Sermon: Maundy Thursday

Continuing my theme of short homilies this year…

Text: John 13:1-15

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

In first-century Palestine washing a person’s feet, or even loosing straps on sandals (John 1:27). was the most menial task a servant could be asked to carry out. It was the task of the ‘bondservant’, a slave who was the lowest of the low. in washing his disciples’ feet Jesus took upon himself the role of such a bondservant.

Jesus’ disciples are offended, even scandalized, by the humility of this gesture of washing their feet. Peter protests strongly, keen to prevent his Lord and Master adopting such a humble and lowly position. ‘No,’ he says, ‘you shall never wash my feet’ (v. 8). Peter was not showing false humility: he was genuinely shocked, horrified even, that Jesus should adopt the position of a slave.

We, unlike Peter in this moment, are blessed because we understand that at the heart of the incarnation and the cross is exactly this shocking and scandalous humility and service. St Paul, drawing on a hymn sung in the liturgy of the early Church, expressed Jesus’ humility in the words: ‘though he was in the form of God, {he} did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men’ (Phil. 2:6-7).

Jesus washed his disciples’ feet because he wanted to set them an example. In the same way that he had humbled himself and washed their feet, so they should humble themselves and wash one another’s feet. In the kingdom of God, those who would be great must humble themselves and be the servant of all. Jesus said, ‘If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them’ (v. 17).

Church Father Origen meditated on this beautiful, powerful act:

‘Jesus, come, my feel are dirty. You have become a servant for my sake, so fill your basin with water: come wash my feet. I know that I am bold in saying this, but your own words have made me fearful: “If you do not wash your feet you have no companionship with me.” Wash my feet, then, so that I may be your companion. But what I am saying: “Wash my feet”? Peter could say these words, for all that he needed washing were his feet. For the rest, he was completely clean. I must be made clean with that other washing, of which you said, “I have a baptism with which I must be baptized.”