Maundy Thursday 2023

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When I was in high school our church youth group would always do at least one weekend retreat a year. Our youth group consisted of about 20 kids. On one retreat the advisors incorporated foot washing into the worship service. Sitting side by side in a row of chairs, feelings of self-consciousness and awkwardness prevailed, as we washed the feet of the person seated to the left of us. Being that it was a group of middle class white kids who had good socks and shoes, the feet were relatively clean to start with. But the fact that we were washing clean feet didn’t prevent us from feeling awkward. As it is neither a common practice here or a needed practice, the depth of the meaning of foot washing is often not felt in the same way as it was in Jesus’ time.

I spent six years living in the Middle East and Africa, during which time I lived in sandals, walking on dusty roads and dirt roads, much like in the time of Jesus. My feet were often dirty by the end of the day and in need of washing. Imagine washing someone’s feet that were very dirty! Not a pleasant thought. In Jesus’ time, the person who would be required to do the washing would have been the person of least importance - the servant, the woman, perhaps a child. No man, especially not one of Jesus’ stature, would be kneeling before another man to wash his dirty feet. But this was the last night that Jesus was to have with his disciples and he wanted to make sure his disciples had it sealed in their minds and in their hearts one of the primary lessons that he had been teaching them over and over again during the three years that they had been together: servanthood.

You may remember that the brothers, James and John, asked to sit at the right and left side of Jesus in glory. I imagine the disappointment Jesus must have felt when he was asked that. Three years of trying to teach humility and service - and it takes humility to be able to serve, especially in washing another’s feet -  and yet here are the brothers seeking glory with Jesus. His whole ministry had been about servanthood and not glory, yet here were two of his disciples still seeking that.

In Matthew, Jesus calls the disciples to him and says, “You know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be chief among you, let them be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” 


Humility and service. That is what Jesus is reminding the disciples and us to be and to do.

But what keeps so many people from being able to serve in humility and service?  We are shown that in Peter’s response. Peter did not want Jesus to wash his feet due to Pride. He did not want to see his Lord and Master in such a lowly position. Was it out of reverence he had for Jesus or was it that on some level he understood that to accept his leader in such a way would force him to follow in the same manner? I think that sometimes it is hard for middle class people, especially white people, to kneel before another in service. We don’t want to get dirty; yet so much of what  Jesus showed us with his life was going into the trenches, getting dirty, doing whatever it takes to care for those who need Christ the most. This may mean entering into the pain of another to help bring healing and peace, going into a roach infested home to bring life to an elderly mentally ill woman, or cleaning someone who is unable to clean themselves. Being called to serve means putting away pride and putting on the cloak of humility and service.

And, finally, Jesus did not put any conditions on his service. Quid Pro Quo is a phrase we heard a lot about in the last few years from our political leaders, but there was no quid pro quo with Jesus. Jesus even humbled himself to wash the feet of the one who was to betray him. He knew what Judas was about to do, but that is what Jesus is all about - love, forgiveness, grace, mercy. Whatever sense of betrayal he might have been feeling, knowing what Judas was about to do, Jesus still took to bended knee to wash the feet of his betrayer. Unconditional love. That is what Jesus demonstrated in this foot washing. Unconditional love, even to Judas.

And that is the example that Jesus gave to us in this act of foot washing - humility and service, the putting aside of pride, unconditional love, and most of all we are reminded that Jesus never asks us to do something that he hasn’t already done himself.

In the 1990s a youth group leader in Michigan, Janie Tinklenberg, began the grassroots movement WWJD - do you remember that?  WWJD. What Would Jesus Do? She started this to help the teenagers in her group remember the phrase, to remember to ask themselves when faced with different challenges, what would Jesus do? It may seem hokey to some, but it would be good for all of us to ask ourselves that when faced with something God may be calling us to do that we find especially challenging. WWJD - What Would Jesus Do? Would he go on bended knee to help? Would he embrace the drug addict? The prisoner? The person who is caught up in conspiracy theories? Would he enter the pain of someone who is lost in grief? We know the answer to that and we know that we need to put pride aside. We need not fear getting our hands or feet dirty. For it is just dirt that can be washed away. Christ cleansed us physically and spiritually. We are called to clean others as well. We are called to serve and to serve with humility and  love. May we remember our Lord, Jesus Christ on bended knee, taking the position of servant, and may we be able to follow in his example. Amen.

© 2023 Anna von Winckler