The Preacher’s Study – Maundy Thursday
First thoughts on the sermons for the Paschal Triduum
D. Jay Koyle
When the footwashing is only a story on the printed page or proclaimed from the ambo, it’s easy to view it as little more than an object lesson; Jesus is using some props to make a point. When understood in that way, the point seems straightforward. So, unlike the disciples framed in the scene, we don’t squirm. Rather, we nod our heads in agreement. We should be more willing to engage in exactly what footwashing sounds like – humble service to others in the name of Christ. That’s where we easily end up with a footwashing confined to the biblical page.
However, I’ve noticed that when the footwashing breaks loose from the book, some of the fidgeting and the nervous, red-faced giggles, even the outright cries of protest in the story, tend to be recapitulated in the pews, no matter how long the members of a congregation have been doing the ritual together.
It’s one thing to watch John’s footage of the disciples taking off their shoes and socks in the upper room. It’s quite another matter, however, to undress your feet and feel the cool church floor pressed beneath them as you make your way to the front.
What’s it like to allow your naked foot to be held and bathed, in the sight of all, by another’s hand? Or for those who have always just stayed in the pew and peeked with curiosity from behind the shelter of a prayer book or worship bulletin, what’s it like to imagine doing such a thing?
Let’s be honest, it’s a disturbing thing to deploy basins and pitchers in the sanctuary. Submitting our feet to their water unmasks our profound vulnerability, the vulnerability we mostly manage to hide, even from ourselves. The sense of control over life – our lives – that we so methodically cultivate and deeply cherish seems to wash away like a sandcastle on the shore.
That isn’t easy for us Twenty-first Century go-getters to swallow. It’s one thing to give lip service to our dependence on God and need of one another, but it’s another matter to do so in practice.
We have long proclaimed that the Body of Christ is not only on the Table, but also around the Table. But it’s another thing to say that the Body of Christ is tender hands and cracked-heeled feet meeting in an earthenware basin filled with water – hands and feet that, as St. Paul was prone to remind us, need one another to be complete.
Like the disciples, each obliged to feel the water between his toes as their teacher and Master rubbed away the dirt and dried their ankles with a towel, I suspect the resistance for most of us is not to washing, but rather to being washed.
Yet, says Jesus, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me – no participation in me.”
Through this strange gesture of hospitality Jesus draws us more deeply into the circle of love that marks the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit to one another and to the world. This love, which inspired Jesus to lay down his garments and wash his disciples' feet, is also the love that led him to lay down his life.
Whether in foot washing, bread breaking or cross dying, it is this limitless love that gives us life and holds the sure promise of life for the world.
So, despite my reluctance, I know my feet belong in that basin. I know that, somehow, allowing my feet to be washed draws me more deeply into the life that is Christ. I cannot serve apart from the One who came not to be served, but to serve. I cannot be filled with new life in the Spirit apart from the One who emptied himself.
Jay Koyle is president of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission. He serves as the Congregational Development Officer for the Diocese of Algoma (Anglican Church of Canada).