This is the text of a sermon preached in the IGST (International Graduate School of Theology) English Worship at the Methodist Theological University on Maundy Thursday, 5th April, 2012. A related video is at the bottom.
(Scripture Reading – The Gospel According to St. John 13: 1-7)
We are in the middle of perhaps the most important week in the Christian calendar.
This long week began with a triumphant entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and will end on Easter or Resurrection Sunday with an empty tomb and appearances to Mary Magdalene and others.
In between these two Sundays, however, we find rejection, humiliation and death. In the midst of these moments of suffering, humankind’s worst characteristics are shown. We are reminded just how low we humans are capable of sinking – how low we can go as a result of greed for wealth, lust for power and fear that causes us to doubt and to treat the other, the stranger, the foreigner so badly.
Yes we see all these things during Holy Week; we see them done to Jesus. But Holy Week and Easter is not only about what happened to Jesus. More importantly it is about what Jesus did.
As we encounter all this greed, betrayal and violence – we a given a glimpse of love. As we encounter injustice – we receive forgiveness. Surrounded by conflict – we experience reconciliation.
As we witness how low greed, lust and fear can take us – we are shown that love takes us lower in a way that also lifts us up. We are shown humility.
The second person of the Godhead, the Logos, the Son, the Christ, the highest, shows us how low we can go out of love.
The humility of Jesus during Holy Week is reflected in His washing of His disciples’ feet. He performs the lowliest of tasks that only the lowest servant in the household would do.
These feet would have been dirty – maybe the dirtiest feet. The gospels show the disciples wearing sandals, but also not there are references to them not wearing anything on their feet.
I would like you to close your eyes for a moment and imagine. Imagine feet covered in the thick dust of the dry Palestinian ground, or perhaps caked in mud – dry and sticky or liquid and squishy. Perhaps feet which have stepped in the smelly droppings of an animal.
Can you do that? Imagine those dirty, stinky, feet. Can you see that?
Now imagine yourself washing those feet.
Could you do it?
Could you wash them?
We all wash our own feet but how about another’s?
How about mine? Could you wash my feet? I know they are probably twice the size of some of your feet! They would probably make good skis. Would you wash something like this?
Remember, this is the job of the lowliest of servants. None of the disciples’ feet were clean. Nobody wanted to wash the other’s feet. No one wanted to make themselves lower than the other. They had already argued about who was the greatest. So they don’t wash their own feet and they don’t wash any of the others’!
Then Jesus, their Master, their guru, their Lord; Jesus teaches them a lesson about humility – what it means to be humble. Humility is about love.
What a painful and deeply moving lesson!
Jesus says in John 13:13-15:
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 another’s feet, I have set an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
This is the challenge of humility!
We are okay to bow down, to kneel at the feet of Jesus. “Oh how I’d love to wash the feet of Jesus!” We are okay to bow down, to kneel at the feet of our grandparents and our parents and wash their feet.
We are even okay to bow down, to kneel at the feet of our kyosonim (professors) and wash their feet – especially if we might get better grades for it!
We could maybe even bow down and kneel before our friends and wash their feet. In the culture here in Korea we bow before all these people.
But what about doing this to those younger than us? Those lower than us? Post graduate to Undergraduate? Teacher to Student? Local to the stranger, the foreigner? Us to the other? Man to the woman?
It seems the higher we go in our Christian faith journey, we are called to bend lower and lower. Just like the game of limbo, we win when we a able to bend don lower than anyone else.
We are here at MTU because we a leaders in our church or future leaders of the church. But Jesus teaches us the kind of leader he wants us to be: a humble servant-leader. That is what we are called to be. Humble. Servants.
In my context in Fiji, Holy Week is observed by almost every church. There are special weekday services and special worship on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In my home church on Maundy Thursday, today, we celebrate Jesus’ Last Supper and often we have the washing of the feet as part of the washing.
I still remember the first time we did the Washing of the Feet. No one wanted to have their feet washed by myself or the senior pastor (Circuit minister). They kept washing our feet. It became embarrassing for us.
The following year, I chose some members of the congregation in advance and washed their feet. They then washed the feet of others and so on.
The third year, almost everyone came up to have their feet washed, which was great. However no one relieved me so I spent about half an hour washing feet. I learnt a painful lesson about humility that evening. My back taught me the true meaning of bending low.
The year no one wanted the pastors to wash their feet, I realised that we need to empower our communities to let us serve them. We need to help them receive our love so they can share their love with others.
One year my son, he must have been about five years old, decided that he wanted to have his feet washed. By the time he came up to be washed everyone had pretty much sat down. So he sat and waited. He got a few bad looks from the congregation, probably thinking, “Who does this little boy think he is? The only kid coming up for foot washing!”
It got a bit uncomfortable as no one came to wash his feet. I was tempted to wash them myself just to finish up – but wanted to see what would happen. Plus I wash his feet all the time and I knew he would not appreciate it as much as if someone else did it.
Then one of our senior members, I think our Chief Steward, stood up, came over and lovingly washed my little boy’s feet. When it was over my son gave him a big hug. Now whenever my son meets him he gives him a big hug and immediately puts a big smile on this man’s face.
Who’s feet would you wash today. Who’s feet would I, a male Pacific Islander wash? How about a woman from Asia. (To Angela) Sister, may I wash your feet?
(Angela’s feet are washed - see video below.)
In Bethlehem today you will find the Church of the Nativity, built over what is regarded as the birthplace of Jesus. The entrance into this church is a very low door that children could enter easily but that you or I would have trouble entering. We would have to bend quite low.
It serves as a reminder to us that we have to bend low to enter the kingdom. We have to bend as as a child. We have to bend as low as a servant.
I came across the following poem,
“Humility is a low door
To go through it
One must bend
Down enough to smell the ground
The scent of past lives
And reminds us that death
Captures all in the end
This is what makes
Brothers and sisters, Jesus asks you: “How low will you go”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen
“Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity”