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Thursday, 24 March 2016

Subverting hierarchy: Washing the disciples feet

Here is my sermon based on John 13 from today's Maundy Thursday Eucharist  at St Stephen Walbrook:

Jesus had a marvellous way of subverting people’s expectations. He did it when he called on the one without sin to cast the first stone. He did it when he rode into Jerusalem as a King but on a donkey, not a charger. And he did it in this story too; when he, their Master, served the disciples by washing their feet. He continually turned the expectations of the people around him upside down.

It was normal for a servant to wash the feet of those who came to visit and there would have been nothing unusual in a disciple washing the feet of his rabbi. These things reinforced what people thought of as the normal, natural, hierarchical order of things where some were masters or teachers and where such people had the right to lord it over those who were slaves or disciples.

What Jesus did in acting as a menial slave to his disciples turns the normal order upside-down. This is why Peter declares so forcefully, “Never at any time will you wash my feet!” What Jesus is doing is, in the words of Lesslie Newbigin, “a total subversion of good order as we understand it, and as the smooth operation of human affairs seems to require”: “All normal management procedures require chains of authority. All of us except those at the very bottom have a vested interest in keeping it so, for as long as we duly submit to those above us we are free to bear down on those below us. The action of Jesus subverts this order and threatens to destabilize all society. Peter’s protest is the protest of normal human nature.”

Jesus’ action also echoes that of Mary who washed his feet with a precious ointment and dried his feet with her hair. So, in washing his disciples feet Jesus, as a Master, does not only take the place of a servant but also affirms and follows the example of a woman; again, a radical, destabilizing gesture within a patriarchal society. 

Jesus goes further still in his explanation of what he has done. As Newbigin explains: “If Jesus had said: “Since I have washed your feet, you must wash my feet,” then we would have been fighting with one another for the privilege of being first with the basin and the towel. Then the old order of pre-eminence would have been restored, thinly disguised under the name of “service.” The “Chief Minister” would have become the old ruler under a new name.” But Jesus says something very different which negates that possibility. He actually says, “You ought to wash one another’s feet.” This is a statement that subverts and replaces all normal human patterns of authority. Imagine the task of drawing up a management chart in which A is subject to B, B is subject to A, C is subject to A and to B and A and B subject to C and so on.

“Yet this is what is called for. The disciples are to be – literally – “servants of one another” (Gal 5. 13). This is about equality but it is not an equality based on human rights. Instead, this is an equality based on the fact of Jesus, our ‘Master’, making himself the slave of all of us equally. He laid down his life for us and out of love for all that he has done for we are to serve our neighbours.

In other words, in order to serve others in this way we need to know who we are in Christ. We need to know that we are loved unconditionally by him, that we are accepted as we are and loved by him although we are still sinners. Each one of us goes through life looking for love but it is only when we know we are loved by God that we can relax in a love that is not going to change or to fail us. Having that security and confidence in our loves frees us to serve others in this radical way.

It is what we see at the beginning of this story. Jesus knows that the Father has given him complete power; he knows that he has come from God and is returning to God. The security of this knowledge means that he can rise from the table, take off his outer garment, tie a towel around his waist and wash the feet of his disciples. The action flows directly from his sense that he is loved by God and is right in the centre of God’s will for his life. The sense of security that this provides means that does not have to worry what others think of him; nor does he worry about status and hierarchy. Instead, he is free to serve others, to love others, to give himself for others in the same way that his Father does.

The reality is that Jesus had that knowledge and sense of security in God’s love throughout his ministry but it is in this story that the Gospel writer makes this plain to us, so we can grow into the same sense of security and through that gain the same ability to serve others.

Peter protested at the thought of having his feet washed by Jesus not understanding that Jesus wanted to draw him into a deeper appreciation of God’s love for him. Today, like Peter, we too need to be drawn into that deeper awareness of God’s reaching out in love towards us. As we know and respond more deeply to that love tonight, Jesus challenges us to do what he has done for us; to wash the feet of others by sacrificing ourselves for others. 


Graham Kendrick - The Servant King.

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