Eucharist and Washing Feet
Ask nearly any average informed Christian what Maundy Thursday is all about and chances are you will hear the response, “That’s the day of Jesus’ last supper, when he gave us the eucharist.” And so it is. But don’t you think it is rather strange that the gospel we read tonight does not once mention the eucharist?
Instead, we have Jesus at supper, which in John’s gospel is clearly not the Passover seder, because Passover does not begin until Friday at sundown, according to him. Indeed the Lamb of God will be sentenced to death at noon on Friday, the very hour when the bleating of lambs being slaughtered for Passover will split the ears of all Jerusalem. Thursday night in John’s story is the last supper, but there is no accent at all on the supper, its menu, the significance of bread and wine. Nothing. Complete silence. Instead we have a story about the washing of feet.
Many heads wiser than mine have puzzled over John’s omission of any account of something so central to Christian practice as the eucharist. Noticing that he does not explicitly tell us anything about baptism either, some have figured that John was not all that keen on sacraments. Others have suggested that all John has to say about the eucharist is packed into his account of the feeding of the five thousand, and the long discussions that follow. Actually, those things give us a clue as to what in fact John has in mind, and thus help us to hear the Word he is speaking to us tonight.
Recall that in John’s story one of the Pharisees, Nicodemus by name, had once gone to Jesus during the night to discuss with him the substance of his teaching. The conversation became a discussion of being “born from above,” or of being “begotten from above.” Jesus tells Nicodemus that neither he nor anyone can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. We immediately and instinctively know that John is telling us something about baptism, that central and major practice of the Christian community which is a symbolic way of being born anew—not just a bath is it, but an outpouring of Holy Spirit. In baptism we are remade thoroughly, a project that extends throughout our lives. It is so radical a remaking that it can only be described as a new birth, a second birth; or, as the other gospels put it, becoming a child all over again and starting life anew. Life in the Spirit is, for the baptized, life built day by day in the image and likeness of the Son of Man, to whom we increasingly and repeatedly give our hearts.
Something similar happens in John’s story after Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish to feed the multitude. Crowds come looking for Jesus. When they find him, he tells them that they have come looking not because they saw divine action in the feeding, but because they had eaten their fill of bread. They must work, he tells them, not for perishable food but for the food that endures to eternal life. That food is Jesus himself. “I am the bread of life,” he tells them. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Giving one’s love and life totally to Jesus (John calls that “believing”) is the way to eat the Bread of Life. When one eats it, one has eternal life. Then Jesus says something very astonishing: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
So there is a deep connection, then, between Jesus, you, the Living Bread you eat in the eucharist, and Jesus’ death. If you make those connections, you catch on to what John is up to. If baptism means that we are born in the Spirit, eucharist means that we continually grow by feeding on the one who makes possible our union with God by his death.
Though this does not solve the puzzle as to why John tells us nothing about how Jesus instituted the eucharist, it does point to the relationship of washing feet, Jesus’ death, and what the eucharist means. More than once in the gospels we encounter Jesus’ teaching that he is among his followers as one who serves. He came not to be served, but to serve. That is exactly the picture John gives us of Jesus when he washes his disciples’ feet. The whole episode is set firmly within the story of the Passion. Jesus does more than give us the model for Christian love and service, though he does that. He relates that to his own laying down his life for his friends. As the evening goes on, he tells them that this new commandment he has given to them to love one another is what he himself does in laying down his life.
To live that way is to live eucharistically. To be willing to wash feet is to follow the pattern of the Master and Lord who stoops to wash the feet of his disciples. To be willing to have one’s feet be washed—to let yourself acknowledge your own dependency and vulnerability—is to have a share in Jesus’ person, in his life, in his ministry, in his death. To live in the eucharistic fellowship is to serve, not fundamentally to be served. The greatest mystery of the gospel, perhaps, is nothing miraculous and dazzling, but this truth that keeps turning up that the last shall be first and the first last; that the servant must follow the way of the master who follows the way of a servant; that the way of life is the death of self which is paradoxically the way of life.
It is a hard truth, to be sure. Something in us says no, let this cup pass me by. When this truth is offered to us, we instinctively say, “You will never wash my feet.” If you don’t recoil at the idea of giving up your life in order to gain your life, you are one of a rare breed of human beings. Have patience and hang on, for the one who is offering that truth says, “Otherwise you have no share in me.” Then comes your hour to be glorified, believe it or not. Then comes your hour, your moment to pray, “Not only my feet, Lord, but also my hands and my head as well!”
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011