Message for Palm Sunday on John 13:1-17,35 given on March 28, 2021 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas. This sermon and other worship services can be seen on YouTube. A congregational reading of the Passion did not work outdoors nor on video, so we made a transition to Holy Week by reading the footwashing story for the Gospel after the Palm Sunday procession.
I remember when I was in middle school and I first heard the popular saying, “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”
It was the first time I began to understand that real love was not about possession, but rather about freedom. But if there was ever a night for Jesus to give up on “love as freedom” and engage in a little “love as possession,” I think the night before he died would have been a good choice. It would have been understandable if Jesus would have put the screws down on the disciples a little harder and said,
“Look, I’m going to die tomorrow, and I need you to show up. I have given you my heart and soul, my prayers, my healing, my time, everything I’ve got. Now it’s all coming to a head tomorrow and the political and religious leaders are going to have my head. I need to know that you are with me. Peter, are you in? Matthew are you with me? James and John, can I count on you? Philip and Andrew, will you be there for me? Bartholomew and Thaddeus, will you stand with me? Thomas and James, Simon and Judas, are you in?”
But he does not do it, does he? Instead, he instructs them to love one another as he has loved them, and he demonstrates what this love looks like as he wraps a towel around his waist, gets on his knees, and washes their feet.
Their feet were already clean, actually—they were washed before they came into the house for supper. The roads were dusty, and their sandals were open, and nobody wanted all that dirt tracked into the house, so feet were washed upon entering, much like taking off our shoes at the door. Foot washing was usually done by a servant and if there was not a servant in the household, it was done, of course, by the woman of the household. In addition to an act of cleanliness, it was also an act of hospitality, warmth, welcome, and humble service, especially after a hard day’s work or a long journey.
Because their feet had most likely already been cleaned, Jesus washed their feet, not to get the dust off, but as an act of love, an act of humility, an act of service. He got down on his knees, taking the form of a slave or serving them a like woman—talk about bending gender roles! Jesus offers hospitality, warmth, and welcome, love, and relationship as their time together comes to a close, shifting social and gender roles to demonstrate that true love is a life of service. Imagine the discomfort this might have caused these tough, hard-working, weather-worn men, especially James and John, the “sons of thunder”—to watch Jesus behave like female. Maybe they teased him, accusing him of “throwing like a girl,” or acting like a sissy. Certainly, Peter’s discomfort led him to argue with Jesus.
But Jesus let them live with their discomfort of his gender-bending, socially upending role reversals and he persisted. On his knees, like slave, washing and rinsing, welcoming and cleaning, drying and loving, behaving like a subservient female.
Judas sits down and Jesus washes the feet that will betray him. Peter sits down and Jesus washes the feet that will deny him. James and John, Andrew, Philip, and Matthew and all the rest, sit down and Jesus washes the feet that will run away and leave him to be scourged and nailed and killed alone. What is even more surprising than Jesus demonstrating true, deep, liberating love by behaving like a slave or a woman, is that Jesus washes all the feet that he will betray, deny and abandon him. Jesus knows they will all fail him, and he washes and loves them anyway.
The night before death in our culture—if you know it is coming on death row—it’s all about the food, the last meal. Jesus does have a Last Supper with his disciples, but he spends so much time rinsing and rubbing 24 feet, 120 toes—all feet that will flee and leave him to journey to the cross alone.
“If you love something, set it free…” Jesus loves them enough to wash their dirty souls and let them go… We all have the freedom to walk away.
Judas does this first—he allows Jesus to wash his feet, and then he leaves and goes into the night—which is to say that he has turned toward evil. That is the worst betrayal of all—it was not turning Jesus over to the chief priests, but the worst betrayal is abandoning the relationship with Jesus. Judas is struggling with all kinds of things—fear, turmoil, greed—and in that suffering he turns away from Jesus instead of moving toward Jesus.
The other disciples will walk away from the relationship with Jesus in one way or another, but Jesus will not walk away from them. That is why he gets on his knees and washes their feet. He will love and serve them like a slave, like a tireless woman to the end. When they are ready to return to him, he will be there. It may not be until Easter morn, but Jesus will always show up.
Can we bear to receive that much love? Jesus kneels before you to wash your feet, all the while knowing we have failed Jesus, and will fail him again—not because we are bad people, but because we are human. And still, Jesus shows up and loves us, and kneels again at our feet, with warmth and love and welcome. With towel and water in hand, he announces, “I love you. I am here, and I will always be here—even when you walk away, I will be here when you come back.”
Jesus will never betray his relationship with you,
• no matter who you are,
• no matter what you have done,
• no matter what you have thought,
• no matter how weak your faith feels
• no matter whether or not you deserve it.
Jesus gets on his knees as a servant and says, “I will not betray you. I will not deny you. I will not abandon you.”
We can always come back. No matter what, we belong to Jesus.
As we freely offer ourselves in relationship to Jesus, he fills us with the ability to love others as he loves us. This is what his commandment really means. To love others the way Jesus loves is to love those who betray, deny, and abandon us. On our own, such love is impossible. But through our relationship with Jesus, who will never betray, deny, or abandon us, we can love anyone and everyone through the power of Jesus’ love in us.
"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 everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
• How do gender and class roles today still define or limit ways of showing love or serving others? Are their ways to let go of these limiting definitions to enter lives of service that express the fullness of love that Jesus expresses in this passage?
• When have you experienced love and forgiveness from someone after really screwing up? How did it feel? When have you loved and forgiven someone after they have really hurt you? What enabled the relationship to heal…or not?
• What does it mean to you that Jesus always gives you the freedom to walk away, and the love to always to return to a relationship with him? How does this change your faith or how deep you are willing to go with him?
• Is there someone you are struggling to love, forgive, or even tolerate right now? Can you bring this struggle to Jesus and ask for help—if not in loving them as he does yet, but in taking a first step, such as praying for them?
• What is it you need from Jesus or from your faith the most this Holy Week? Ask boldly.
Image: Paynter, David, 1900-1975. Jesus washing the disciples' feet, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57351 [retrieved March 31, 2021https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trinity_College_Chapel_Mural_(2).jpg.