Washing Feet and Servant Leadership

Sermon, March 24, Maundy Thursday, Year C
John 13:1-17; 31b-35

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Today is Maundy Thursday, when the Church commemorates three things.  The first is Jesus’ command to love one another.  This is where the name “Maundy” Thursday comes from.  The Latin word for command is mandatum – which has become “Maundy.”  As we heard at the end of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus told us “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”    The second thing the Church commemorates today is the institution of the Lord’s Supper by Jesus on the night before he was captured, tried and crucified.  We heard this in our passage from First Corinthians.  The third thing we commemorate is the washing of feet.  Our Gospel passage describes how Jesus washed the disciples’ feet.

It is this third thing that makes us scratch our heads.  We can understand Jesus’ command to love one another – that sounds pretty Christian and something we ought to do.  And we celebrate the Lord’s Supper pretty much every week, and so that is rather familiar to us.  But this mention of foot washing seems rather dated to us, and the odd inclusion of foot washing during the service makes many of us uncomfortable.  It’s weird to have someone wash our feet.  If you are like me, the foot washing is the part of the service that requires a bit more thought.

It is important that we do since, after he washed their feet, Jesus told his disciples “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”  Jesus is telling us that he set an example for us which we are to follow.  Now, let me say right off the bat – if your church growth strategy is regular foot washing, my bet is that your church will either decline pretty quickly or it will fill up with some rather questionable newcomers.  So what really is Jesus telling us?

To begin with, we need to understand what foot washing meant in the ancient near east.  When you were going to go out to an important event, you would wash at home, put on your best clothes and then you would walk the dusty streets in your sandals until you arrived.  When you got to where you were going, your feet would be dusty and dirty and it was customary to have them washed.  Thus, Jesus says “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet.”  Normally, the task of washing the guest’s feet was left to the household slaves.

By washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus was taking on the role of the lowest of servants.  This is why Peter exclaims “No, you shall never wash my feet.”  By washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus was turning the social order on its head.  It’s hard for us to imagine what this meant.  I can only think of an example that comes only a little bit close.  A couple of weeks back, I was hosting a lunch meeting in our library conference room between myself, the head university librarian and some of other librarians that we supervised.  Although I was not the highest person in the pecking order, I was number two, and I was the meeting host.  Our meeting room was going to be used immediately after we were finished and I had agreed that I would clear out the lunch dishes so that the caterer could come and get them.  At a point in the meeting that did not concern me, I got up and began to gather up the plates.  This made one of my librarians very uncomfortable, and he whispered to me “Why are you cleaning up the dishes?”  It made him uncomfortable that I was doing this.  Leaders are not supposed to do work that is thought to be beneath them.

But Jesus did.  And he did it to make a point.  There is the obvious double meaning that Jesus needs to wash us, as in washing us of our sins, and Jesus makes that plain when he says to Peter “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”  But there is another point that Jesus is making.  He says “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.  Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

In other words, Jesus is saying to them that he is their leader and lord, and, in that capacity, he acted like a servant towards them.  And what’s more they should now act as servants towards each other.  There is a term for this concept and it is called servant leadership.  And yes, that is a leadership concept that is popular right now in management theory, but it is much more than that.  It is how Jesus calls each one of us to act towards each other.  Note carefully that Jesus doesn’t say have “I set you an example that your clergy should do as I have done for you.”  No.  He is addressing all of the disciples.  This is a calling on each one of us.

Why does Jesus put this calling on us?  Out of love.  Remember how I mentioned that Maundy Thursday commemorates two other things besides foot washing?  One was Jesus command that we love one another as he loved us.  The second was the commemoration of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, which is a commemoration of Jesus’s death for us on the cross.  He died for us because of his great love for us.  Jesus calls us to servant leadership out of this great love.  If we love one another, we will put others first, and we will be as servants to them.

The Bible scholar and former Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright, wrote about what this means for church leaders.  I believe that each one of us is a Christian leader, and so I think that this should apply to each one of us:

The critical thing is whether the same leader is prepared to get up in the middle of the night to sit beside the bed of an old, frail, frightened man who is dying all alone. The test that matters is whether the same leader is ready, without a word of either complaint or boasting, to stay behind after the meeting and do the washing-up or put out the garbage. Of course, it’s important that everybody in a church family helps with the necessary tasks. But the truly Christlike leader is known by the ease and spontaneity with which he or she does the little, annoying, messy things – the things which in the ancient world the slave would do, the things which in our world we always secretly hope someone else will do so we won’t have to waste our time, to demean ourselves.

Bishop Wright continues, and I don’t think that I can put this any better than he did:

The point is that, for us as for Jesus, we should be looking away from ourselves, and at the world we are supposed to be serving. Where the world’s needs and our vocation meet is where we ought to be, ready to take on insignificant roles if that’s what God wants…. And, as with Jesus, the picture of footwashing is meant to serve not only as a picture of all sorts of menial tasks that we may be called to perform…. It also points towards the much larger challenge…. the challenge to follow Jesus all the way to the cross, to lay down life itself in the service of God and the world he came to save.

And so we see that the three things that the Church commemorates on Maundy Thursday – love, laying down one’s life for others, and servant leadership – are really the same thing.  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

Let us pray.

Holy Father, you put all power and authority into the hands of your son Jesus Christ, who washed the disciples’ feet in humble service.  Teach us to love one another as Christ has loved us, so that everyone will know that we are his disciples; through Jesus Christ our Lord we pray.   Amen.

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