John 13:1-17, 31b-35 – Maundy Thursday
I am sorry for the delay in this writing. Like my struggle with Palm Sunday (and all of Holy Week really), there are so many traditions and different text choices that I didn’t know how I wanted to approach them. But I still want to write something in case it is helpful for those that are writing last minute and need a thought or two.
This is simultaneously a well-known text and entirely unknown. Part of why we’re less familiar is because we conflate John’s meal with the Last Supper of the synoptics. We just hear or assume Paul’s 1st Corinthians words coming out of Jesus’ mouth, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Part of why we’re less familiar is because this is the entry point to the very long section that is the Farewell Discourse, that we haphazardly cover at random points through the back end of the Easter season. Hindsight is 20/20.
But what we know well (because it makes us uncomfortable – even if we like it) is the foot washing. This act of servanthood. This act of forgiveness. Right before everything happens, before the disciples will flee, before Peter will deny him, before Judas formally betrays him, Jesus washes their feet. An act of forgiveness, grace, and love, for them despite everything that will come next.
Maybe we need to hear that too.
I don’t think we need to beat people over the head with the idea that we should feel guilty for Jesus’ death. I don’t think we need to impose guilt and we certainly do not need to impose shame as the point of Holy Week.
But, for many of us, the guilt may already be there. Some shame may already be within us that we haven’t been able to let go.
Time to get real with y’all…
As an alcoholic in recovery, there are days when I struggle to see my life as anything other than the harms that I enacted in my days of drinking. Despite being 8 years sober, those thoughts and pains creep back into my mind. Even for some for which I’ve made amends. Those memories surface and the shame spiral begins to overwhelm my mind. “Am I anything more than my worst actions?”
Now, let me share my deepest shame… I’m beginning to forget. Worse than remembering all those acts that I’ve lived to atone for, I’m now starting to forget my drinking days. Because of time, because of how substances change and release memory, I’m starting to forget what I did. I’m starting to forget the names. And so shame has been setting in a new way. No longer able to shame myself with the memories, I shame myself for forgetting. “How could I ever forget a harm I committed? What kind of evil am I?”
Shame and guilt are present in our congregations whether we address it or not. We can tell people “don’t feel shame” but that doesn’t negate that the feelings exist anyway.
And so, Maundy Thursday is an amazing night to address those feelings. Jesus sees us in our guilt and our shame and he washes it away. Not trying to untangle the messiness, not trying to assign blame, not trying to scold for feeling the feeling in the first place. Jesus, God incarnate, who has seen us in all our humanity, washes us clean so that we might live.
The washing of feet isn’t a sacrament in the Lutheran Church. It is a ritual action that some congregations perform on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week, but it is not required, and many churches have discontinued the practice. But the Lutheran tradition carries a form of this concept through Martin Luther’s understanding of baptism.
Luther is often quoted as saying, “Remember your baptism daily each time you wash your face.” While some scholars agree that he probably did not actually say this, he did write, in his Large Catechism,
“Baptism is not a work that we do but… a treasure that God gives us and faith grasps…. In baptism, therefore, every Christian has enough to study and practice all his or her life…. Thus, we must regard baptism and put it to use in such a way that we may draw strength and comfort from it when our sins or conscience oppress us, and say: “But I am baptized! And if I have been baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body ….”
Jesus’s actions on that night showed his friends that, no matter what happened next, Jesus loved them. No matter what came next—their running away, their denying that they knew him, their turning him over to the Roman officials—none of that could stop Jesus from loving each and every one of them. Unrelenting love. Unrelenting grace. Luther’s quote helps to put foot washing in sacramental perspective. As we remember our baptism, we are not just washing our faces to be clean, we are remembering the unrelenting love and grace of God now and forevermore.
This night, we are reminded of Jesus’ love and forgiveness. Even before he is betrayed. Even before he is turned over to the guards. Even before the cross, this night we hear that we are forgiven.
There are things, shames and guilts that can build up between us and our loved ones, but also between us and God. On this night, we are reminded of the waters of God’s promise that have washed us clean so that nothing can stand in the way of us feeling the love of God.
No matter what you’ve done or left undone. No matter what you’re holding onto or what you can’t let go. When you come to this table, when you sit with Jesus at this meal, there is nothing that Jesus does not see. And through all of that, these words of promise are for you.
That nothing can separate us from the love of God. And freed by the love that Christ has shown us, freed by the waters that have washed us clean, removing all the filth that has built up in our lives, we are forgiven and free… to feel the unrelenting love of God in our lives and share that love with others.
 Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert; Fortress, 2000.
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