1 Corinthians 11:23-26
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
John 13:1-17, 31-35
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
The last time that I had the pleasure of taking Holy Communion to the residents of Mockley Manor, our local care home, there was a degree of excitement amongst the staff, to the extent that the care manager was beginning to pull her hair out with the way the staff were so distracted by their new arrivals. What could cause such disruption you might ask?
In the corner of the main sitting room, where we have our communion service, were two glass boxes. They were very warm and in one was a number of eggs and in the other were about half a dozen brightly coloured and very fluffy chicks. They were so sweet, drawing on everyone’s emotions with their ‘cheep cheep’ sounds.
And during the course of the service another egg hatched in the incubator and we were treated to the sight of another chick taking its first faltering steps into the world. Now you can see why there was so little work being done. The staff and residents were caught up in this miracle of new life and everyone was taking it in turns to hold and stroke these beautiful fluffy yellow chicks.
It’s hard to believe, when they’re that small and that cute, that very quickly they begin to turn on each other to form a social hierarchy where chickens of higher rank will quite literally peck those of lower rank, and from there we get the term, ‘Pecking order’. The dominant chicken pecks the one beneath who in turn pecks the one beneath and so on.
We feel sentimental about them because they’re all soft and fluffy, but the reality is that they are putting energy into deciding who is boss. And it’s not just the chickens. Have you ever watched closely when cows are herded from one field to another? There is a very clear pattern of hierarchy and dominance.
It’s established by the way two cows will approach each other. There will then be some form of threat followed by some form of physical contact and possibly even fighting. After that the pattern of dominance and subordination will have been established and will be observed in all forms of social interactions, and it is usually found that the dominant animals will lead the grazing and will often be first into the milking stalls where they produce more milk.
Being at the top of the chain is evidently good for them. And so it continues throughout the lives of all social animals; wolves with their alpha male and female, lions, chimps and of course, humans. Social hierarchy has a very clear reason for existence: it brings order and once you know where you are on the scale you know how to function there.
Which is fine if you’re at or near the top of the hierarchical ladder. Like the happy dominant cows who produce more milk, if we’re achieving well and rising up the social or employment scale, gradually becoming more dominant, then so we become more at ease and more content.
But to get to the top of a hierarchy means that someone else has to be pecked. Someone else has to be trodden on. There are only a limited number of places at the top, and if you want to be going up, then someone else must be coming down
And so we come to John’s account of the night Jesus was arrested, and what is so very significant about John’s narrative is that, in contrast with the other three Gospels which focus on the last supper, in John’s account there is no mention of bread and wine. None whatsoever! Of course we have no idea why that was exactly.
It may be that John was well aware of Mark’s account, there are certainly hints that was the case, and simply wanted to include something else to give a bigger picture. But I suspect there was more to it than that. John wrote a very detailed meditation of Jesus’s life and the prominence of this story of foot washing indicates its importance.
Jesus’s actions are deliberately chosen to completely upset the social ordering that humans, like all other animals, indulge in. He acknowledges that he is their Lord and their teacher. There is no false modesty but a simple honesty. He is quite clearly the dominant male in their hierarchy and they are there because they are following him.
And there are plenty of stories throughout the Gospels of how the disciples then fought amongst themselves to establish who was next in the pecking order. Peter, James and John would have been next since they were the ones with whom Jesus is recorded as having as his closest supporters, the ones he took with him when he wanted just a small group around him such as at the transfiguration.
Several times we hear of rows erupting about importance and so finally, on the last night of his earthly life, Jesus takes demonstrative action, and the writer, John, believes that what Jesus was doing was of such great importance to the infant church that he recorded this as the final sacrament rather than the Lord’s supper.
And so Jesus, the Lord and Rabbi, the one who was clearly at the top of the hierarchy, shed his outer robe, tied a towel around himself, and came to wash their feet. And you can see just how upsetting this was with Peter declaring that he could never let Jesus perform what was actually the menial act of someone who was a servant or a slave, someone who was right down at the very bottom of the social order.
And then Jesus tells them that this is what they must all do for each other, and in so doing the Son of God upsets the balance of all nature and calls us to step outside what comes naturally to us as animals. He has given us an example to follow that goes way beyond doing the shopping for someone elderly in the village, or putting a cheque in an envelope in response to a request from a good cause.
Jesus told us that we are to create a community of equals. The beliefs in being superior or inferior are not meant to be a part of the life of Christ’s church. Authority is redefined by a towel and a basin, and this is meant to be the normal practice for us, and I have to ask, is it?
On Friday evening I went to the installation of the new vicar at St. Patrick’s. Now I always feel awkward at these things, just as I did on this occasion, and in reading this passage I realise now why that is. Just as in my own installation here the service ran counter to the Gospel.
Firstly the clergy had special reserved seats right at the front. There were people standing at the back for the whole service - those who hadn’t got in early enough to find a seat, whilst we were treated as important guests, those at the dominant end of the church hierarchy, who had seats set aside for us with the best view. And of course we were all wearing robes, to show again our importance.
And then the priest, as it was with me here, is treated with great honour as a new leader, someone who has come to bring order and direction, and I find myself thinking, ‘What on earth are we doing?’
The very first action of a new priest should be to wash the feet of everyone present. The clergy should be the ones who are standing at the back, and the church cleaners, the ones who put out the rubbish for you and make sure there’s always loo roll in the toilet even though you don’t see them do it, they should be the ones at the front in the special guest seats.
How did we get it so wrong?
And it has happened over and again in ministry that when I have tried to move people into positions of responsibility I have had other people say to me, ‘Have they earned it?’ Of course they haven’t! That’s the whole point! That’s the Gospel, that the ones who are at the bottom don’t have to begin to assert some kind of dominance in order to get some kind of recognition and gradually work there way up.
That is anti-Christian. John gives this story such prominence in the life of Jesus that it must be a defining feature of what church life is like. Yes of course we will have people who are more able and gifted in some things than others. But it does not, in any way, make them more important.
This requires such vigilance in ourselves because we are animals of this planet. Our natural instinct is to try and live the patterns of dominance and submission that so many of us have been marked by in our lives so far, and Jesus says, ‘It must not be so amongst you. Love one another as I have loved you.’
So if Jesus, the Son of God, the hands through whom you were created, if he should wash your feet, then how much more should we wash each other’s feet. And when we are tempted to try and rise up the church social hierarchy, let us instead remember the image with God having a towel around his waist, and do our best to destroy all vestigies of that hierarchy as being of the world, the flesh and the devil.
It was not his way, and it must not be our way. You and I were sent as servants, to lay down our lives as he laid down his. Amen