And here He shows the full extent of love
To us whose love is always incomplete,
In vain we search the heavens high above,
The God of love is kneeling at our feet.
– Malcolm Guite, “Maundy Thursday”
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
Just a few days ago, we celebrated Palm Sunday at our church. The children didn’t wave palm branches, but they stood on the risers at the front of the church to lisp the lyric, “The King of Glory comes, the nation rejoices!” They are too young, of course, to understand the thrill of the crowd that greeted Jesus at the Golden Gate as he came up from Bethany, perched on a young donkey. Too young to grasp the hope of liberation from oppression and the power of the throne of David that ran through the crowd that day. Their fervor (the crowd not the children) was driven by what they had heard – that this man Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead.
The disciples, as we might expect at this point, are bewildered, not just by the crowd, but by their teacher’s response. Time and time again, they have watched as he rejected the trappings of earthly authority, and rebuked them for their understanding of power as something to be wielded over others. Now he is parading into Jerusalem, receiving a kingly welcome from which he would have fled before. They do not know that their time with Jesus is drawing to a close. They do not know that the final lessons are at hand.
Just a few nights later, he gathers them for dinner and performs an act that completely shocks them – he kneels before each man and begins to wash his feet.
There is far more happening here than is immediately apparent to the disciples, or even to us. Jesus is acting out the cosmic drama on the stage of this upper room; he steps away from the supper table and lays aside his garments. In twenty-four hours time, rough men will forcefully strip him to his skin in public. They will cuff his head with their fists and mock his nakedness. In twenty-four hours they will force a crown of thorns onto his head, and sarcastically lay a robe on his back and cackle at his misery. These are Roman soldiers, and they have no particular interest in this Nazarene. For them he is merely an object of derision, a bit of diversion on which they can take out the frustration of a lonely posting on the outskirts of the Roman empire. So they will strip him down and leave him to stand before them, bruised and bleeding, while they laugh and laugh.
But tonight, before his disciples, he carefully removes his garments of his own free will and sets them aside. Tonight he has work to do. He takes up a towel, and wraps it around himself, covering his body with it like an apron, as a menial worker would do before beginning a dirty task. Then he takes up a basin filled with water and begins to wash his disciples’ feet.
How long does it take to wash the feet of twelve men? An hour? Two? And yes, I say all twelve, for there’s no reason to believe that he does not wash the feet of the traitor Judas, as well. He kneels before each man, takes each foot in his hands, lovingly cleanses it, dries it, sets it back down again. The Messiah who stoops down.
What an awkward, uncomfortable hour for Peter and a roomful of men who do not entirely understand the purposes of their teacher. At Bethany, Mary had knelt before him and broken a pint of fragrant oil all over the Rabbi’s feet, and the aroma of the spikenard filled the dining room as she wiped his feet clean with her hair. There, it was the costliness of the perfume that made his followers so uncomfortable that they could hardly stand it. It seemed so inappropriate, so wasteful. A year’s worth of wages could have been used in so many ways. Tonight, it is Peter who resists, for he understands something of the Great Reversal that Jesus is enacting in front of him. The sight of the Teacher lowering himself to the floor, stripped down, to do the work of the household servant is too much for him. “Lord, you shall never wash my feet!” But he washes them anyway, and when he’s completed his work, Jesus takes up his garments again and resumes his place at the table.
Can you see the roadmap that the Teacher draws out for his disciples? It traces out the shape of a humble, transparent act of service, an earthly deed, but it mirrors the shape of his glorious, cosmic deed in coming as the Christ. For the Son of God steps down from his place, sets aside his glory and stoops to serve humanity in the humblest of ways, by becoming human. He gives up the majesty and the privilege of his rightful position in glory because here too, he has work to do. He walks with the poor, he mourns with the grieving, heals the sick, touches the leper. He dines with sinners and tax-collectors and prostitutes. He gives up his life for the sins of the world, not just for the twelve, but for the soldiers who will beat him and drive the nails and then, at the foot of the cross, look up in wonder. For the thief who hangs next to him. For those who will come to believe only after they cry out “Crucify him!” Jesus gives up his life for the enemies of God.
And when his work is complete, he takes up his glory again and ascends to heaven, resuming his rightful place with the One who sent him.
In the upper room, the drama has concluded and the lesson has begun. Jesus puts his garment again and returns to his place at the table. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asks. “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.”
Jesus has been sent into the world to do the work of the One who sent him, and he sets aside any claim to glory so that he can be about that work. In every human encounter, he meets the very real and very human needs of the people he meets, such that everything he does – healing, touching, grieving, questioning – all of it highlights the contrast between his humility and his majesty, between the poverty and the glory of the Sent One who abases himself in obedience to the One who sent him.
His command to his disciples becomes all the more meaningful in light of who he is, for he tells them that they are to imitate him in this mission. What do they make of this? For that matter, what are we to make of it? For his command is as much for us as if he had knelt before us in that room and washed our feet, as well.
Our imitation of the mission of Jesus will be dimmed and distorted by our own sinfulness, to be sure, but it is no less real. Indeed, it is the very mission that he gave to the disciples that he gives to us. I must believe that it’s possible for us, two thousand years later, to have a real sense of God’s mission for us in this world, and it looks very much like what we see him acting out here in the upper room: laying aside any claim that we think we might have to any kind of glory or honor or respect in this world, and instead in humility going out into the world to serve others, to abase ourselves in the eyes of the world so that we can do the will of the One who sends us.
It will be different for each one, of course, and some of you may be sent out to work among Ebola patients, or the very poor and destitute, or to rescue victims of human trafficking or to help refugees. Most of you will likely be sent to neighborhoods in the suburbs, or to cities, to drab office buildings and construction sites and insurance companies and storefronts. I could not tell you exactly where Jesus will send you anymore than I could tell you the headlines in the newspaper a week from now, or the numbers for tomorrow’s lottery. But I can tell you that for every one who calls himself a disciple of Jesus, he sends them out with work to do, and regardless of the location it is always the same work – loving and serving the people in that place. Those people may be delightful and very much similar to you, but it’s more likely that at some point he’ll put you amongst those who are not like you at all, people who you find distasteful, or irritating, or shockingly scandalous. Nevertheless he will send you to them whoever they are, and the task is always the same – in humility to take up the basin and the towel and to love them.
Now, every once and a while these days you’ll find someone who wants to call himself a “servant-leader,” in other words, he wants to hold on to just a shred of his earthly dignity and remind everyone that he has some position of authority in this world, and that authority comes with some privileges, which he promises to wield quite humbly, he assures us. But that’s not at all where we find the Savior. No servant is greater than his Master, he says, and here we find our own Master, stripped of his clothing and kneeling on the floor with a pail of water and a towel. Who are we to remain standing?
Jesus, the king of heaven, kneels in the dust to touch the leper, to speak with the prostitute, to place his hands over the eyes of a blind man and cause him to see again, and yet somehow he is not tainted by the contact. He is not made unclean, but rather they are made whole again. It is another of the great reversals of the kingdom of heaven: what it touches, it changes, and not the other way round. Its invasive power is greater than we could ever have imagined. The majesty of the Savior is not diminished because he kneels. His glory is all the greater because he stoops down to serve.