A homily given at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Wilton, Connecticut on Maundy Thursday  April 17, 2014

Exodus 12:1-14a + 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (27-32) + John 13:1-15

Jesus Washing Peter's Feet Sculpture beside the Prayer Tower, Pittsburg, Texas.   Inscription: Divine Servant Jesus Christ Washing Peter's Feet
Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet
Sculpture beside the Prayer Tower, Pittsburg, Texas.
Inscription: Divine Servant, Jesus Christ Washing Peter’s Feet

Tonight is about intimacy. And for the church (and many of us) intimacy is something we don’t like to talk about, let alone experience with strangers – or at least those we don’t know closely (ah – intimately).

Here we have a semi-naked Jesus, clothed like a slave, performing the task of a slave, for other free men. He is on his knees. His hands are on their feet. He is cleaning them, drying them, touching them. Peter can literally feel the breath of God on his shins, perhaps causing goose bumps on his skin.

Peter is uncomfortable because he can grasp the edges of what Jesus is doing, is saying, is revealing. Does he want to accept it? Will he lean into this intimacy? Is this discomfort worth it to dwell in the light of the promise Jesus gives?

Talk of betrayal. Talk of serving. Talk of body and blood. This is starting to get a little too real.

Many churches outside the Episcopal and Catholic tradition will be talking about and experiencing Holy Communion this evening, something that may not be part of their typical worship services. But no matter our religious tradition, tonight we remember. The word “Eucharist” means, “to give thanks” and that is what we do this evening – give thanks in remembrance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Many congregations will also talk about loving one another, many through the washing of feet. Some wash hands, like us. Some anoint and bless with holy oil.

Why do we do these things? What makes us comfortable and what makes us uncomfortable? How do we capture the intimacy of what Jesus is doing in this night of remembrance? The narrative we’ve just heard moves seamlessly from the Exodus account of the institution of the Passover into the gospel account of the meal celebrated by Jesus himself at his last Passover, on his last night.

Because tonight is a night in which we remember Jesus’ command to us – his mandatum (where we get the word Maundy) – to love one another. And the actions he shows his disciples are acts of physical care and servitude. Jesus asks us to get intimate with one another. And that makes us uncomfortable.

Lutheran pastor Julia Seymour[1] of Anchorage, Alaska writes of her hospital visitations:

I think of cleaning fecal matter out from under the fingernails of an elderly parishioner in the emergency room, while she was unconscious, gently bathing her hands in one of those ubiquitous pink tubs. I trimmed another parishioner’s whiskers with my Swiss Army knife scissors when he complained of feeling unkempt.
These were intimate acts. Things I would have assumed I would have only done for my family (and maybe not all of them) in any other circumstance. Yet when I was right there, it was the thing to do.
I think of the word conspire. Not in the secret, plotting way we might think of the word, but with its roots. Con +spire (spih-RAY). To breathe with. Intimacy means a kind of breath sharing, a closeness that breeds a movement together, a waiting, and dependency.
This is intense. This is what it felt like around that table. There was a conspiracy afoot, but it was not about crucifixion. It was a joint breathing: a God-breathing human being with other God-breathed beings, gathered together, and brought into a new kind of intimate community. This is what it means to be the community of Christ – to be a group who breathes together in worship, in work, in play, in service.

Things are going to get intimate tonight and tomorrow. The devil has entered the soul of Judas. Jesus’ best friends will abandon him. There will be grief and confusion. The one who we have been following these weeks and years will be stripped of his clothing and nailed to a cross, left to die for all to see. And he will look down upon us as he dies. Hopefully we will look up at him. Eye to eye. You can’t get more intimate than that.

Tonight is an invitation to all of us, not just a token few, to answer the call to discipleship. Jesus interrupted his last meal with his friends to model the way of costly leadership. He wants us to imitate him in our dealings with others. Foot washing (or hand washing) makes us vulnerable. And it is as much about receiving as it is giving.

And so we will soon enter into the opportunity to experience this. Yes, there is potential for spillage and embarrassment. Yes, we will need to touch each other. Feel the callouses, the wrinkles, the smoothness, and the arthritis. It can be messy. Don’t rush. Take your time. It is intimate.

Let us pray. Into your hands, almighty God, we place ourselves: our minds to know you, our hearts to love you, our wills to serve you, for we are yours. Into your hands, incarnate Savior, we place ourselves: receive us and draw us after you, that we may follow your steps; abide in us and enliven us by the power of your indwelling. Amen.[2]

[1] RevGalBlogPals: Beautiful are the Feet

[2] Blessing of Hands Service. Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

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