Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. 18 I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ 19 I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. 20 Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”
And there is a light… don’t let it go out. What an ending, eh? That Bono knows how to leave you hanging. This “Song for Someone” was released to the world in 2015. Bono’s little band called U2 gave us this gift. He mentioned it was initially a song for his wife – childhood sweetheart named Ali whom he later married and has been married to ever since. What a world that opened before them? Bono told Rolling Stone, “Before I even knew what commitment was, I ended up as a young man in the arms of this young woman, in a world somewhat hostile to the concept of the childhood sweetheart and a first love.” He went on to say, “This Song for Someone is about first journeys.” It became a song for anyone trying to find their way. For a lyric describing a childhood existence, there’s certainly some depth there. Some pain… that perhaps he could only imagine from the distance of decades. Did you hear it? “You got a face not spoiled by beauty… I have some scars from where I’ve been. I don’t know how these cuts heal… but in you I found a rhyme.” First journeys, it turns out, tend to happen over and over again in our lives. Pain, especially, is something… even when we think we’re numb to it from bearing so much of it… comes back with a fury … almost like it’s new every time.
Listen… for a moment… to this excerpt from Rob Bell’s Drops Like Stars. It’s a bit of a trip but see if you can’t hold the ups and downs of first journeys that are more repeatable than we might think.
“In 1941, in a village in Nazi-controlled Poland, a young man came home to discover that his father had died while he was at work. What made his father’s death exceedingly more unbearable was that several years earlier, both this young man’s sister and mother had died. As he held his father’s dead body in his arms, he lamented, “I’m all alone. At twenty, I’ve already lost all the people I’ve loved.” One writer described it like this: “Ripped out of the soil of his background, his life could no longer be what it used to be. He now began a journey to deeper communion with God. But it didn’t come without tears, and it didn’t come without what seems to have been a certain existential horror.” Suffering can do that to us. We’re jolted, kicked, prodded, and shoved into new realities we never would have brought about on our own. We’re forced to imagine a new future because the one we were planning on is gone. The key word here is, of course, “imagine.” That young Polish man sitting on the floor with his dead father in his arms was having all of his boxes smashed to pieces. “His life could no longer be what it used to be.”
Rob then makes a seemingly random transition. Play along…
Now for a multiple-choice question: If we went to a performing arts center on a Saturday night and as we walked in we noticed that everybody was dressed up and backstage there were various performers pacing back and forth in tights and slippers and they had Russian last names, we would know we were at:
- The rodeo
- An insurance convention
- The grand opening of a new hair salon
- The ballet
The location and time and clothes of this event are what art theorists call “insulators.” Insulators frame an event, providing context and helping determine the meaning of an experience for us. If we went to the ballet and everybody in the audience was wearing snorkels or the musicians were all red-haired banjo players with no teeth or instead of being handed a program we were handed a squirrel, we would immediately begin asking, “What is this?” But our real question would be, “Where is this? Where do we put this? How do we place it?” Because our standard reference points—the usual insulators – wouldn’t be there to guide us. That’s often what happens when we suffer. We had things well planned out. We knew what meant what. We had all of our boxes properly organized and labeled. But all of that was disrupted when we began to suffer. So there’s “out of the box,” which is often merely a variation of the same thing. And then there are those who think and feel and live and create from a different place. They’ve had their boxes smashed and their insulators dismantled until they had no other option but to imagine a totally new tomorrow.
We could call this the art of disruption. [a life defining shifter]
… that young Polish man? His name was Karol Jozef Wojtyla, but later in life he was known as Pope John Paul II.
Things change. Insulators implode. Life shifts. Then Rob quotes Catherine of Aragon who said, “None get to God but through trouble.”
Huh. All the pain… the scrappy nature of the human journey. The firsts, the middles, the repeat offenders, the endings. This is a Song for Someone. Maybe it’s a song for you tonight. This Table stuff? Maybe not your first time… but maybe worth coming as if for the first time again. It is probably the first time today… maybe in a while. Maybe since that new pain hit. That new loss. That new sense of darkness. Something’s always happening to disrupt the rhythm.
This was no doubt the case that first/last Passover gift of what we’ve come to know as sacred and standard. John’s Gospel account gives us the disruption more than the meal. The gathering… the Passover… the meal and celebration… and yet the lingering knowing of Jesus that things were going to be different and more quickly than any of them had clue. He was about to hand his disciples a squirrel. The meal was presumably going as planned. The people were there. The food hit all the menu requirements. The respite from the road a welcomed pause. The energy of Jesus’ recent entry to Jerusalem still ripe with the flow of adrenaline. In it all, however, something wasn’t sitting right in Jesus’ own spirit. Luke’s gospel notes there’s a little dispute at this meal about “Who is the greatest among the disciples.” Seven-year old’s ask this question sometimes: “Who do you think is the best player on our baseball team, dad?” John doesn’t mention this piece but perhaps it was hanging as a bit of a cloud over the gathering as far as Jesus was concerned. And… the fact that Jesus gets up during dinner to wash the feet of his disciples suggests that the team may have all been too proud to set up the water basin and towel so that all could wash their feet when they entered the room.
Standard practice before dinner was the washing of the feet. The Palestinian roads were unsurfaced and uncleaned. In dry weather it was inches deep in dust and in wet weather it was liquid mud. Feet are more purposeful than beautiful anyway so washing the dirty feet of your peers was kind of a chore. Wealthy parties had servants for that job but this crew with Jesus likely couldn’t afford such a service. It probably fell among them as a task of taking turns. My kids like cuddling with our dog but they scatter quickly when it’s time to take her out to use the restroom. Given the rise of attention on Palm Sunday and these questions about greatness, the job of washing the feet before dinner may have seemed beneath them.
So, sitting at dinner with dirty feet, arguing about who is the greatest, and who knows what else, Jesus knows this is a moment that can’t be ignored. What transpires is perhaps the most profound leadership teaching that Jesus ever offers. What do you do when you realize you’re the most powerful person in the room? You serve. Jesus pushes back from the table while the rest are carrying on. He grabs a bucket, fills it with warm water and pulls the “Happy Passover” dish towel that was hanging on the stove handle. He rolls up his sleeves, gets down on his knees and starts washing feet without saying a word. The table gets quiet. There are confused faces. It gets a bit awkward to be honest. Jesus silently washes the muck off the feet of a couple of his disciples, dries between their toes and rubs their feet dry with the towel, squeezes them gently maybe offering a short blessing and moves on to the next.
Peter, as vocal and stubborn as any of the team, is about third in line. He ain’t comfortable with this at all. Jesus gets to him and Pete breaks the silence by asking Rob Bell’s question: “Whoa. Hold up there, Teach. What is this?” Peter’s grabbed that “Happy Passover” towel out of Jesus’ hands to get Jesus to look at him. “This is silly, Jesus. I’m sorry that we flaked out on the feet washing job tonight. That’s our bad. Andrew? It was your turn, Bro. Whatever the case, I’m sorry we didn’t get it done but you’re just being ridiculous now.” But Jesus, as if to say, “You miss this lesson and you miss the whole thing,” says, “Peter… you either let me do this or there’s no place for you in the future movement.” If you can’t learn to serve humbly like this, you’ll never fully grasp the thrust of the message. Peter relents but he’s not happy about it. And the pain of the silence as Jesus goes one by one… no sound in the room except the splash of the water and the pat of the towel.
This is it. The disruption of service. And when Jesus is done, sweat on his brow from the hard work, fingers wrinkled from soaking in too much dirty water, he stands and says, “Do you get it now? Do you see what I’ve done? This is a song for someone in this room who will never forget this moment. This is a song for someone who’s too proud to serve like that. This is a song for someone who’s worried about being the greatest. Greatness is found only in this way. Get it wrong and everything else will start going to your head. I’ve set the example. Go and do likewise.”
That’s one way to put a damper on an otherwise fun dinner party. But such is the case of first journeys. Every moment with Jesus was new… a renewal of an old practice… a shift of some tradition to turn it on its head. The question moves from “What is this?” to “Where is this? Where do we put this? How do we place it?” It makes no sense. And… we’re always trying to figure this out. Paul was the one who gave us that vulnerable and all too honest line, “Why do I always do the very thing I don’t want to do. I do the thing I hate and I can’t seem to do the very thing I want to do.” And here we sit in such a similar state… repeat offenders wondering if we can journey again as if for the first time.
I have a high school classmate who I haven’t spoken to since high school, but we became Facebook friends a number of years ago. We hung out a few times in Middle School but not really after that. Even so, went to a small school in a small town so you know everybody and I generally counted everyone a friend. I’ll call him Rico… not his real name… but if you’re gonna make up a name, might as well be a cool name like Rico. Rico’s little brother died when we were in Middle School. He went missing for a while and was later found in an abandoned well on their farm. It was so sad. Rico was a bit of a bully on into high school… maybe had a bit of a chip on his shoulder as I could understand. He was a little guy but talked big. He became a father as a teen himself and via his posts, I’ve learned he became a grandfather by his mid-30’s. Rico posted recently a “Rest in Peace” message, naming his sister who apparently passed a few years ago – she was several years younger than us. Rico has had some trouble with the law and has maybe been a bit of an over-poster on social media but he puts it right out there: issues he’s got with other people; job’s he’s started, lost, started again. He’s ranted and asked for forgiveness. He’s declared fresh starts and repeat attempts at giving up nicotine. He’s been up and down with posts about faith… starting over… hoping anew … declaring trust in Jesus as Savior… “This time for real!” he’ll say.
He’s posted many scripture verses this week… longing for the truth of this week to settle in the world. And I just long for his heart. He’s been through a lot… many fits and restarts and mistakes… some beautiful; others with wounds that still gape wide open. I believe, in the depths of his soul, he’s good. He’s got a desire for God. And he’s been burned and rejected time and time again. This night is a song for Rico. It’s a song for someone here too. Bono says it this way: “I’m a long way from your hill of Calvary… and I’m a long way from where I was and where I need to be…”. If that’s you tonight? This is a song for you. If you could journey again… as if this was your first communion experience… how would you approach it? How would it feel? How would it taste? Would you pray? What would you say to Jesus? If you felt him kneel, slide off your shoes and holy socks and washed your feet, how would it change your heart? …
Where have you been since you’ve last been at this Table? What miles have you run? What struggle have you endured. What loss has you reeling? What sin has your gut churning?
We watched alongside the world, the Cathedral of Notre Dame go up in flames on Monday… that spire, with cross that pierced the sky, tumbled down on top of itself. Rico posted about it… “a sign of the times,” he said. What are we do to with this? Where do we place this? Another colleague posted this: “All who are saddened by Notre Dame should make a pilgrimage to their own house of worship… Please thank those who have cared for it, adorned it, left legacy in it.” Then he quoted Fred Craddock, the humble preacher, who said, “A plain, cinder block two-room country church, with a concrete floor and hardwood benches, is a heavenly palace where angels reside when you bring and receive the love of Jesus every week.”
What are you bringing into this moment? What are you willing to take out of this moment? There is suffering, yes. There is sadness and grief, yes. There is trial and error and trial again, yes. And there is betrayal. But… the invitation Bono offers to his beloved in this song for someone may be one we offer Christ tonight: “You let me into a conversation; a conversation only we could make. You break and enter my imagination… whatever’s in there it’s yours to take. I was told I’d feel nothing the first time… but this could be the night.”
I want to tell you a secret. You’re in on something tonight that most are missing. They maybe don’t mean to miss out. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe they just don’t know. When you told them you were going to a Maundy Thursday service tonight, they responded, “Is that like Taco Tuesday?” Or maybe you didn’t tell anybody at all. But since you came, I hope you know this song for someone? It’s for you. This could be the night. May you receive the grace of Christ as if for the very first time.
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RFjcd_d2PhY. Song for Someone. U2.
 Drops Like Stars. Rob Bell. Harper One Publishing. 2009. Pg 27-33.
 Exegetical background as shared in William Barclay’s commentary on the Gospel of John. Westminster Press. 1975.