In the Ancient Mediterranean foot-washing was part and parcel of daily life. People wore sandals, which meant that their feet got dirty while travelling. To wash a guest’s feet was a sign of hospitality. It signified that a visitor was welcome, beloved. Foot-washing was seen as a menial task, something that servants or slaves did. Jesus is the host of this meal, so for Him to wash His disciples’ feet was both unusual and significant. St Peter’s reluctance to have his feet washed by Our Lord, is therefore perfectly understandable. Jesus is turning social conventions on their head. He is breaking the rules, and going against societal expectations.
Folk can often be a bit squeamish where feet are concerned. That is understandable. But the Church invites us this evening to follow Christ’s example and His command, and to do what He did. In a few moments time I will wash people’s feet. I have to tell you that this is one of the most moving things that I have ever done, and that I ever do. Because tonight the Upper Room is here in this church, and I, as your priest, will stand and kneel in the place of Christ. When I was ordained as a priest, just before the laying on of hands, the Bishop who ordained me told me to, ‘Imitate the mysteries you celebrate’. I try to follow these words to the best of my ability. Tonight Our Lord feels very close, as we make the events of two thousand years ago present in a particular way here this evening. We begin in the Upper Room with the washing of the Disciples’ feet and the Institution of the Eucharist, and we will end in the stillness and silence of Gethsemane, waiting with Our Lord, before His Arrest.
This is more than sacred drama. We are not simply spectators watching a re-enactment, we are active participants in the mysteries themselves! The Eucharist, which Jesus instituted this evening, means several things. Firstly, the Eucharist is our thanksgiving to God for who Christ is, and what He does. Secondly, the Eucharist is an act of obedience: Our Lord told His disciples to ‘do this’ and for two thousand years the Church has obeyed His command. Thirdly, the Eucharist is a mystery that makes present the Body and Blood of Christ, which suffered and died for us on Calvary. As Christ fed His disciples, so He feeds us too. Tonight’s Eucharist is just as real as the first one, in the Upper Room, and each and every one ever since. That is why Christians celebrate this evening. On the night before He suffered and died for us, Jesus took bread and wine, gave thanks to God, and gave them to His disciples, telling them to do this in remembrance of Him.
God gives Himself to us as nourishment. God gives Himself to us, so that we might have life in Him. The role of the Church is to carry on the offering of the Son to the Father, to make it present across space and time. That is why we are here, tonight, gathered as disciples of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. As Christians we are to be people of love. We are formed by God’s love, and we are called to proclaim His love to the world. As St John says in his First Epistle:
‘By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.’ (1John 3:16-18)
The Eucharist is the greatest demonstration of God’s love. Jesus feeds us to remind us that we are worth dying for. He feeds us so that we might share His life.
St Paul writes:
‘For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you’ (1Cor 11:23)
The apostle hands on to the church in Corinth all that was given to him by our Lord. This is tradition in action: handing on those things you have been taught, or experienced, for the benefit of others. Paul’s letter contains the earliest known account of the Last Supper. Christ gives the Church priests, who share in His Priesthood to carry on His saving work in the world, to wash feet, to celebrate the Eucharist. As Christians, we are called to follow in Christ’s footsteps by caring for His people and serving them. We are to imitate the mysteries which we celebrate: offering our lives in His service and the service of His Church. Ten days ago I was re-licensed to serve this parish, benefice and ministry area. I reaffirmed my commitment to minister to you as your priest. This is a responsibility that I cannot fulfil solely by my own strength and abilities, but through the grace of God, and with your help and your prayers. I am honoured and humbled to minister to you as your priest, to wash your feet and to celebrate the Eucharist, especially on this holy night.
God does not expect us to understand the mystery of His saving love. Instead we are called to experience this love so that it might transform us. This is why the Gospel ends with Jesus teaching:
‘When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”’ (Jn 13: 12-15)
Jesus is creating a community of love and service, which we call the Church, and He has given us the greatest example of how to live, love, and serve: Himself. As we enter into the mystery of Our Lord’s Suffering, Death, and Resurrection, may we learn to love and serve like Him. Nourished by His Body and Blood, let us sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, all majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.