The night before God’s people left Egypt was a horrific and bloody night. Children, cattle, and lambs died. They died because Pharaoh’s heart was hard; because Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit. They joined the rebel angel armies of Satan. They took up the cause of death and plunged all creation into chaos and destruction. They invented slavery.
But the lambs were innocent. They had not rebelled or sinned. They had not enslaved their brothers. Yet they died that night. They were sacrificed in the place of guilty people. The lambs’ blood marked the doors of those who submitted to God’s Word through Moses, who in repentance pleaded for mercy to the only One who can give it. Thus while the angel of death took the firstborn of the Egyptians, those marked by the blood of the lambs were spared. That blood counted for them and the angel passed over them.
It was a bloody night because while God loves the world, He has no sympathy for those who reject Him, who attempt to worship Him by some other name, who like Pharaoh will not hear His Word, or who ask Him to share their devotion and prayers with false gods. They get what they desire, the inheritance of the fall, death. He has no sympathy either for the lambs. Their blood is the price of man’s rebellion. He is unflinching about the sacrifice. They have to die that men would again be His. And thus God loved the world by killing them. He hid His people under innocent blood. The killing angel passed over them. God spared them from death through death.
But it was not enough that the lambs died in their place, that their doors were marked, that they hid behind that innocent blood, and trusted in God to deliver them. They still needed life. So they ate those lambs. Safe from death, they ate in a foreign land, in haste, in preparation for a pilgrimage to freedom. They drew strength and nourishment for the journey from the flesh God provided. It was a double giving: one a substitution, a satisfaction, the removal of guilt, and the turning away of the angel of death. The other giving was a feeding, a filling, a bestowal of righteousness. Thus they escaped slavery with the strength to travel to the promised land.
The night before Our Lord’s departure was also a bloody night. In the Garden His anguish turned to bloody sweat. His blood would stain thorns, lashes, the hands of evil men, the wood of the cross, and the dust of Golgotha. That God would spare men death through death. But first, His Blood stained the Cup and the lips of His children. He marked the doors of theirs hearts with His blood and thus warded off the angel of death. For He is our Passover Lamb. He takes away the sin of the world. He does what those lambs in Egypt illustrated and prophesied. He lays down His life in a double giving: one of substitution and one of feeding. He dies in our place. He gives Himself as the food of salvation, providing strength and courage.
Yet there’s more. In the middle of the meal Jesus rose from the table, took off His outer clothing, tied a towel around His waist, and began to wash the disciples’ feet. He, the Lord, washed their feet! The fingers of the One that crafted the universe scrubbed scum from between man’s toes. The hands of the One who brilliantly painted the cosmos washed feet painted with the filth of dirt and sweat. The One before whom all angels bow gets on His knees to labor as a servant.
His action is unexpected and surprising for several reasons! Normally you would wash your feet upon entering a person’s home – not during dinner. Normally this would be done by servants – never by one’s Lord and Teacher. Even more astounding is that Jesus washed also the feet of Judas. Satan had already entered Judas and Jesus was aware of Satan’s presence with Judas. As Jesus is washing their feet – He “knew who was to betray him.” (John 13:11) Not only does Jesus do the work of a servant in the middle of a meal, He also does this humble work for the very man who would soon hand Him over. Why? Why would Jesus wash the feet of His devil-infested betrayer?
For John the answer is simple. When Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
Jesus demonstrated true brotherly love to His disciples and exhorts them to practice love among each other. This was one of the ways that He loved them to the end. As He says: “I have given you an example that you are to do what I have done for you.” This means that disciples of Jesus are to love one another and bear each other’s failings and shortcomings. You see, Jesus knew that He was about to leave them. He knew that pride and sin would still exist in the true Christian Church even after His death, resurrection, and ascension. He was teaching them how they were to cope when sin and human weakness inevitably comes. Love one another, serve one another, humble yourselves to one another especially in weakness.
This foot washing happened after supper had begun. It was not the customary purification right that every Jew would have engaged in when coming in for supper. That washing was like telling your children to wash their hands before supper. That was already done. Jesus’ washing was different. From the outset it meant something other than washing dirty, stinky feet. We know this by Peter’s reaction and Jesus’ response “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” We know this by Jesus’ question after He resumed His place at the table. “Do you understand what I have done to you?” They did not. It would only be after His resurrection, when He would breathe on them in the upper room, when they would receive the Holy Spirit. Then they would understand. Jesus was not washing off dust from the road. He was demonstrating Christian, brotherly love. This washing is connected to repentance and reconciliation.
Since we walk around on such filthy pathways in this world, it can’t be avoided that even the baptized at times “mess up their feet.” The Christian Church is not a place for perfect people. It is a refuge for repentant, forgiven sinners. We are called upon to swallow our pride and our place to be right in order to restore peace. Jesus’ foot-washing account is a show of humility, where He takes the lower position in order to serve His people.
And notice that the foot-washing account comes before He sits back down at the table and institutes the Lord’s Supper. The Christian is to first be cleansed through Baptism, then to repent and be forgiven, and then to partake of the Lord’s body and blood.
How we act toward each other matters. How we deal with the shortcomings and sin of one another affects the whole body of believers. Jesus did not suffer and die for perfect people. He stooped to serve unclean, betraying, back-stabbing, denying, prideful, and ignorant men. He redeemed all these sins in the blood that was soon to come from His hands, feet, and side. Remember, having loved His own, He loved them to the end.
This is irony in Maundy Thursday. The foot-washing Servant who tied a towel around His waist would soon have nothing around His waist as soldiers roughly took hold of His feet to secure them to the cross. Once again, God’s people are saved from death and slavery, once again the Lamb is slaughtered and God’s people are lead to His promised salvation. You are served and washed by the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the Lamb without blemish – the Lamb of God! His blood cleanses you from all sin! He does not bid you to put it on the door posts and lintel of your house. Rather, He bids you to receive it under the roof of you mouth, take eat and drink, He invites. Given the new testament. Given Him who loved you to the end, your cup pours over and you give forth the love of Christ.
Everyone who kneels at this altar to eat His body and drink His blood is united to His suffering, death, and resurrection. Everyone who kneels here is joining into a body of imperfect yet forgiven sinners. And in the participation of this supper you come away with strength in your faith toward Christ, and with strength to love one another. We say it every week in our post-communion collect. It is after all, a communion, a participation in the Body of Christ. For foot-washing and the sacrament are tied together. Repentance and forgiveness, faith and love; they are two sides of the same coin. Faith in Christ and love toward our neighbor are involved in every celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It was like that since the night on which our Lord was betrayed. You are His, and He has promised to love you to the end.