One of my favorite recordings of music for Holy Week has on its cover a medieval illumination showing a stunned St. Peter allowing Jesus to wash his feet. These are not soft, cuddly portrayals: the Lord looks tired and intense, and Peter seems dazed and confused. I treasure this picture because it reminds me that we have to be strong enough to be served by Jesus first if we are going to serve others in his Name.
When Jesus washed feet he was performing a task more akin to changing a bedpan than hosting an afternoon at the spa. It meant a complete role-reversal for disciples and their Master. It was shocking and unconscionable. For Peter, it was initially unacceptable. “You will never wash my feet!”
Jesus responds firmly: "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." There is no negotiation, no set of options. It turns out the only way to become a true servant is to be served by the Master of the House.
We hear a lot in the Church about the importance of serving others, of doing works of mercy or justice and not being complacent Christians. I think any honest reading of the Gospel makes clear we are to be servants of our neighbor, to look for those in need and to serve them well.
But why be a Christian in that case? Why wouldn’t serving someone in the Name of Princess Diana, or Bono, or the United Nations be just as good? Perhaps too many of us don’t really know why.
I think Christian service differs from other types in a number of ways, but one of the most important is that Jesus has served us first. He has come into the world, taken a body, lived with us and ministered to us in the most uncomfortably intimate and honest ways we know. He has struggled, suffered, and died for us. He doesn’t ask us to do anything he has not, in effect, already done himself.
This makes being a Christian about a great deal more than claiming an identity or coming to church simply to feel warm and welcomed. To be a Christian is an act of courage: first, to be served by the Lord of all; then, to be a servant to all others in the Lord’s name and strength.
And this brings us to the other way Jesus serves us tonight: in the Holy Eucharist. By promising to be present with us whenever we “do this” in his Name, he is feeding us with his own gift of life, his own strength and encouragement. He is serving the servants.
The two commandments Jesus gave on Maundy Thursday—to love one another as he has loved us, and to share in the Eucharist in remembrance of him—are both about being served, again and again, by the Lord himself. This is why the Eucharist is so much more than a memorial of an event in the dim past or a hospitality occasion to make people feel welcomed and comfortable: it is an encounter where Christ feeds the members of his Body with his very life, his call, his care.
When I take communion as a priest, I normally do the singularly odd thing of serving myself (this is just one part of the strange and at times dangerous spirituality of being ordained). But, when I do this, I say these words in my head: “From your hand, Lord.” I am reminding myself that I, too, am being served by the Host of the Feast. There is no real Christianity apart from receiving care from Christ—for any of us.
When we know this, it becomes much easier to love and have patience with other people. If each day, each new encounter with another person, each opportunity to forgive or reach out is “from your hand, Lord” – then we treat that moment or person very differently from something we are trying to do on our own steam.
And so I ask you tonight, as you watch feet being washed and bread and wine being shared among members of Christ’s Body: do you have courage to be served? Not only now, but in the future; are you willing to join St. Peter and be served by Jesus?
If you aren’t, then you may well find yourself always trying to prove you are worthy. If you are willing, then you may be shocked and a bit embarrassed at times, but your soul will be always be fed and your spirit warmed—and your feet will be clean, too.