Footwashing Near the Bottom of History

A Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2024

The gospel of John has been described by some scholars as a swinging pendulumit starts in heaven: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.” Then it comes down to earth: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The True Light coming down into our darkness. Finally, it ascends with Jesus to Golgotha, the mountain on which the invisible God is made known to the world in the Son, who is lifted up on the cross. The place in which heaven and earth are re-united in the body of Jesus Christ, the God-man.

Easter Sunday, the day of the resurrection, became, not the first day but the 8th day of the week, the beginning of a new time, the inauguration of the new Kingdom. As Christians we always keep this ending to the story in our hearts and minds; it is the promise of every Sunday celebration. We always pray to a living Jesus, seated at the right hand of God the Father, the one who has overcome the world. But today is not Sunday, today is Maundy Thursday. Today we are following our Lord down to the very bottom of all things, down into the depths of the lonely, naked, speechless humiliations of life.

According to the Gospel of John, the public ministry of Jesus begins at a wedding, one of the greatest celebrations of life. At the behest of his mother, Jesus reveals his power, his generosity, and his good plans for the world; plans to prosper us and not to harm us. A loving son and a generous Creator, He gives abundantly, almost inordinately, the gift of wine, which is his first miracle. And through this gift, he affirms the goodness of human flourishing and celebration. The ministry of Jesus starts with celebration; and, by the end of chapter 2, “many believed in his name…” “but,” says the gospel.

But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.

The gospel is not swinging upward, but downward.

As Jesus continued his ministry, he constantly provoked a crisis of faith in those who encountered him. Some were offended by him, some followed him, but no one understood him. By chapter 6, many of those who had chosen to follow Jesus were starting to say, “This is a difficult way, who can follow it?” And, by the end of chapter 12, John tells us that even those who remained with him “still did not believe in him.” We can feel the pull of this downward swing in ourselves, can’t we?

The strength of our elders and our traditions begin to fade and break down. The brightest memories of our childhood are darkened by the experience of life. Maybe our parents were once infallible to us, maybe the Church was once a beacon of light to us, maybe our brothers and sisters, and our friends were once constant and true. Maybe we used to believe that we were honest and hard-working people; sure of ourselves in our success and our Christian humility. Maybe our own weddings were full of celebration and promise, holding within them all the possibility of getting it right. After all, we were all there, in the crowd on Palm Sunday, shouting “Hosanna! Long live the King!”

We were there, anticipating the triumph of God’s justice, celebrating the victory of goodness and truth over hatred and violence. We were excited to put on our best Sunday clothes and walking out into a bright Spring morning to usher in the age of righteousness. We were ready, ready to be lifted up with Jesus into a new day of peace. We were prepared for the upswing, ready to return to paradise. Hosanna in the highest!” we shouted with the crowd. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Where we are in the story

But we did not understand where we were in the story, as is so often the case. Today is not Sunday, today is Maundy Thursday, and we are only now reaching the bottom. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,” Jesus said to his disciples, “it remains alone.” (John 12.24) The “Hour of Glory,” as it is sometimes called, the crowning of Jesus, does not begin in chapter 12 of John’s Gospel, with the Triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, it begins in Chapter 13, when, as the Gospel reports, “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.”

Today, right now, we are approaching the very bottom of history.

The place where Jesus Christ, The Way, is abandoned, Jesus Christ, The Truth is silent, and Jesus Christ, The Life is sacrificed. What does Jesus do in this moment? What does the Lord of History do here, at the turning point of all things in heaven and on earth?

He washes the feet of his disciples.

The One who was dressed in eternal light, strips his clothes and wraps himself in the towel of a servant. The One to whom every knee will bend, from Adam and Eve to the last generation, gets down on his knees and washes the dirty feet of his followers. It’s no wonder that Peter is offended, and responds with, “Lord you will never wash my feet.” No one wants to see this at the beginning of a new kingdom, the first commandment of a new covenant: humiliate yourselves and wash one another’s dirty feet.

Julius Caesar, when he was about to cross the Rubicon and reshape the world forever, is reported to have said “alea iacta est” (the die is cast). Now that’s a phrase worthy of history. That’s the confidence we are all looking for in our leaders; an undaunted pride and self-assurance that we can follow into a new “golden age.” We don’t want to hear what the Prophet Isaiah said about our Lord and Teacher, that

he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,

and no beauty that we should desire him.

That he was, “despised and rejected by men,”

a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;

and as one from whom men hide their faces

he was despised, and we esteemed him not.’ (Is. 53)

When he washes the feet of his disciples, Jesus forgoes every dignity of God and man, including the dignity of speech itself. In humility he takes up the feet of Judas, knowing that Judas has already made up his mind to betray him. In humility he takes up the feet of Peter, knowing that Peter will soon deny him three times.

Surely not me Lord! You will never wash my feet!

‘Surely the way back up, the way of Life, is not a man down on his knees, naked, washing the dirty feet of traitors and losers.’

And Jesus answers Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

The turning point of sacred history, and therefore world history, begins with foot-washing. Somewhere between kneeling down to wash our feet, and rising up to face the cross, the Hour of our Lord’s Glory began. The greatest human to ever live, the only man who was born to be a King, began his triumphal entry into the everlasting kingdom, with the washing of feet.

Washing Filthy Feet

Tomorrow, Good Friday, we will participate in Jesus’ trial, his inauguration, and his crowing as the true King. Tomorrow, we will follow Jesus on the upward swing, all the way to the cross. But the Hour of Glory begins here, today, with Jesus getting down on his knees, and washing the feet of all his disciples, even ours. Every one of us wants to say, with Peter, ‘surely not I Lord. There is no need to wash my feet.’ We keep our feet covered with shoes and socks. We invented indoor plumbing so we can wash our own feet in private. We paved our roads to keep the dirt off.

‘We found an easier way, Lord, a better way. We automated foot-washing so that no one needs to stoop so low anymore.’

‘There is no need to wash our feet, Lord.’

But as Jesus said to Peter on that Thursday night, so he says to us on this night, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” He did not come down from heaven to give us close-toed shoes, he did not introduce indoor plumbing to the world, he did not pave our roads.

He washes our filthy feet, on his knees, with his own hands.

And ‘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.’

Today, at the crux of all things, the very bottom of the Church year, we are gathered together to be washed by Christ, to participate in his humiliation and passion, in his Hour of Glory. And we gather to hear, once again, the ‘novum mandatum’ (the new commandment), which he has given to us:

For just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

We are here to follow our Lord on the way down; down into the humble job of washing one another’s feet, even the feet of those who do not understand us, and those who abandon us, even those who betray and deny us before others. Now, this is not a difficult lesson to apply to our own lives.

Opportunities to live out our own humiliation and passion are never far from hand. It only takes a text message or a phone call to invite your own Judas over for Easter dinner this Sunday. And how many Peters do all of us have in our lives, who have betrayed us and are now waiting for us to come find them, and ask them, “do you love me?” How many Mary Magdalens are there in our lives, waiting for someone to tell them that their sins have been forgiven? How many Mother Marys are in our lives waiting for us to take them into our families as if they were their own mothers? Every single one of us has a Thomas in our life who needs to see our scars in order to believe. There is no shortage of work to be done in the Church, no need to look far for an opportunity to love one another as Christ loved us.

So take up your towel of humiliation and follow our Lord and Teacher down into the depths of human history, where God empties himself and takes on the form of the lowliest servant. Participate in the royal work of Christ our King, and wash one another’s feet.

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.


Fr. Jesse Barkalow

Vicar of Holy Cross Anglican Mission on the west side of Colorado Springs.

'Footwashing Near the Bottom of History' has 1 comment

  1. April 13, 2024 @ 10:06 pm Sudduth Rea Cummings

    In all of the churches of which I was the rector, I introduced foot washing as part of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. I know that some parishes invite anyone from the congregation who wishes to, to participate. Instead, I thought it was more orderly and representative to invite 12 members of differing ages and conditions of life to receive the washing while the clergy did the washing. I felt that was a more powerful symbol. (It was always interesting that nearly always, the women got a pedicure beforehand!)


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