Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory has been in some hot water recently. He received some very negative publicity when it became known that he was in the process of building a residence for himself that cost $2.2 million dollars.
Now just for the sake of review, as a Roman Catholic priest, Gregory is not married and so has no family. You may wonder then why he thought he needed a six thousand square foot Tudor mansion in an upscale Atlanta area neighborhood. Well, you are not the only ones. As you can imagine there was quite an outcry, and it prompted to Gregory to put the following statement upon the website of the archdiocesan newspaper: “I failed to consider the impact on the families throughout the archdiocese who, though struggling to pay their mortgages, utilities, tuition and other bills, faithfully respond year after year to my pleas to assist with funding our ministries and services.” To which I can only say: “No kidding.”
But Archbishop Gregory isn’t even the worst recent case of a church official using church funds to provide himself with extravagant luxury. In Germany, there is Bishop Franz-Peter-Tebartz von Elst – or as he is also known in the media, “the bishop of bling.” Bishop von Elst has spent $43 million dollars building a luxury residence for himself. That can happen when your bathtub costs almost $21,000 as the bishop’s did.
The German bishop did not choose the best time to engage in this extreme extravagance. The new pope, Pope Francis is seeking to emphasize that the clergy need to be humble servants who avoid excess. Francis himself has chosen not to live in the ornate papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace and instead to live in a more simple residence located behind St. Peter’s Basilica. He has chosen not to wear much of the expensive liturgical clothing that the papacy has acquired, and instead to wear much more simple ecclesiastical clothing. He has even used a Ford Focus instead of the papal limousine. It was therefore not surprising when the Vatican chose to remove Bishop von Elst.
To his credit, Pope Francis practices what he preaches. He has called on the clergy of the Roman Catholic church – especially the leadership - to exhibit humility and the attitude of a servant in the way they conduct themselves. He himself has done this, using the bus when he was a bishop and now seeking to modify ways that the papacy does things in order to avoid excess. He has sought to remind the clergy that as undershepherds of Jesus Christ, they are called to model their behavior after Jesus who came to serve us.
The Gospel lesson for Maundy Thursday is John’s account of the Last Supper. While Mathew, Mark and Luke focus our attention on Jesus’ institution of the Sacrament of the Altar, John instead tells us about another significant event that occurred. He narrates how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.
Our Gospel lesson begins with the words, “Now before the Feast of the Passover, 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 knew what the night held in store for him. He knew would happen in the Garden of Gethsemane. He knew about the trials, and the scourging and the crucifixion – the things that will be symbolized by the stripping of the altar at the end of this service. He knew that the hour had come to begin the events that would lead to his ascension and return to the Father.
Jesus loved his disciples. John tells us that he “loved them to the end” which is a phrase that in Greek refers to the temporal end of his ministry and at the same time also means “completely.” He loved them, and so he did something to demonstate the nature and the character of his life.
We hear in our text, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”
Jesus began to wash his disciples’ feet. Now this action was striking for several reasons. First, feet were normally washed before dinner – when people had arrived at dinner from the dusty roads and streets. It wasn’t something you did in the middle of dinner. And second, as you are no doubt well aware, the washing of feet was normally something that was done by a slave. However what you may not fully understand is the degree to which this action went against the grain of the entire ancient Mediterranean world. This was a world built on status and patronage. There was a firm hierarchy that determined how people related to each other. As Jesus says in our text, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.”
And yet, Jesus lays all of that aside even as he lays down his outer garments in order to serve. When he was done washing their feet he explained what the action meant. He put on his outer garments, resumed his place and said, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”
Jesus laid down his outer garments in order to wash their feet – in order to serve them. He said that he washed their feet in order to give them an example that they should do just as Jesus had done. Yet the example here is far deeper than the mere washing of feet. It is an example in John’s Gospel that points to the cross.
In our text Jesus puts down his outer garments, and then after washing their feet he takes his outer garments again in order to put them on. In John’s Gospel the same verbs are used earlier in chapter ten when our Lord says, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
Jesus washes the disciples’ feet as an illustration of the service he is about to give to them on the cross by laying down his life on Good Friday and then taking it up again on Easter. In that same chapter, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Jesus, the Son of God, became flesh and entered into our world to lay down his life for us. At the beginning of his ministry, when John the Baptist saw Jesus he exclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
Jesus served you in order to take away your sins. He served you because frankly, you would rather serve yourself. You would rather put your wants ahead of God and ahead of your neighbor. And you are often willing to do what you have to in order to get your way.
Jesus Christ did what he had to in order open up the way to God. He served you by dying on the cross in order to win forgiveness. Like the lamb of the Passover, the shedding of his blood causes God’s judgment to pass over you. And so, you are forgiven.
Jesus leaves you in no doubt. On this same night and that same supper he instituted the Sacrament of the Altar in which he gives you the body and blood given and shed for you on the cross. He gives you the price he paid for your salvation and so delivers the saving benefits of his cross and resurrection.
By his body and blood, Jesus sustains you in the faith. You received new life in your baptism as you were born again of water and the Spirit. And now Christ nourishes that life through the Sacrament of the Altar. He shares his saving love with you in this unique and personal way.
He shares this love with you, so that now through the work of the Spirit you can share it with others. At the end of this chapter, Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Christ calls you to love others in the way that he has loved you. He loved you by service – the self-giving service of the cross. And in washing the feet of his disciples on the night when he was betrayed, Jesus provided the model for your life. He calls you to humble service that seeks the good of others in the different vocations where God has placed you in the world. He calls you to a love the binds his Church together in mutual care and service. For as Jesus says in our text tonight: “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet.”