch, and resurrection. Through all of Maundy Thursday Jesus calls—-to Table, to basin, to love—perhaps his call plies me, and perhaps his call plies you. Come embrace your share, receive your God.