Following Christ’s Example
Maundy Thursday| April 8, 2004| Rev. Rolf Preus| John 13:1-15
The account of Christ washing His disciples’ feet has been read on Maundy Thursday for many centuries. The three synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – all contain an account of Christ’s institution of the Lord’s Supper. So does 1 Corinthians, from which this evening’s Epistle Lesson is taken. But St. John’s Gospel does not include an account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. In John chapter six the Evangelist records Jesus saying that unless you eat His flesh and drink His blood you have no life in you. With these words, Jesus was not referring to the sacramental eating of His body and blood with the bread and the wine, but to a spiritual eating of His flesh and blood by faith. Jesus doesn’t directly address the Lord’s Supper anywhere in St. John’s Gospel.
This does not mean that St. John’s Gospel teaches us nothing about the Lord’s Supper. Christ’s actions and words recorded for us in our text for this evening teach us much about the sacraments He has so graciously given to us. We learn of the sacraments by learning of Jesus. We cannot understand a sign except in light of what it signifies. We cannot understand Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper unless we understand how Jesus humbles Himself before us to serve us. As a matter of fact, it is only in our being served by our Lord Jesus that we understand His holy sacraments.
It’s for sure we won’t understand the sacraments by means of exercising our intellectual powers. How can the baptismal water be joined to Christ’s blood and thereby wash away our sins? How can common bread and wine be Christ’s body and blood while remaining common bread and wine? How can Christ’s body and blood be present on altars all over the world at one and the same time? How can the earthly elements of water, bread, and wine, be the means by which God brings us the heavenly treasures of forgiveness of sins, the presence of the Holy Spirit, peace with God, true life, deliverance from all evil, and the eternal joys of heaven?
If we try to grasp the sacraments by our intellectual powers, I am afraid that doubt will take the place of faith. We can understand the “what” of the sacraments. They are what Jesus says they are. But we cannot understand the “how” of the sacraments. How they can be what they are we do not have to understand. When we know how Christ is serving us through His sacraments then we have the understanding of faith.
When Christ humbled Himself before Peter, Peter took offense. Jesus was his Teacher and Lord. What business did He have to humble Himself before Peter as a common servant? It was a servant’s job to wash the feet of guests who dirtied them by walking on dusty roads. Washing dirt off of people’s bodies is not a prestigious job. Peter could not bear to see His Lord and Teacher abase Himself.
But we must see Jesus humble Himself. He washes His disciples’ feet. Peter objects. Jesus insists. He says, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” Peter, who can’t stand the thought of losing Jesus replies, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” To which Jesus replies, “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” Jesus must wash us. He insists on washing the dirt away. He must do it. It does not require a full bath for the whole body. The amount of water that Jesus applies to our bodies is not the point. The point is that Jesus must do it. For this is how Jesus insists on serving us. Faith receives Jesus in His humble service. Judas, who was an unbeliever, was not made clean by Jesus’ washing. Jesus serves. Faith receives His service. The sacraments do not cleanse or save anyone apart from faith.
Jesus must wash us because in washing us He humbles Himself and we are cleansed by means of His humble service. His humility led Him to the cross. On the cross He offered up to His Father His body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. This is the same body and blood and the same forgiveness that He gives to us His Supper.
Jesus served us. He served us by going to the cross. As St. John records, “When Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.” This love sent Him to the cross where He served us by bearing the entire load of our sin. Jesus served us then and there. And Jesus serves us here and now. He serves us by washing away our sin in the waters of Holy Baptism and by feeding us with His holy body and blood.
Jesus washes us in Holy Baptism, though you cannot see Him. You see only a minister acting in His name and by His authority. Jesus feeds us with His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, though you cannot see His body and blood. You can see, taste, smell, and touch only bread and wine. But we hear Christ’s words, “Take eat, this is my body, drink of it all of you, this is the New Testament in my blood.” These words make the bread and the wine what the words say they are. If Jesus says of the bread that it is His body and of the wine that it is His blood this means that the bread is His body and the wine is His blood. What Jesus says is so because Jesus says it.
When people teach that the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper are not Christ’s body and blood they do not teach this because Jesus’ words are unclear and it is difficult to interpret them. On the contrary, we don’t need to interpret these words as if only an expert grammarian or theologian can understand them. Jesus speaks plainly. The words mean what they say. The sacramental bread is Christ’s body. It is the crucified and risen body of Jesus. It is the body that bore our sins, that suffered all our pain and sorrow and guilt, that rose from the dead and that can never die again. The sacramental wine is Christ’s blood. It is the blood that was poured out on the cross to take away all sin of sinful humanity. It is the blood of the New Testament that, when the Angel of Death sees it, he must pass over us without punishing us. When we eat and drink the body and the blood of Jesus, we are taking into our bodies the body and the blood of Him who is the only source of true spiritual life. This is why the Church calls this sacrament the medicine of immortality.
When we eat and drink Christ’s body and blood we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. We preach a gospel sermon without saying a word. We preach at the altar the same gospel that the pastor preaches from the pulpit. This is one reason why we should not commune at altars of churches from whose pulpits false teaching is preached. To commune with false teaching is to deny the truth. The practice of closed Communion – where only those who belong to churches that are committed to the whole truth of God’s word are welcome to commune – is not based on a judgmental spirit. It is based on the truth and a humble confession of the truth.
We have no truth to teach or confess that anyone wants to hear unless we imitate our Lord in His humility. Our lives are gained for us by Christ’s service in suffering for our sins. Our lives are given to us by Christ’s service in preaching to us His gospel, washing us at the font, and feeding us at the altar. Our lives are lived in service to one another. This is how we serve Jesus. After washing His disciples’ feet, Jesus said:
Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, 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 should do as I have done to you.
Jesus was not thereby instituting a sacrament of foot washing. He was teaching them humility. It was a lesson they needed to learn. If the Lord God of heaven and earth should stoop to wash His disciples’ feet, we who call Him our Lord and Teacher should likewise humble ourselves before one another.
Notice that the meal had already ended when Jesus washed their feet. Had their been a servant there, he would have washed the feet before dinner began. But there was no servant and it didn’t cross the mind of a single one of the disciples to do the task of a servant. It was too base. It was too menial. But this is precisely the nature of Christian service. It stoops down to serve. As Christ bore the sin of us all, Christian service bears with the sins, faults, errors, and weaknesses of others. When Christ turned the other cheek to those who tormented Him He was not thereby teaching us that it is good to torment an innocent man. Who could possibly gain such a lesson from His humble suffering? And yet we will make ourselves and our cause and our pride a matter of high principle as if we must defend our integrity and honor. No, we must put up with sins against our pride. We must forgive those who insult us, defame us, and mistreat us.
As Christ by His service has washed away our sins so that God Himself can no longer see them, so we must cover up the sins of others. No, not by defending sin as if it isn’t sin. Christ never did that. But we cover up our neighbor’s sin by humbling ourselves to see him as charitably as the truth permits. We explain his actions in as kind a way as we can. And we forgive him. This is how we wash his feet. We forgive him. We don’t hold on to grudges and we don’t give way to hatred. The greatest service we can offer to anyone in this world is to imitate the humble service of Jesus by forgiving those who sin against us. Jesus taught us only one prayer to pray. In that one prayer we make only one promise. We promise to forgive those who have sinned against us. That we may learn so to forgive, our Lord Jesus must forgive us. So He has instituted the holy sacrament of His body and blood in which there is pure forgiveness guaranteed by His body and blood. Here we find our peace with God. Here in Christ’s humble service we find our lives and true humility. And we glory now and forever in the eternal love of God in Christ.
Rev. Rolf D. Preus