Today, in Church, we would normally remember the Last Supper that Jesus spent with his friends before his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, later that evening.
The evening begins, according to John’s gospel (John 13), with Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. This is not something we would probably do for visitors, even close friends, today even if we were not staying at home and keeping to social distancing rules. But as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he was showing his care for them, and not just by taking care of their foot hygiene! As he said to Peter “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but one day you will”.
In this act there is the symbolism of the water and the washing, which relates to cleanliness. But, as Jesus tells Peter, it’s not physical cleanness that is the issue here. It is about their readiness to continue Jesus’ work when he is gone – and as the gospel writer tells us, Jesus knows that his hour has come. So this is about cleanliness before God – doing the spiritual laundry, cleansing their souls to enable them to make a new start with God: A new start that will be available not just to the disciples, but to all people after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
But there is also a more explicit message of humility. Jesus is demonstrating how important humility is in their relationships with each other and with God. They are being prepared to continue Jesus’ work, to continue his mission, to take up his teaching. They need to be prepared to preach his message and take his love out to the world. When Jesus has ascended to heaven this task must be continued through his church, which will begin with the disciples and if they are to do this successfully, they must demonstrate through their own lives the life of love and care that Jesus taught and demonstrated through his.
In all his teaching Jesus said that the greatest command was love for God and love for one another. And these two commands are intimately connected. It is not possible to love God without loving your neighbour. You cannot love God if you do not first love his children – as Jesus said “Whatever you do for the least of these you do for me”. When we hurt another human being we hurt God. When we show love for one another, we show God that we love Him too.
At times like that which we are facing at the present time, often the best in people is seen. We show our love for one another when we offer to help our neighbour or our family. In recent days we have heard about volunteers offering to do shopping for those unable to leave their homes, we have heard of the sacrifices being made by those who are involved in providing essential services, from shop workers to health workers and many others. People are going out of their way to keep in touch with one another by telephone or by social media or video conferencing. And when we show our care for each other in this way we are sharing the love of Christ to him as well as to one another.
Some people I have spoken to though have mentioned how much they are enjoying this time, because they are receiving far more offers of help and social contacts than they normally do. People who are alone throughout the year are suddenly finding that they are receiving calls from friends and family on a much more regular basis. Hopefully this will continue after the virus has been dealt with as we all need human contact even when there is not a crisis.
But we must also remember that washing of feet is not just about giving. It is also reminds us that sometimes we need to have the humility to receive what is offered to us. We often find it difficult to receive from others, whether it is a word of praise, a compliment, a present or an act of kindness or charity. We often react with embarrassment or we brush them off as unnecessary, or worse we negate them – and in doing so devalue the gift we have been offered. When we do this we prevent others from demonstrating their love and care for us. Receiving gracefully is just as important as giving humbly.
Why do we feel this way? Perhaps because we are not used to being loved unconditionally. It is a measure of how far we fall short of the command to love our neighbour, that we so unused to receiving gestures of love that we are embarrassed by them. Paul tells us in Thessalonians 5:11 that we should encourage each other and build each other up. But we are much more inclined to voice our complaints and criticism of others than to offer a word of praise or support.
Jesus said that we should “love one another as he loved us” and his love for us was unconditional. So great that it extended to going to the cross for our sake, even though it was undeserved by him. He was prepared to suffer and die for those who had hurt him and condemned him. What kind of love was that? A love full of grace.
Perhaps a time of crisis forces us to reassess our relationships with each other. But maybe at the same time we can think again about those times when we have hurt or been hurt, and see whether our love can come anywhere near to that of Christ in overcoming our differences, in showing one another that we care, and in making sure that the love of Christ shines out from this community of disciples. Amen
Click on this link to open an act of worship for home worship. This has been been prepared by Rev John McNeil: