Here is my sermon. I rearranged things a little bit while preaching it, but this should give you the gist. I attempt to answer the question, “Why do we have the washing feet Gospel on the night we celebrate the institution of the sacrament?”
John’s Gospel is different from the other three. John does not include the Baptism of Jesus, or the institution of Baptism as the other evangelists do. But he does include the beautiful commentary on Baptism in John 3, where Jesus tells Nicodemus that unless a man is born of water and of spirit, he can not see the kingdom of heaven.
John does not include the institution of the Sacrament of the Altar either. But, he does include the beautiful “bread of life” section, which, if it is not directly about the sacrament, it is certainly one of the central texts for meditating on the Sacrament – John 6 is cited as a source for seven of the hymns in the Lord’s Supper section of the new hymnal. And, when discussing the night that our Lord was betrayed, the Evangelist skips entirely the institution of the Blessed Sacrament, not even mentioning it. Instead, he includes the rather peculiar account of Jesus washing the disciple’s feet. After that, Jesus gives final instructions to the disciples in the upper room. Almost a quarter of John’s Gospel is dedicated to these few brief moments before Jesus goes away to be crucified.
If you wanted to summarize the upper room conversation from John in just a few words, you might try something like, “Love one another, remain in me, I will send the Holy Spirit.” That’s pretty much what Jesus tells them in the next four chapters. Then he prays that his heavenly father would strengthen and keep the disciples in the true faith.
It’s appropriate for tonight, because this was the night in which he said these things to his disciples. But it’s kind of strange that, as we come together to commemorate the institution of the blessed sacrament, we don’t hear that account from the Evangelist. We hear it from Paul in the epistle reading.
Jesus washes the disciples feet. And it’s sort of a strange thing. He tells them that if he doesn’t wash them, then they can have no part of him. And yet, he says, except for Judas, who will betray him, they are all already washed. The washing of the feet is not a reference to Baptism. For they have all been washed. What then is it? Our Lord shows us the life that is ours in him. He shows what it means to live the life of the Baptized.
We live, as Luther says in the post-communion collect, in “faith toward God and fervent love toward one another.” The Sacrament give us this. It strengthens our faith in God, and gives us the strength of show love to our neighbor. And this is what we see happening in the Gospel reading. The supper is ended, and Jesus wants to wash the disciples feet. He shows them that his love does not end. Everything he does now, is done in love to save them.
Peter tries to tell Jesus that his feet will not be washed by Jesus. After all, this was a task for servants, and Jesus is the Lord. But Jesus made himself as a servant. He came to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. And so, Jesus tells Peter that he must be washed, or he can have no part in the kingdom Jesus gives. Peter, in his usual exuberant style, then says, “not just my feet, but my head and hands as well. Peter would add to the love and grace God gives with his own ideas. But Jesus gently chastises him – you have been washed, you are clean, now you only need to have your feet washed.
This reading is not just about washing feet. Jesus isn’t trying to establish a ritual sacramental foot washing. The washing we have from God is in Holy Baptism. That washes us completely. As Jesus says, the one who has bathed only needs to have his feet washed, his whole body is clean. Baptism cleanses your whole body. It makes you God’s child. It gives you all the gifts of salvation. And yet, after Baptism you are not magically transported out of this world. You still live in the flesh, and you still struggle daily with the old Adam, your sinful nature. Because of the weakness of our flesh, we stumble and fall. Sometimes that can be pretty big – Peter himself is about to deny ever knowing Jesus. You know the sins that afflict you, the ones you think are hidden, that you think you get away with. Peter figured he was doing pretty well, until the rooster crowed, just as Jesus had predicted. Then he recognizes the enormity of hwat he had done, and went out and wept bitterly.
Sometimes a gentle reminder is all you need, sometimes, you think you are getting away with it until something reminds you that God knows your sin. No matter how well it is hidden from others, it is not hidden from God. He knows, just as he knew that Peter would deny him. There are no secret sins. You may keep them from your family, the church, every other person. But God knows the secrets. He knows the state of your heart. And despite being made holy in Baptism, despite the forgiveness God worked in you when he rescued you from death and the devil, there is still the sinful nature of your flesh. And you fight with that every day of your life. You never get over it. You sin. And so, need to be forgiven. And so Jesus, having washed you in Holy Baptism, cleanses you again. He washes your feet. He gives his holy sacrament to you so that even your feet are clean. More forgiveness, more mercy, more salvation given to you by Jesus.
And then, after washing the feet of the disciples, Jesus tells them that they are to love one another. By this will al men know you are my disciples, if you love one another.
That is how our faith is shown. That is how the hope of salvation is expressed. God gives other people into your life so that you can show them the same sacrificial love that Jesus showed you. The Lord’s Supper gives you the strength to show that love.
That’s what your life in Christ is. Lives in faith toward God, who forgives you your sins. And lived as you show love to your neighbor. Your neighbors are those people whom God sends to you so that you have opportunity to show love to them. Now, it’s not usually a foot washing, as Jesus does here. And it is rarely as Jesus did – giving up your life for theirs. It’s usually the small things, the simple things that you can do to help them, to show them that Jesus loves them, and he shows that love to others through his Holy church.
We have opportunity here to show love to one another. Not counting the sins and offenses we commit against each other, but praying with Jesus, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Forgiving your neighbor when he sins against you. Helping him in his body, with his possessions, with his family, as God gives you opportunity. Those are the sorts of things Jesus is talking about here. Everyday acts. They need not be heroic, as it was when Jesus died for you. But they are the acts of love that show that Jesus is alive in you.
On this night, when we celebrate the institution of the blessed sacrament, when we receive the most holy body and blood of Jesus, and every time when we follow our Lord’s word and take eat take drink, you are taking into yourself the life of Jesus himself. Your life is not yours, your blood is not your, your flesh is not yours. You belong to Jesus. He claimed you in Baptism, and now he feeds you with his holy supper. You are his, and the life you have in you is not your life, it is his life. He gives you the life that he is in this supper. And in doing so, you live not for yourself, not to yourself, but for and to Jesus. The faith you have is a gift from Jesus. The love you show others is just Jesus doing his work in you.
Tonight the work of Jesus moves to its conclusion. Tomorrow we hear the great cry, it is finished. Tonight we see the work of Jesus for you today, as he comes to you in his body and blood to bring you forgiveness, life and salvation, so that you would learn to believe that word, and to live in love toward your neighbor. As Jesus showed by first loving you. And loving you to the end.