March 29, 2018
Jesus is a teacher. Yes, Jesus performed many signs and miracles during his three-year ministry on earth, but Jesus' ministry was primarily about teaching. All of his signs and miracles, in addition to showing compassion to his creatures, had the purpose of reinforcing Jesus' teaching. And so, on this holy night in which our Lord is betrayed into the hands of evil men, our teacher gives one last lesson. It's an object-lesson. Jesus washes his disciples' feet.
The disciples needed their feet to be cleaned, for sure; walking everywhere on dusty roads. Jesus performed a needed service. Yet, much more, the disciples needed to learn a lesson. The setting of this final lesson is very important to mark. This is Jesus' last Passover. He is about to be betrayed into the hands of evil men, to be flogged, crucified, and murdered. And he knows it. The words and actions of Jesus at this moment should be taken with the utmost seriousness. And in this final lesson, Jesus teaches his disciples the sum of Christian doctrine.
What is the purpose of Christ's ministry here on earth? Why did God send him? In Matthew chapter 20 Jesus tells us, "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Here in John 13, Jesus shows us. Jesus "rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him." (vss. 4-5)
In these two verses John describes both Jesus' action in washing his disciples' feet and his entire work of humiliation here on earth. First, Jesus takes on the form of a servant. He rises, lays a side his teacher clothes, and ties a towel around his waist. Then, he performs the task of a servant, he washes the grime off his disciples' feet and wipes them with the towel. St. Paul expresses this same thing in regards to Jesus' earthly ministry in Philippians chapter 2, "Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." (vss. 6-8) First, Jesus, who is in the form of God, takes the form of a servant. Then, he performs the task of a servant, except much more than any servant would do. Jesus becomes obedient unto death on a cross!
When Jesus took off his outer garment he did not cease to be his disciples' teacher. And when he wrapped a towel around his waist, he did not cease to be their Lord. Likewise, when Christ Jesus, who was in the form of God emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men, he did not cease to be our God. Even when Jesus pushed the putrid muck from between their toes with his fingers and scrubbed the calloused soles of their feet as a common slave, Jesus remained their Lord. Likewise, when Jesus became obedient to the point of death on the cross, he remained our God and Lord.
Jesus is teaching us why tomorrow is such an awesome day. It isn't a common criminal hanging on that cross with a crown of thorns on his head. It isn't even a righteous man dying the sinners' death. There dying upon the tree is our God and Lord! And there kneeling at the feet of the disciples is their Lord and teacher! It is of the utmost importance for our faith to grasp this lesson, because herein lies our certainty for our salvation! The one who pays the price for our sins is the eternal God. Not only does this tell us how much God loves us, but it gives us confidence that the debt of our sins has been paid. The sacred blood of Jesus our God has paid it.
Tonight is the night our Lord Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Altar, as we hear every week, "Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when he was betrayed took bread..." Yet, the appointed Gospel lesson for the night of Jesus' betrayal does not tell of this account. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all give the account of Jesus instituting the Lord's Supper, as well as our Epistle Lesson from 1 Corinthians 11. Yet, John writes of another event on that same night. Yet, this feet-washing teaches us a lot about the Sacrament of the Altar, as well as of Baptism, Absolution, and the preaching of the Gospel. In fact, if you do not understand what Jesus is teaching in this lesson of the washing of his disciples' feet, the meaning of the Lord's Supper will be lost to you.
When we as the church receive the Lord's Supper, Christ our Lord is serving us! He is the host of this meal. He is also the meal itself, as he offers his very body and blood prepared for us on the altar of his cross. This is a very important thing to mark. The Lord's Supper is Gospel, not law. That is to say, the Lord's Supper is God's work for us, not our work to please God. This was one of the main points of contention between the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics during the Reformation. The Lutherans argued, based on Scripture, that the Lord's Supper is God's work for us, whereby God forgives our sins through faith. The Roman Catholics argued that the Lord's Supper is the perpetuation of Christ's sacrifice, which the Church offers to God along with the works of the saints in order to merit justification.
It is important for you to understand what is going on in this Sacrament. Christ was sacrificed once and for all on the cross. And his sacrifice alone atones for our sins. In the Sacrament of the Altar, Christ our Lord and teacher serves us. He washes our feet clean, so to say, by feeding us his true body and blood, which were given and shed for our salvation. When you receive Christ's body and blood in faith, you receive the forgiveness of sins, strengthening of faith, and certainty of eternal life.
There are also many who deny that Jesus' body and blood are truly present in the Sacrament of the Altar. Yet, this is to deny Jesus' clear words, which we just heard read from 1 Corinthians 11 and which you can clearly read from Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22. Jesus clearly says that the bread is his body and the wine is his blood. We should not think that our Lord on the night he will be betrayed to death in giving his last will and testament will be speaking in jest. Nor should we doubt Christ's power to be present in the bread and wine on many altars even as he is seated at the right hand of God the Father. Yes, Jesus is truly human. Yet, that does not limit his ability to do the impossible. Jesus remains truly God. And so, just as Jesus did not cease to be his disciples' teacher and Lord when he stooped to wash their feet, Jesus does not cease to be our God as he takes on human flesh and blood nor as he condescends to us in the form of bread and wine to serve us this meal which gives eternal life.
"If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.", Jesus says to Peter upon his refusal to let Jesus wash his feet. Now here, Jesus is teaching Peter and us a lesson and not saying that we need to have our feet literally washed by Jesus in order to have a part in him. Jesus is saying that he must serve Peter by dying on the cross for his sins and he must continue to serve him through word and sacrament. If he does not, neither Peter nor we can have a part in Jesus. Many want to have a personal relationship with Jesus without Jesus washing them. They want to have faith without hearing the Gospel or receiving Baptism or the Lord's Supper. Jesus is very clear, "If I do not wash you, you have no share with me." You must be washed by Jesus; you must be served by him. If you refuse Jesus' service for you, you refuse Jesus.
This is also why Jesus says that not all are clean. Jesus washed all their feet, but not all were clean. Why? Because not all had faith. Judas was a hypocrite. Jesus died for everyone, but not everyone is saved. Why? Because not all have faith. Likewise, just because you receive Baptism or the Lord's Supper or Absolution, does not mean that you are clean, unless you have faith. It is faith which receives Jesus' service. Again, this points to the fact that Jesus is cleansing your heart, not the outside of your feet.
Faith is not only knowledge that Jesus lived, died, and rose. Faith is trusting in Jesus' service for you, because you need it. Christ has made us clean through his death, which he gives to us through faith and in Baptism. Yet, our feet continue to get dirty. We still sin every day. We must continue to have our feet cleaned. We must continue to receive Absolution and the Lord's Supper, because we continue to sin and our faith continues to falter. Faith acknowledges your need for Christ to continue to serve you until you join him in the Church Triumphant.
Today is called Maundy Thursday. Maundy comes from the Latin word for command. Jesus says, "A new command I give to you, that you love one another, just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another." (13:34) This truly is the sum of the Christian life. Having been loved by Christ, we continue in love for one another. Jesus did not institute a new Sacrament of feet washing, as he did with the Sacrament of his body and blood. Rather, he says that he has given them an example. Jesus, their Lord and teacher, served them in the basest way, so that they would learn that there is no service beneath them nor human being unworthy of their service.
Jesus teaches us on this night what it means to love. He loved them to the end. How? Well, he serves them as a slave. Yet, even this is just a sign foreshadowing what he will do on the cross for all mankind. Love is service. So, when Jesus tells you to love one another, he is telling you to serve one another.
How do you know when and where and how to serve? Look at your life according to the Ten Commandments. Honor your parents and other authorities. Look after the physical needs of your neighbor. Defend his property and reputation. What do you pray in the Lord's Prayer? Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Forgive those, who sin against you, even as Christ has forgiven all of your sins. Look at your neighbor in the best light and explain every situation in the kindest way instead of putting the worst construction on a situation and jumping to conclusions. And in this way, you will wash your neighbor's feet.
But I might get burned! And I might fail! No, you won't. You can't fail. You've been washed by the blood of Jesus. Before Jesus knelt down to wash his disciples' feet before his ultimate betrayal, he knew that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God. Jesus laid aside his glory with confidence, knowing that God would give it all and more back to him. And so, you too can lay aside whatever glory you think you have and serve. There is nothing you can lose that God will not give you back times 100. And when you fail you have the certainty of the forgiving blood of Christ. Look to your Baptism for full confidence. You are from God and you are going back to God. Amen.