|Calvary Episcopal Church, Rockdale
April 5, 2007
The Rev. Robert C. Granfeldt
You all recall, I’m sure, that a couple of years ago I preached a short series of Sermons that were
characterized by that line from the American Opera, Porgy and Bess: It ain’t necessarily so! Actually,
I’m certain you recall it because not infrequently I refer to it again when there is something in our
lessons that really needs to be questioned. This evening’s Gospel brings that line back to me in very,
very strong fashion!
Actually, as you may recall from my talking about it in other years that there were two gospel readings
offered for this day, and theoretically, at least, each parish has a choice between the two. It has
always struck me as a bit odd, though, that when options such as these are offered in the Church’s
lectionary, the company that makes the lesson inserts that almost all Episcopal Churches use
invariably chooses the one I would NOT choose! And so it is, on Maundy Thursday.
One might think that the company would at least – reasonably and logically – alternate the choices,
from one year to the next, but it doesn’t. It always chooses the one we just heard!
Usually, when there is this kind of option, and I don’t like the printed one, I either just ignore it, and
read the selection I prefer, or I print a whole new lesson insert sheet for you to follow!
Today, though, I decided to keep the alternate lesson, rather than change to the one I prefer.
I’ve spoken more than once about why I do not choose to practice the currently in vogue element of
foot washing in this Maundy Thursday service; which is, in simplest terms, because I believe the
practice has come to be exactly the OPPOSITE of the intent of the lesson – has become a time when
Popes and Cardinals and Bishops emphasize their elevated position by putting themselves in the
place of the true, “Exalted One,” by washing the feet of the groundlings!
“Look how wonderfully humble I am – washing the feet of the lowly, just like Jesus!”, they seem to me
to say! I would feel MUCH more comfortable with “Footwashing” if the Popes, Bishops and Cardinal
Rectors actually went out on the street and washed the feet of the homeless, the poor, the destitute.
But the Pope washing the feet of a couple of Cardinals? And that’s humility!!!?
I think not. So I usually prefer to skip the whole footwashing narrative.
But there is the other aspect of that alternative lesson, as well, the one I thought I’d take a look at
tonight. That is: it ain’t necessarily so that what John describes ever actually happened!
We have, in our Bibles, four writings that are called “Gospels” – which simply means in an older
English, “Good News.” The earliest of these – Mark – was written, the scholars tell us, shortly after
the year 70 – that is, about 45 years, or so, after the resurrection. Matthew and Mark followed, using
Mark’s Gospel as a source, over the next 5 or 10 years, or so. And then, finally, some time after the
year 90 – and perhaps as late as 110 – was written the Gospel of St. John the Evangelist!
But none of those four is actually the OLDEST source we have for SOME knowledge of what Jesus
said and did in his lifetime. That honor goes to some of the letters to the Church written by St. Paul,
one part of which body, written at about 50 or 52CE – only 20 years after the Crucifixion, and 20 years
BEFORE Mark – we read, tonight, as Paul wrote:
…the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke
it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also
the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink
it, in remembrance of me.”
So…, the account that was actually written down closest in time to the occasion – the last night of
Jesus Christ on this earth before his crucifixion – makes no mention of any footwashing. It dwells,
rather, on the event that is not even MENTIONED in the last of the accounts of that evening – the
Gospel of John that we just read: Jesus’ last meal with his friends – and his last words about how he
would have them live their lives! An account that is echoed by the three evangelists that followed
Paul most closely in time –Mark, Luke and Matthew!
Yet this is what we remember and celebrate on this night – the night of the establishment, by Jesus,
of that sacred meal that he has given us to nourish and enrich our souls; that act of remembrance
and of summoning that has been the mainstay of all Christian life and endeavor for two thousand
years! Is footwashing what we OUGHT and NEED to do on this night?
But then, what about poor John? How did he mess up so terribly? How could he make such a mistake
about what happened that night? How could he miss the Last Supper, and dwell on the footwashing?
Well, we have to assume he didn’t miss anything. We have to assume he was familiar with Paul’s
writings, certainly, and probably with Mark’s and Luke’s and Matthew’s as well; that he must have
known what happened that night – must, indeed, have been nourished in his own life by that sacred
meal. So why would he write of footwashing, instead?
We can’t know; we can only surmise. And we must, I think, surmise that he wrote as he did because
he thought it was necessary! He wrote, I think, precisely because by the end of the First Century, the
sacred meal – the Holy Eucharist – was well established, indeed eternally entrenched in Christian life
and practice and worship, so the Church needed neither to be informed abut the Eucharist, nor to be
sold on it! But, he must have felt, there was something else that was lacking in Christian life –
something that had been lost! And I think he wrote what he did in order to remind his brothers and
sisters that there was more to being faithful than just celebrating the Lord’s last supper, and
celebrating his resurrection! That being Christian was not just about celebrating eternal life, and it
certainly wasn’t about self-congratulation for being among the special people who were Jesus’ heirs!
John wrote, I believe, to remind Christians that there was yet much work to be done! That we, the
followers of the Christ, were not called only to celebrate but to serve; that the Holy Meal is not just a
celebration of what happened that night, but a strengthening for the work the Christ calls his
followers to perform, the job he gives us to do!
I believe John wrote his story to shock us into remembering what it’s REALLY all about!
He has Jesus perform an action – the washing of feet – that was normally something a slave would be
expected to do – and not only a slave, but a lowly FEMALE slave – in order to remind us that we are
CALLED to BE slaves! That we are nourished by his body and blood in order to do the WORK of
slaves! That we are called not to be th epreivileged or the victors – but servants! Servants of the
Children of God; servants of ALL people!
When these Gospels were written footwashing was a common courtesy paid by a householder to his
visitors. Walking on dusty roads either barefoot or in sandals, the courteous host had his slave wash
the feet of the visitor, and rub them with fine oil. It’s no longer a common occurrence, but in fact, an
But the real needs of people still exist – the need to be properly nourished and clothed, the need to
be adequately housed; the need to be cared for when sick; visited when sick or imprisoned.
In fact, all the needs that our Lord addressed in his Parable of the last judgment – and all the needs
he called us to fill for his brothers and sisters.
So this night has two Gospels. One about the great gift of our Lord Jesus Christ, given to nourish us
and to strengthen us. And one about the Work that the Lord Jesus Christ nourishes us FOR: to SERVE
the children of God!
Neither stands alone. Neither is complete without the other.
And we need to learn from both! In Jesus Christ’s Name. Amen.