Gospel of John 13:1-17, 31b-35
March 24th, 2016: Maundy Thursday
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Jesus said to Peter: ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’
This is a big night in our Christian tradition! It is the night when Jesus meets and eats for the last time with his friends. And, it is the night when our fully human Savior wrestles, maybe for the first time, with the depth of his own human fear and angst in the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s a night when Jesus gets to see just who his friends are, or rather how his friends are. This night Jesus is betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, disserted by the rest of his disciples, and arrested before dawn on charges that he knows will lead him to a grisly and brutal death in very short order. It is hard to overstate the depth of emotion that Jesus will likely be feeling this night.
Tonight is the start of our Holy Triduum, the three days that constitute the Christian community as……a religion. That is, as a movement that promises new life.
And so we gather here to remember this last night of earthly freedom in this w/holy human, and yet fully divine life. And tonight we remember it through the lens of the Gospel according to John. This passage in John is comparable to the telling of the Last Supper in the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. However, in those accounts, Jesus breaks bread with his disciples and utters what we call the words of institution, which now constitutes our Eucharistic prayer. But John’s Gospel offers us a distinctly different view of Jesus’ last encounter with his disciples. First of all, John spends a lot more time on Jesus’ last night with the disciples than do the other Gospels. They devote several verses, but John devotes 5 full chapters; five chapters known to biblical scholars as the “Farewell Discourse.” Jesus has a lot to teach before he leaves this mortal coil. And he saves the best for last.
The evangelist John, and only the evangelist John, tells us that the distinctive grace in Jesus’ last evening with his disciples is not a meal but a footbath. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus talks about bread and wine as the sacraments. But in John the sacrament is service, in effect, Jesus says to Peter: ‘Unless I serve you by washing your feet, you have no share with me.’
Boy, it seems like the last thing in the world that a man headed for execution would be interested in doing is washing his friend’s filthy feet. Nevertheless, there is Jesus, insisting to Peter: ‘Unless I wash you, you have no piece of me’ This is Jesus’ last request, not a steak and a good cigar, but one more opportunity to show his friends how much he loves them; one more chance to serve them. Personally. And when my time comes to shuffle off this mortal coil, I hope and pray with all of my heart that that will be my last wish, just one more chance to serve my fellow featherless bi-peds…..even the ones I know will betray me and deny me. But sadly, I am guessing that foot washing will not be on my last request list.
Maybe because it’s hard for me/us to get our arms around the power of this gesture. Foot-washing has little or no place in our own privileged culture. In our neck of the developed world most of our feet get washed with the rest of us at least a few times a week. We don’t actually need our feet to be washed. Such an activity belongs either to the parts of our world where a shower is a luxury, or to an earlier day when personal grooming was not….. available on every corner by the likes of the Body Shop. It belongs to a time when ritual cleansing was much more of a concern than personal hygiene. A day when it was much more important to spend your resources on Temple sacrifices that would provide for the purification of your soul than footbaths that would address the cleanliness of your soles. Ritual purification was not only encouraged in Jesus’ day, it was nearly mandatory for Jews, and it was a major source of income for the Temple.
And so this last act by Jesus, to wash the feet of his disciples, is not only a gesture of love, it is also an act of personal defiance aimed at shaming the religious status quo. By cleansing the feet of his friends Jesus is shifting the focus, shifting the saving grace from ritual purification to personal relationship.
‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’
By washing the feet of his friends Jesus is changing the whole notion of what it means to honor God. He is changing the currency of piety, to personal service rather than ritual sacrifice. Like teaching on the Sabbath and turning over the tables in the Temple, Jesus is upending the purification standards by washing, not the souls, but the soles of his disciples. The Kingdom of God, he is saying, is here in our connections with each other.
‘Unless I wash your feet, you have no share with me.’
As with most things theological and otherwise, this passage seems a lot more clear to me through the lens of my work with horses. A horse’s feet, as you may know, are critical to its health and to its very survival. It’s partially about the way they are hard wired. Horses are prey animals – as are all natural vegetarians. Their only relationship to the meat eating world is, well, that they are made of meat. Humans, like dogs and cats and all other meat eaters, are predators. Predators survive by acquiring prey animals. Prey animals survive by successfully fleeing from predators. Survival for each requires almost diametrically opposed ontological wiring.
And so while predators are naturally predisposed to an instinct for acquisition, prey animals are predisposed to an instinct for fear. Unlike predators, prey animals are inherently governed by their vulnerabilities.
Unlike power in the world of predators, power in the horse world is not grounded in acquisition. It has nothing to do with accomplishment. It is not about the accumulation of conquests or commendations or critical acclaim. Power in the horse world is rather about…..crowd control. That is, power in the world of prey animals is all about being able to move the other guy’s feet. To push the threat away, or to give chase until the predator drops from exhaustion. Moving the other guy’s feet. That is power. The most powerful horse in the herd, the dominant mare, the head honcho, is the one that can get all of the others to move their feet. When a predator approaches, a horse will never choose to stand his ground and fight, a horse will always choose to flee. Prey animals are not designed to fight. They are rather designed for flight.
Unless you move your feet, there will be no me to share.’
And so horses are especially sensitive to the intentions of others. They are built to sense the fear of impending danger in the herd, and they are designed to flee when even the slightest inkling of such fear arises. This is where the health of their feet comes in. Second only to a horse’s detection of aggression and fear is their dependence on healthy, well tended flight-worthy feet. Good fear instincts and healthy feet, that is the recipe for survival in the horse world.
And so good stewardship of horses includes excellent and regular attention to their feet. A horse’s feet must be inspected and cleaned regularly. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to accomplish this. Each foot must be lifted and tended while the horse is still standing…….directly over you, albeit not always standing still. It is impossible to clean the feet of a horse without the full cooperation of that horse. There is no way to clean a hoof unless the horse agrees to lift it. And no matter how fierce or fit you may be, no human is in any position to undertake a struggle of wills with 1,000 plus pounds of pure objection. If the horse does not want you to lift his leg….you might as well be trying to lift a Subaru.
And so if you have ever cleaned the foot of a horse, you will know that fear is just part of the deal. You put yourself in the most vulnerable position imaginable. You are crouched at your lowest level to the ground, balanced only on your shaking thighs, underneath hundreds, maybe even thousands of pounds of unpredictable muscle, staring at four sharp hooves that are each less than a boxers jab from your jugular. And I don’t know about you, but that is almost always an occasion for absolute, heart pounding, hyperventilating fear. At least it was for me. At least at first.
And so when I first started working with horses (about 14 years ago), I spent an inordinate amount of time figuring out how to organize cleaning their feet. First I had to calm my nerves and muster my courage. Then I had to coax the horse into wanting to lift his feet. It could easily take me 10 minutes to get my massive Hanoverian Thoroughbred, Izzy, to lift the very first leg. It was frustrating, to say the least. And, candidly, it was terribly hurtful. I took Izzy’s refusal to offer me his feet as a form of personal rejection. Maybe Jesus felt this way with Peter, as well.
I thought we were friends. I thought we shared a bond of mutual love and concern for each other. I had invested so much in building what I had hoped was a solid relationship with this strange “Other.” And yet he repeatedly resisted my attempts to pick his hooves. It was hurtful. If I could muster the courage to bend my back-aching body down underneath his humongous belly to tend and clean his mud-caked, pothole-sized hooves, well the least he could do was fork one over. But more often than not, I would bend down and he would patently refuse to budge. As a stubborn, grumpy child might refuse to shake your outstretched hand. Frustrating and hurtful.
It took me awhile to figure it out. But eventually it occurred to me that because horses are motivated by fear, and are dependent upon their four legs to be in ready position to flee at any given moment, offering one of those legs up, at any time, puts the horse in an uncomfortably vulnerable position. They are not wired to surrender any leg at any time to any purpose other than flight. And so, I thought, it had nothing to do with how much Izzy loved and trusted me, it was about his instinct for survival.
It was a satisfying revelation, but it did not solve my problem. I understood why Izzy was reluctant to lift his legs, but that did not make it any easier to clean his feet. He still had no share with me….or vice versa.
Until one day, I brought a friend to the stable. Izzy was particularly restless that day. He just would not stand still, his huge muscular legs danced and hopped and spurted threatening kicks as I dodged and weaved under him trying to secure even one foot for cleaning. And my friend said: aren’t you frightened? He’s really big. And I thought, Oooooooh. I am frightened. In fact, I’m scared to death. He is big! And I realized that on that particular day my normal fear had some added dimensions. I was not just afraid for my physical safety. On that particular day I was also afraid of looking like an….amateur in front of my friend. I had invited her to come and see my gorgeous giant horse and my fearless skill in handling him; to see how brave and adept I was, even as I was relatively new to horsemanship. And so the more Izzy refused my attempts at simple grooming, the more uncomfortable I became with the whole situation. And pretty soon, I was one big bundle of multi-flowing fears.
And how dense had I been?! Of course Izzy sensed it. He was not hurtfully shunning my request to lift his leg, he was reacting to my fear. He was not putting me off, he was reading my anxiety and thinking, “Hey, she’s afraid of something, maybe I should be afraid of something too! And my best instincts tell me that when I am afraid, the last thing I should do is disable a leg. I might need to get out of here if what she is fearing attacks us. So I am going to keep dancing until the coast is clear.”
I never had trouble cleaning Izzy’s feet after that. As soon as I learned to put down my fear, I could easily pick up his feet. All along, I had been a victim of my own fear. The problem was my vulnerability, not Izzy’s. And until I owned that vulnerability, until I acknowledged and relieved my own fear, I could have no share of Izzy. I think Peter might have felt a similar vulnerability as Jesus asked to tend his feet.
‘Unless I wash your feet, you have no share with me.’
It is a fearful thing to put ourselves in the hands of another; to allow ourselves to be served by one who seems….out of our league. But the mutuality of our relationships, which is grounded in the dignity of our creation, is all that matters. Because that is where love lives…..in the fearless mutuality. In the sharing of our vulnerabilities. In the baring of our feet.
The term Maundy Thursday comes from this very passage in John’s Gospel. Translated from the Latin, it means “mandate.” Jesus says: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you. A new commandment. A new mandate. Love one another as I have loved you. Clean each other’s feet as I have cleaned yours. Love each other without boundaries or measure. Love each other with a love that washes the other’s feet on the night before the end.
And so tonight we are invited to follow Jesus as he shows us what it means to love as God loves…..without fear. We are invited into a mutuality that begins when we acknowledge our shared vulnerabilities and tend our mutual needs. Service is the gold standard in the kingdom of heaven. So tonight we are invited to kick off our shoes, serve each other with wild abandon, and fork over our fear. Unless we wash each other’s feet…..
© March 2016, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw