Preaching Maundy Thursday in 2020 will be a new experience for all of us. As the news (and every business you’ve ever somehow allowed to have your email address) keeps telling us—we are in unprecedented times. In these times, I see the opportunity to preach from John’s gospel on Maundy Thursday a true opportunity to highlight an important message in this text. John’s description of the last supper is unique from the Synoptics, just as our worship this Holy Week will be unique for all of us. The ritual of Eucharist is dealt with in other places in the gospel of John, and your own church tradition’s stance on virtual communion may be an issue for you as you plan your church’s Maundy Thursday worship this year. One opportunity is to follow the lead of John here. Invite those digitally present to the significance of Jesus washing feet and his invitation for us to do so also. Our passage takes us back to the last supper and Jesus’s invitation to do as he has done. I like the way Frederick Bruner frames John 13 as a lesson so that “Disciples Learn Their Identity for World Mission” (Bruner, Frederick Dale. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Eerdmans, 2012).
The Passion Prologue (Descent and Ascent), 13:1–5
II. Jesus’ Footwashing Gospel: Let Yourselves Be Loved by the Lord (Forgiveness), 13:6–11
III. Jesus’ Footwashing Ethic: Let Yourselves Be Servants of One Another (Servanthood), 13:12–20
Jesus’ Footwashing Warning: Let Yourselves Beware of Yourselves (Apostasy), 13:21–30
This message of discipleship to be loved by God, to serve one another, and to fear falling away is very helpful in Holy Week this year. Some families can wash each other’s feet. Single members of our congregations can be reminded of the ways they might serve others in this season. Others need to be hit hard with the message that Peter receives in this passage—don’t be so proud as to reject the service of those who come in the name of Christ. I know a few at risk folks who are hesitant to receive the help of neighbor and loved one to bring them groceries or medicine and I’ve seen too many folks from the highest risk groups shopping at the grocery stores last week. (On a side note, I’ve seen some interesting programs where local congregations have paired at risk folks with younger congregation members to do some of the necessary errand running, childcare watching, etc. in this season.)
Returning to the particulars of our text, Karoline Lewis notes that foot washing being practiced within the context of the meal has expectation for hospitality expectations when hosting a meal (John, Augsburg, 2014). It reminds me of the stories I was told of my grandparents in northwest Kansas where “there was always room for one more person” at their supper table. Meals are inherently acts of hospitality when we open ourselves to others. Many of us don’t take this act of hospitality seriously enough. It is a profound gift to others to serve them a meal.
In this present time of social distancing, we as the church need to conceive new ways to continue our practices of hospitality. It is a dangerous world for hospitality when we can so easily embrace the view of our neighbor as a danger to our own health. Today is an important time to remind our congregations of the bedrock principle and posture of hospitality that sees others from the view of servant and not one to be served. I read a post on some social media platform pushing for remembering that we distance ourselves from others out of our concern for them and not fear that they might pass us the coronavirus. Tonight may be a good time to remind our people of this framing. This Maundy Thursday, I think the text itself offers just what we need. We are reminded that we’re loved by God, that we have a mission to serve others in new and unprecedented ways, and we do so with the call to go and wash feet. There are a lot of metaphorical feet out there this week. We can love our neighbor even if we’re physically removed from our favorite rituals.