"When Jesus had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, "Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example that you should do just as I have done to you."
Jesus commands us to wash one another's feet. He even gives us an example, by himself kneeling down to wash the dirty feet of his disciples. But what does it mean to wash one another's feet? Jesus isn't here instituting a sacrament of feet washing. By washing feet Jesus means that we ought to serve one another. Jesus is our Lord and Teacher (with a capital L and a capital T). Yet he does not balk at this menial task. And so the disciples (and we!) are taught that there is no task so lowly that we are too good to do it for the sake of our neighbor. If Jesus your Lord so serves you, you also ought to serve one another. This is the same lesson we learn everytime we pray as Jesus taught us, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." (Matthew 6:12) So we forgive one another as God in Christ forgave each of us. (Ephesians 4:32)
In short, Jesus is teaching us to love one another. Just a handful of verses after our text Jesus says to his disciples, "A new command I give to you, that you love one another: just as I loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (13:34-35) This is where we get the name Maundy Thursday, from the Latin word for command. Jesus commands us to love each other.
Love is a popular word and it's used to defend sinful behavior, which God condemns. So we must be clear what it means to love and Jesus shows us quite clearly what he means by love. Love means to count others more significant than yourself, to look after their interests. Love drives you to not look at a task to help your neighbor as beneath you. Service for your neighbor is never beneath you. Love drives you to put the best construction on every situation. You should as far as the truth will let you assume the best of your neighbor's intentions. You should not bash him to others or slander his reputation, especially when you have not confronted him yourself concerning his supposed sin. You should forgive your neighbor when he sins against you, even as God forgives you for Christ's sake. Love isn't physical lust. Love isn't even simply the affection you have toward your wife or children. Love is the action, the thoughts and words you use toward those who do you harm by their careless words or action or even on purpose.
While love drives you to forgive the wrong done against you and to assume the best of your neighbor's intentions, love does not rejoice in wrongdoing. (1 Corinthians 13:6) Love confronts sin with the truth. So you also are commanded in love to speak the truth when your loved ones speak and act against it. Confront them when they sin against you or deny the truth, so that they may repent and believe the Gospel.
There is no greater command than to love one another. Jesus, even as he is troubled to his very soul, because his hour has now come, makes a concerted effort to teach this command to love. This is how Christians should live, in love toward one another. Yet when you use Jesus' definition of love according to his example you see how difficult it is to love. Do you readily serve others at the expense of your time? Do you assume the best of your neighbor's intentions or are you quick to judge? Do you forgive those, who do wrong to you or do you assume that they somehow are more unworthy of forgiveness than you? Do you pray for those who hate you? Does your love fit Christ's example?
Unless you are a liar you must admit your love has failed. The command to love is the Law. The Law is good, but it will also condemn you. Yet, you are not under the Law, but under grace. This means that the command to love does not condemn you, because God's love saves you. And it is in God's love that we obtain the power to love. St. John writes, "We love because [God] first loved us." (1 John 4:19) And so we see Jesus' lesson of washing feet is not simply an example for us to love one another. It is a visual proclamation of what Jesus would do for the disciples, for you and me, indeed for the whole world.
"Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." Indeed Jesus' love extended further than washing feet. Jesus demonstrated that he was one among them who serves. (Luke 22:27) Their Lord rose from his cushion and stripped himself of his cloak, so as not to get it sweaty and dirty. He wrapped a towel around his waist like a common slave and poured water into the basin and began to scrub the filth off his disciples' callus encrusted, hairy, and stinky feet. Yet this descent into serfdom was only an example, a sign of the great service Jesus would do for all mankind. In Matthew's Gospel Jesus' disciples argued over which of them was the greatest and our Lord responded, "But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:26-28)
This is the great service of love our Lord has come to do. This is his hour! Jesus gives his life as a ransom for all mankind. No slave designated the inglorious task of washing feet would trade jobs with Jesus just a few hours after he washed his disciples feet. The beating, the spitting, the mocking; the false witness, the skin-shredding flogging, the blood from his crown blinding his eyes; the nails piercing his flesh, the ascent so that all may see this curse upon a tree; all this Jesus does willingly, as your Lord, yes your God, yet as your slave, your worm, you sacrificial lamb. And to the very end, to that last cry and breath, Jesus did this out of unfaltering love for you. And this isn't simply an example of how much God loves you. Jesus' blood truly cleanses you of all unrighteousness. He cleanses you of every failure on your part to love your neighbor.
When Jesus knelt down to wash Peter's feet, the disciple refused. "You will never wash my feet!", he proclaimed. Peter was embarrassed. Could you imagine someone you admired and even feared washing your feet? Imagine if your hero, your teacher or boss or even your father were to kneel down and wash your feet. "Oh, no. What if they smell! His fingers will rub against the dirt. He'll see the lint between my toes. And when did I clip my toenails last? Oh, the humiliation! And this is one I respect, whom I'm proud of! How can I see him do such a humiliating task? And for me!"
But Jesus responds, "If I do not wash you, you have no share with me." Indeed we must all be washed by Jesus. It's humiliating true. When you see the stripes, the thorny crown, the bruises and nails, you see your sin. You see your failed love. You see everything you hate about yourself clinging to your perfect Savior, making his hands dirty with your own filth. But if he does not wash you, you will not be clean and you will have no part in him.
Peter cannot bare be separated from Jesus and bursts out, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" But Jesus responds, "The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean." Jesus isn't talking about washing the feet or body. The one who is washed is washed spiritually. To be completely clean means that you have taken into your own possession the sacrificial death of Christ by faith. You own the forgiveness of sins. You trust in the love Jesus did for you on the cross. Jesus cannot die for you a second time. He died for you once and for all. You are clean through faith in him. Likewise, you do not need to be baptized a second time. "Baptism," St. Peter writes, "now saves you. Not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." You do not need to be baptized again. Christ does not need to die for your sins again. You are washed clean.
But you still live in this world. You still get mucky. Jesus gives a practical example for his day. A man bathes before going to a feast. He is clean. But when he arrives at the feast after walking along the dusty road, he must wash his feet before reclining at the table. Not his whole body, just his feet. And so, we who get mucking in this life, whose old Adam still hangs around our neck must get our feet washed. This means we must let Jesus serve us.
If you do not let Jesus wash your feet you have no share in him. If you do not let Jesus serve you, you have no part in him. Jesus serves you by forgiving your sins. He does this through his Gospel preached and Sacraments administered.
On this fateful night of our Lord's betrayal, along with washing his disciples feet, Jesus also gave us a meal by which he serves us. This meal is his very body and blood given and shed once and for all on the cross. This meal is a gospel proclamation of Jesus' love, as he sacrificed himself in exchange for your body and soul. This meal is also Christ's continued service to you. This isn't a continuation of the sacrifice. Jesus has already finished the sacrifice. Rather, in the Sacrament Jesus serves us the fruit of this sacrifice. Everytime you receive the Sacrament of the Altar, Jesus serves you. And every time your faith grasps the mystery of God's love in the Sacrament, you are made clean. If Jesus does not wash you, you have no share in him. If you refuse to hear his word and to receive his Sacrament you will remain in your filth. But if Jesus washes you, you will be clean indeed. Amen.