“Fundamentally, this story is about Jesus loving us, and I thought I knew how much Jesus loved us. There is always more to learn.”
A homily for Maundy Thursday by the Rev. Anne Turner / shared with the congregations of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Great Falls, VA and St. Thomas Episcopal Church, McLean, VA via Zoom conferencing platform / April 9, 2020
For years, I thought I understood what was happening. I thought I knew this story.
Jesus is gathered with his friends for the Passover. They eat dinner together, and then he does this surprising, unexpected thing: he rolls up his sleeves, kneels down, and washes their feet. He reverses the role—honored guest in the place of host, teacher in the place of student, master in the place of servant—and in so doing demonstrates his deep love.
I didn’t just get this story; I got this story. I thought I knew what it meant to wash feet. I have been rolling up my own sleeves, in one way or another, for years. I knew all about little kids and their grubby toes and the need to take care of children in their helplessness. I knew all about traveling to impoverished, dusty places and the gentle hospitality of taking care of the tired person who had been on the road. I knew about the way that older people sometimes can’t reach their own feet, and how they need a companion to do that awkward, mutually humbling act of clipping someone else’s toenails.
Fundamentally, this story is about Jesus loving us, and I thought I knew how much Jesus loved us.
There is always more to learn.
This year, I read about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, and I can see for the first time the tenderness of him touching them at all. I can see the patience and respect in which he talks with Peter about what is happening; I can see the way he understands the fear and anxiety of intimate contact. I can see, I can sense viscerally, just how he is exposing himself to what is so unclean.
What I see, most of all, is what is around the edges of this scene. This story does not tell us about service in the abstract. It tells us about the choice to love in a particular time and place—a place which is, in a way different and yet also like ours, frightening. It is a place where there is no economic security. It is a place where the government has not cared for its people well. It is a place where truth is scarce and where speaking the truth in public comes at a cost. It is a place where health and safety and protection cannot be taken for granted.
Bad things are about to happen. Jesus knows it.
Bad things are happening here, too. From the front page of Monday’s Washington Post: “Americans are being advised to steel themselves for one of the most agonizing weeks in living memory.”
An agonizing week, then, now.
What we are being taught is not only about love that serves. It is also about love that risks, that stands fast in pain, in danger, even in horror. This is the love of the new Passover, love that clings to us even when the cost of connection is huge. Jesus knows that his friends will all bail on him, but he draws closer to them. And he chooses, in that most dangerous moment, to be vulnerable for the sake of love.
You might say that Jesus takes off his protective gear. Jesus takes off the mask that might keep him safe and instead walks six feet over and sits down next to us. Jesus could be anywhere else, and instead he casts his lot in with the disease and danger of humanity.
I hesitated to use this image, because it sounds a lot like substitutionary atonement, the idea that we are miserable sinners deserving God’s punishment, and Jesus steps between us and an angry God to take the heat. I don’t believe that God is angry, and I don’t believe that we are being punished. But I do believe that Jesus shows us a degree of love here the rest of us human beings struggle to master.
There with a towel in his hand, there touching what is contaminated for the sake of those who have become unclean, Jesus demonstrates what God’s love really means for us. Knowing everything, completely informed, Jesus takes this great risk. I’m not sure exactly what virtue he is demonstrating—maybe hope, maybe faith. But is it a virtue that allows him to demonstrate the breadth and depth of loves possibilities.
I am claiming that Jesus is loving us in the face of danger. Note that I am not claiming that he is protecting us. That doesn’t happen, and I don’t think Jesus promises that. There is no false promise that all will be well, because it won’t, at least not for a while. We all know about Good Friday. But Jesus promises that he will love us into the unsafe places. Jesus demonstrates that there is no place we can go where we will become unlovable, no place too far or too low or too scary for his love to accompany us.
So here is the image I hope you will take away this night and take into tomorrow. Imagine Jesus not washing your feet, but imagine him bagging your groceries, risking himself so that you have enough to eat. Imagine Jesus changing the sheets in the nursing home, dealing with the dirty mess so that vulnerable people are taken care of. Imagine him in the ICU, intubating patients, making sure that the people he loves have air to breathe. Imagine him with the people he cannot save, standing by their bedsides, telling them that they are not alone.
Imagine him doing those things to the people who need him. Imagine him doing those things for you.
Do we know this story? I think we will spend a lifetime trying to learn it, and understand it, and follow its example.
Reprinted with permission from: