In 1 Corinthians tonight, we have the earliest account of what Jesus did at the Last Supper; he blessed bread and wine, called it his body and blood, and told us to do this in his memory. That matches more or less with what happens in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
In the Gospel of John tonight we have a much later and unique account of the Last Supper where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and gives them a new commandment: to love one another as he has loved them.
And being good Episcopalians, we do not have to choose between them; we do both tonight. It’s kind of like the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke where one has shepherds and the other has Magi; they are never together, but somehow they help give a more complete vision of the Good News.
I want to start with John, the footwashing, which is the less known and reenacted of the two stories. This is an understanding of the identity of Jesus that we need to take into ourselves and proclaim to the world today, because it is so different than the Gospel many Christians today proclaim. We cannot be followers of Jesus if we are not servants first and foremost. Jesus does not call us to be miracle workers; Jesus does not promise us prosperity and riches if we follow him; Jesus does not enact a ritual where he is physically powerful and mighty.
Jesus humbles himself. If we want to be like Jesus, we are to humble ourselves.
At a moment, and on a night, where it would have been possible for Jesus to tell his disciples that this was the time to arm themselves; this was the moment to start the overthrow of worldly oppression; this was the time for him to truly step into his identity as the inheritor of King David’s crown; or even that this was the time to barricade themselves in that upper room to stay safe; he does not. Even though some version of that is probably what most of the people in that room wanted.
Jesus gets down on his knees and does the work of the lowest servant. He washes their feet. All of them—even Judas. Even the person that he knows will betray him, that he knows will sell his life for 30 pieces of silver, Jesus washes his feet, just like all the others. He does not treat the bad guy differently.
When we are really conscious of following Jesus, that is what Christians do, and how Christians live.
A different aspect of Jesus’ identity is highlighted in the other gospels and in 1 Corinthians tonight. The familiar story of Jesus taking bread, blessing it, breaking it, and saying “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And then with the wine, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
I hesitate to share the next story, because at one level it sounds like it’s a story that is making fun of someone vulnerable. But I think it has a powerful truth, so I’m going to tell it anyway. A young, male, attractive clergy friend was bringing communion to an elderly female parishioner with dementia. And when he got to actually giving her the blessed bread he held it up and said, “This is my body.” And she, in her confusion, but also perhaps profoundly, responded, “I love your body.”
We will never know exactly what she meant. Was she speaking about the body of the pastor, or the body of Christ? But either way, I think there is something important about this profound message of Jesus at this supper. Bodies are to be loved—Jesus’ body is to be loved both as bread and as man. Our bodies are to be loved and honored. As a Christian I must love not just the idea of you, but the actuality of you. When Jesus says to love one another as he has loved us, he is telling us to love and honor and cherish the integrity and the frailty and sanctity of our bodies. And in some sense, is that not the truth of the Johannine Last Supper image of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples? He is loving their bodies, caring for them, giving them dignity without taking away his own dignity. Being humble is not humiliation.
In both Last Supper stories, Jesus is commissioning his disciples to continue to do his actions: wash each others’ feet. Love one another. Bless, break, and share my body and blood. Again and again.
So be a Christian! Serve. Love. And do so out loud, in public, proclaiming the name of Jesus. Because there are far too many people claiming that to follow Jesus is to dominate, rather than serve; and to hate, rather than love. For the sake of the world that God so loved that he gave his only begotten son, let us show another way.