John 13:1-17; 31b-35
One of the things that was exciting for me on my recent trip to Germany was meeting Lutherans from many different parts of the world. Besides people from European countries, like Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, and Estonia, there were many people from African countries, one from El Salvador, two from India, one from Nepal, and two from Malaysia. With the exception of one gentleman from South Africa, who was Moravian, all of us were Lutheran, and came from churches that are members of the Lutheran World Federation. Going into this, I knew that there would be differences in beliefs and opinions in spite of our common denominational background, but one of those differences truly surprised me.
All of us in this group were pastors, and of the 21 of us, only 5 of us were women. With the exception of one woman who was from El Salvador, the rest of us came either from the United States or Europe. We 5 women were all ordained Lutheran clergy. One afternoon early on in the two weeks, one of the questions that was raised to be discussed in groups was whether or not it was permissible in Lutheran theology to ordain women. I was stunned that this discussion was even taking place. I guess I had thought that even if this was still a live issue for our brothers in African countries, that out of courtesy to the five of us women who were there, they would refrain from debating this topic in front of us. But, this was not the case. I had thought that, upon my coming into the ELCA and becoming ordained, I would not have to deal with this theologically again. And, hearing these arguments against the ordination of women wounded me all over again: it felt like the calling I had heard from God was being questioned, and that these men who were there were not respecting me as a pastor. One gentleman from Cameroon was particularly vocal in his opposition to the ordination of women, and I resolved in my mind that, from that point onward, I would be polite to him, but I would not seek out his company.
The days went on, and on a Saturday, we took an all-day trip to Erfurt, to see the cloister where Martin Luther became a monk, and to the Wartburg, the castle where, while he was in hiding, Martin Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German. The Wartburg is a castle that sits atop a very high hill, and when you go there, you have to park in a parking lot and then walk up many flights of stairs the rest of the way up. As you might guess, I fell behind everyone else and was huffing and puffing the whole way up. Suddenly, there by my side was the gentleman from Cameroon, offering me his hand and helping me up the stairs. I almost started crying right there out of frustration with myself: first, for not being able to handle all those stairs, and second, that this gentleman understood what being a Christian meant better than I did.
This night is called Maundy Thursday. The word “Maundy” is a corruption of the Latin word “mandatum”, meaning “command”. This is the night when we remember that Jesus commanded his disciples to love one another. Jesus shows what loving one another means when he washes their feet. Have you ever literally washed someone else’s feet? I would like to try that here sometime; maybe next year on Maundy Thursday. Washing someone else’s feet is an intimate act. It feels awkward, because it seems like a highly personal act for someone who we may not know very well. To wash someone else’s feet means that we must admit, in a very literal way, that we really do love that person regardless of any differences of opinion we may hold. And, something that struck me this year as I was studying this passage from John once more is that Jesus did this highly personal act for Judas. Judas, the man who, Jesus knew, was going to betray him to the authorities in just a few moments. And yet, by washing Judas’ feet along with the other disciples, Jesus was saying that he truly loved Judas in spite of what Judas was going to do.
This night is a good night to think about whose feet we would wash, and whose we wouldn’t, literally and figuratively. Would you wash the feet of Donald Trump? Hillary Clinton? Bernie Sanders? A member of ISIS? Would you wash the feet of the ex-convict who lives in your neighborhood? How about the drug addict? Or one of the county commissioners? Would you allow your own feet to be washed by one of these people, if they offered? If we are being brutally honest with ourselves, a lot of us would answer “no” to one or more of these people whom I have suggested. We would have to confess to God that we have not truly followed the command of our Lord Jesus as we ought to.
And yet, the good news is that Jesus has indeed washed our feet. He has shown us his love for us, even while we are yet sinners, by loving us so much that he dies on the cross for us. This good news gives us hope that God will yet love us and forgive us, even when we fail to love one another as we ought to.
On that day when we climbed up the hill to the Wartburg, the gentleman from Cameroon loved me as Jesus commanded, and helped me up those stairs in spite of our differences in theology. His kindness shamed me, and from that day onward my heart softened toward him. I can’t say that we became the best of friends, but we had some more conversations, and we parted as friends. I will always remember him and the lesson that God taught me through him. I pray that the Lord will richly bless his ministry, and I pray that my ministry will be better because of him. Jesus tells us, “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.” May it be so, Lord Jesus. Amen.