Love, Knowing and the Washing of Feet

[A sermon preached at Christ Church Deer Park on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017. The text was John 13.1-17, 31-35]

I didn’t know.

I just didn’t know.

I didn’t know who I was,
I didn’t know what time it was,
I didn’t know where I was going.

I just didn’t know.

I was sixteen years old,
and the most profound thing that I did know,
was betrayal.

The betrayal of a father.
My father.

And now, looking back on it all,
I’m pretty sure that that betrayal,
that abandonment,
was at the root of my confusion,
my adolescent angst,
and … my spiritual longing.

So, one night I read the gospel of John.

It was the late 60’s and I had been hanging out at Yonge Street Mission
just a few kilometres south of here.
In what later became “Evergreen,”
the Mission had launched a “coffee house.”

In the dingy basement of a building
dedicated to serving the city’s poorest inhabitants,
they set up some tables,
brewed some rather terrible coffee,
and invited young people to come in off the street.

I was one of those young people.
As some musicians would play
a passable Christian version of Peter, Paul and Mary,
staff and volunteers would reach out to kids like me,
sitting at the tables.

I told them to cut the Jesus stuff.
So they did.

No Jesus talk to the skinny kid from North York.
Just friendship.

But then, one night, as I was leaving,
someone gave me a little book called
“Good News According to John.”

Anyone remember those things?
The Good News paraphrase of John,
complete with little stick figure illustrations

So I went home and read the gospel of John.
The whole thing.

As a disoriented, distracted and bored young person,
I wasn’t much of a reader.
So this gospel was the longest thing
I had ever read at one sitting.

And it changed my life.

Reading this ancient story that John tells,
in the midst of all of my confused unknowing,
and with the broken heart of a betrayed teenager,
I met Jesus.

There was something about this story,
and more importantly, something about this Jesus,
that met me in my place of betrayal,
and that set me on a path of the most liberating knowledge.

Entering into the story of Jesus,
I was invited to know who I was as God’s beloved child.
Betrayal gave way to trust,
and I was fatherless no longer.

By the time I had finished reading John that night,
I also knew what time it was.
It was time to receive Jesus as nothing less than my Lord,
and to experience a profound redirection of my life.

And … by the next morning, having asked God to reveal himself to me,
I knew where I was going.
My life would be bound up with Jesus,
walking the path of Christian discipleship.

And that path of discipleship, my friends,
takes us to Holy Week,
and to Maundy Thursday.

And as I’ve been thinking about it all these years later,
maybe there is something about
what Jesus knows in this story,
and what his disciples decidedly do not know,
that awakened my teenage imagination.

John tells us that Jesus knew who he was.
He knew that the Father had put all things into his hands.
He knew that he had come from God and was returning to God.

Jesus knew what time it was.
He knew that his hour had come.
He knew that the time of betrayal was upon him.

And Jesus knew where he was going.
He knew where this betrayal would lead.
He knew that he would soon depart from this world and go to the Father.

Of course, the disciples don’t know any of this.
They’re still pretty much in the dark.

They didn’t know who they were,
or what it most deeply meant to be disciples.

They didn’t know what time it was,
that the betrayal was at hand.

And they didn’t know where they were going,
or who they were called to be as followers of Jesus.

So Jesus showed them.

John puts it this way,

“And during supper, knowing that the Father
had given all things into his hands,
and that he had come from God and was going to God,
Jesus got up from the table,
took off his outer robe,
and tied a towel around himself.
Then he poured water into a basin
and began to wash his disciples’ feet ….”

Knowing that all things, all of creation,
had been given to him,
Jesus takes on the mantle of a slave.

Knowing that his intimacy with the Father,
had rendered him the Lord of all things,
Jesus becomes the most menial of servants.

Knowing that his betrayer was at table with him,
and that his hour had come,
Jesus kneels before Judas to wash his feet.

Can you understand how this story
could have so deeply spoken to me,
in my betrayal,
in my confusion,
in my deep unknowing?

I mean, I’m right there with those disciples.
I’m in that story.

Like them, I don’t get it.
Like them, I don’t understand.
Like them, I don’t know what this is all about.

I’m sixteen years old when I’m reading this.
I don’t know anything of ancient foot washing customs.
But I know that there is something totally mind-blowing
about someone like Jesus
taking on such a humble service.

And somehow I find myself in that room,
with Jesus lovingly taking my dirty old feet,
washing away the grime and stink,
and gently drying them.

And my heart melts.
The tears begin to flow.
I hear an invitation to come into such intimacy.
I find myself so deeply loved.
And … well … I fall in love with this Jesus.

Because that’s what this story is all about.
“Having loved his own who were in the world,”
John writes,
“Jesus loved them to the end.”

It’s all about love to the very end.
It’s all about a love that brings us to Holy Week.
It’s all about the end of love, the telos of love.
It’s all about the Lord of love,
kneeling before his disciples on Thursday evening,

and enthroned on a cross by Friday afternoon.

And so Jesus spells out for his unknowing friends,
what all of this means in very simple terms.
“If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet,
you also ought to wash each other’s feet.
For I have set you an example that you also
should do as I have done to you.”

Who are we?
Disciples of Jesus, the servant Lord

What time is it?
Time for deeply humble service,
overthrowing all status and privilege.

Where are we going?
Ever more deeply into discipleship,
following our Lord, even to the cross.

And then … then at the end of our gospel reading tonight,
Jesus sums it all up with a call to love.
For now, we cannot go where he is going,
but we know the path, and it is a path of love.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
By this will everyone know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.”

Having demonstrated such love throughout his ministry,
having enacted such love in the washing of the feet,
and on the eve of offering himself as the most profound sacrifice of love,
Jesus gives a new commandment.

And what is new about this commandment,
what takes this commandment to love beyond
the call to love our neighbours as ourselves,
is that Jesus calls us to love one another
as he has loved us.

Not love as we love ourselves,
but love as Jesus loves.

Here is the call to the deepest love.
Here is the invitation to sacrificial love.

And if we love as Jesus loved,
if our lives are suffused and overflowing
with a love that will take it to the end,
then, Jesus says, everyone will know that you
are my disciples.

And so we come back to knowing.

I come back to my sixteen year old self,
lost, confused and disoriented in all of my unknowing.

What was it that made me want to spend a late Saturday night
reading something like the gospel of John?
What made me have enough curiosity to even bother
with such an ancient story?

Well, it was love.

You see, in that dingy coffee house
at Yonge and Gerrard,
in the midst of the bad coffee,
and the fumbling attempts at Christian witnessing,
I met something that I so deeply longed for.

It was love.

These people loved each other,
and they loved me.
And I had a profound sense
that they would take this love all the way for me.

They had loved as Jesus had loved,
and somehow I knew,
especially after reading John’s story about Jesus,
that they were his disciples.

And I wanted to be a disciple too.

How will the world know that Jesus has come from the Father?
By love, my friends, by love.

How will everyone know that we are his disciples?
By love, my friends, by love.

A foot washing love.
A love in the face of betrayal.
A love to the very end.

By love, my friends, by love.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is entitled Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination.

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