Maundy Thursday, Year C
by The Rev. Ajung Sojwal

Sunday April 5, 2007

John 13:1-15

Like many of you here, I am an immigrant to this country. I come from India, where for most part of the year it is hot and humid. Because of the heat most people wear only sandals, which are perfectly acceptable footwear for work as well as formal gatherings like weddings or funerals. Because of the heat as well as the lack of tall trees and grass, the roads are always dusty. Being constantly exposed to the elements, feet often develop permanent cracks and dirt becomes like a second skin on the feet. So, it is a very common thing for people to take off their sandals before they enter a home, and depending on how well off the family is, one can either wash their own feet or have a servant wash the feet before they actually step inside the house. Similarly, in the first-century Palestine where Jesus lived, the washing of feet was a common cultural courtesy that was necessary due to the dry, dusty road conditions and the footwear of the day. It was a culture where household servants were in abundant supply for any family of some means, and a servant of the host normally performed the task of washing a guest’s dusty feet. Jesus was therefore not instituting a new ritual, he was simply using an existing cultural custom to teach a spiritual principle. That is the reason why He prefaced His action by noting that the disciples would not understand the significance of what He was about to do just as yet (John 13:7).

In the church tradition, Maundy Thursday commemorates the institution of the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist by our Lord Jesus. Maundy comes from the Latin word Mandatum, which means command, and it is the reference to the command given by Jesus to His disciples to love one another. The command to love one another as Jesus loved is the basis for everything that defines us as Christians. Out of His great love Jesus reached out to the people especially the poor and the marginalized. In that same spirit He gathered His disciples around the table giving a new and deeper meaning to the simple act of breaking bread together, and it was His profoundly deep love that made Him pick up the wash basin and towel to wash the feet of his disciples.

In our culture today, we take great pains to dissociate service from love. In fact, we do our best to strip away all concept of service within a relationship of love because of the heavy and shameful connotation of bondage attached to servitude. And having lived in this country for more than ten years, I see and know just how opposed this culture is when it comes to the word servants. So instead we use words like “help” “cleaning lady” “nanny” or something of that nature, and they rarely live with the family that they serve. The concept of a servant is somewhat lost in this culture of idealistic egalitarianism. I on the other hand come from a culture where many families have servants living with the family, and I know only too well how servants can be subject to much humiliation and abuse. But I have also seen servants and their families blessed immensely through the generosity and love of their employers. What remains constant is the fact that servanthood is seen as a less than desirable position in society, only the poorest of the poor and the uneducated land up as servants in somebody’s home.

I grew up in a home where at any given time there were at least two live-in servants, and we went through good, faithful servants as well as crooked and unreliable ones. Having interacted and lived with servants for a greater part of my life I think I understand a little of what it means to be a servant, and I strongly believe that Christian love can come only out of a servant’s heart and attitude. I learnt that one of the most precious things for a servant is his or her master’s love and care for him or her. In my parents’ home, any new servant started off with calling my father “sahib” meaning master and my mother “memsahib” the female master. At some point, if the servant proved to be faithful the sahib and memsahib got changed to “amma” and “baba” meaning mother and father, and from then on, there is a certain sense of accountability between my parents and the servant. By the time the servant gets to the point of calling my parents mother and father, it is understood that the servant knows and understands the needs of the home very well and in so many ways my parents relegate the physical running of the home to the servant. Having a loyal servant meant that one could literally trust the servant with your life. The essence of a servant’s heart really is his or her realization that he or she is responsible for the master’s life at so many levels, just as much as the realization that the master is responsible for having saved him or her from a destitute life. Unfortunately, the realization of this responsibility has become a burden because of our history of oppression toward those that serve us.

The understanding of this sense of responsibility toward another human being is what we land up loosing in our relationships the moment we put service and love in two different boxes. In the loss of this sense of responsibility toward each other we allow ourselves to become silent, indifferent, or blame each other when faced with difficult and hurtful situations. Furthermore, this loss of responsibility toward each other is also the reason why we find it so difficult to come to the table of reconciliation and healing. Jesus understood just how corrupt and perverted the connection between love and service had become in human society, how service no longer signified love and a willingness to embrace but rather signified bondage and humiliation. It was this corrupt understanding of service, which prompted Peter to protest against Jesus washing his feet. In picking up the wash basin and towel, Jesus was already ushering in the act of redemption. He says to his disciples, "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.” We often think of Jesus as a radical teacher, leaning toward thinking and doing things above and beyond the norm, doing away with existing cultural and religious practices, however, the primary role that Jesus fulfills in human history is that of being the redeemer. God has given all of us different gifts and talents, different roles to take up in our communities. God planned for every single gift or talent and every role within society to be seen as equally important or essential because He understands profoundly our inter-relatedness to each other. But in our wickedness and selfishness, we have created subordinates and superiors, bondage instead of freedom in relationships. And we have willfully allowed some roles or some people to be seen as more important than others, and in this dark and complex structure of hierarchy we have destroyed not only our relationship with God, but also tainted and perverted every single relationship we have on earth.

In taking up the role of a servant with His disciples, Jesus picked one of the most clearly defined examples of bondage in a relationship to demonstrate that he had come to redeem the broken-ness in our relationships. Jesus says that he is indeed the Teacher and Lord, yet it is not beneath Him to wash the feet of his disciples like a servant would. Jesus is not only teaching them to serve each other, He is in fact showing them that true service and love are so intricately connected that we cannot hope to have one without the other. He tells Peter, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." In other words, what we consider to be a humiliating act of service should in fact be the expression of a very close relationship filled with love and dignity. The master need not or should not think himself or herself as more worthy than the servant and the servant need not serve out of a sense of bondage but out of love. In Jesus there is hope of redemption for all our broken relationships. In recognizing the God-given dignity of every person whether it is a servant or a master we become free to love without the chains of bondage and obligation. And if we are humble enough to recognize our unshakable relatedness to each other we will hold ourselves responsible for the wellbeing of each other. The command by Jesus to love each other comes with the understanding that out of that love we will serve each other, and to serve is to be responsible for each other. The symbolism of sharing from one cup and one loaf of bread is nothing less than the symbolism of two people becoming one flesh in a marriage relationship. And every time we come before the Lord’s Table we must remind ourselves that in Christ there is no master or servant, no male or female, nor black or white. We must also come to the Table with the hope and promise of redemption for our distorted views and treatment of relationships. May God give us joy and fulfillment in serving each other, and may He give us wisdom to realize our sense of responsibility toward each other. Amen.