Deacon Terry Gatwood: A New Commandment

Sermon delivered on Maundy Thursday, March 25, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 116.1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11,23-26; John 13.1-7, 31b-35.

Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Standing at the doorways into many homes during this period of the Ancient Near East would have been a servant with one essential task: to wash the feet of those who entered the home. As touching another’s’ dirty feet was something that would have never been done by anyone of higher stature this task naturally fell to those of low standing in the community. Most of us know about things rolling downhill towards the least among us, which has sometimes been ourselves. These servants were looked down upon because of the disgusting nature of their job, and the fact that God had obviously, in the prevailing culture’s mind, not blessed them to have any sort of stature.

So it really isn’t all that difficult to understand when Peter freaks out as Jesus takes off his outer garment, wraps a towel around his waist, and washes his way through the gathered disciples’ feet. When he comes to Peter, Peter gives him one of those “what in the world do you think you’re doing!” responses. This is the one we have called Teacher, Rabbi; I have confessed aloud that this man, Jesus, is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and the only one to whom we can go. He is the only one who has the words of eternal life! No, no, no, Jesus; do not touch my feet, for I am not worthy to have someone like you do this. This is the kind of stuff that is completely beneath you. Please do not touch my feet. This is the work of servants and slaves.

But Jesus insists that this must be done. “Unless I wash you, Peter, you have no share with me.” Jesus realizes that this act is a scandalous thing in this time and place, but what he is doing will be understood by his disciples after this night. Here he is, the very Son of God the Father, washing from their feet the dust of the earth that he had created. Here is the Son of God, Jesus, washing the feet of a tax collector, a bunch of fishermen, and a man who belonged to a violent group of zealots. This was a ragtag group of people who, by all measure in their culture, did not deserve to have this done to them by their own Rabbi. They knew full well that what Jesus is saying to them when he tells them no servant is greater than their master is true. But this master of theirs lowers himself, taking the very nature of a servant, the nature of the lowest of low positions in the eyes of the people. And he tells his disciples, flat out, that as he has done to them they ought to do for one another. He has given them the example to answer a question they had previously been arguing over: who will be greatest in the Kingdom of God. The answer is the one who is last, who is least, the servant.

The word for servant here, doulos, is best translated as slave. Jesus, the Son of God, has been entirely submissive to the Father, carrying out his will. And in his submission to the Father his Father is glorified in him, and he is glorified. And he is further glorified in the disciples as they observe the pattern set by Jesus’ submission to the Father in following the example that is set before them. And they will be blessed in their submission and servanthood. The life that has been given to these disciples, a life of loving servanthood, is far more than just some idea to be talked about; it is a life that is lived. It is truly the good life.

And what does this look like for us, the Lord’s disciples, now? I will not give any answer to this question right now, as if I have some special knowledge of what it is the Lord is calling each one of us to do to be his servants in a very real and tangible way. But I am asking that you ponder this question seriously; pray to our Lord that he will guide you into how you can best serve, and discuss it with your brothers and sisters in this gathered assembly. God has gifted every one of us in this room to lead as servants; how will you wash the dirty feet of your neighbor? And who are those whose feet you will wash? Pray for God to send you the dirty feet that no one else wants to touch. Find the feet of the one who has been pushed aside, who has never been met with love, and wash them.

We have been called to this high position of lowering ourselves to care for others, even those whom no one else would give a second look towards. This is the love of God becoming real and fleshed out in the world, following the command of our Lord that he gave to us, as he knew he was only hours away from being taken captive and killed; from demonstrating a sacrificial love for us that we could not have even dreamed of. And he gave us this command that people seeing this love would know we are his disciples, and would see the Kingdom of God in their midst. Not just the people who are most like us in culture and stature, but for the life of the whole world does his give his life as an example, and an atonement for sin.

As the Scripture tells us: “For there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Jesus Christ.” And this kind of unity is what he intended when he united himself to us in the flesh, and united us to him, the divine Son of God. So we do as Jesus commanded us, to love one another as he has loved us, taking on servanthood regardless of our positions in society at large and within the Church hierarchy. We wash one another’s feet, we seek to ensure the one who is mistreated in any way in the community is honored among us, and we feast together at the Table of our Lord, remembering his last meal, a Seder celebrating God’s salvation of our forefathers in the Exodus, as we celebrate Christ’s appointed sacrament of his body and blood that draws us together as one with Christ and one another. We remember, we do again, the receiving of the gift of salvation given to us by our loving Father in the work of his Son Jesus, who is ready and willing this night to stretch out his loving arms on the hard wood of the cross for us. We, the Lord’s disciples, now have some understanding of Christ’s commandment to us.

So tonight we will again remember, we will do again, the things Christ has called us to do for one another as an act of his mercy and grace towards all. And we will leave this place quietly reflecting on the sacrifice our Lord will make for us, praying that God will transform us to be servants like his Son Jesus.

May it be so, Lord. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.