Philippians 2: 5-11; John 13:1-17

First Sunday of Lent

St Barbara’s 18.02.2024

Rev Tulo Raistrick

Famous last words. People’s last words can often be full of poignancy, full of insight. For me, some of the most memorable last words are those of Martin Luther King, who the night before he was shot and killed, spoke these famous words of remarkable foresight: “Like anybody I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Those are particularly famous last words, but maybe you can remember some important last words spoken to you by a loved one – words of poignancy and significance, words you treasure still.

Last words can matter. They can tell us what is really important to that person; what they want us to learn from their life, and what they want us to live out going forwards.

So this Lent we are going to spend some time looking at the last words of Jesus to his disciples, the evening before he died. To take time to explore what he said and why. John devotes almost a quarter of his whole gospel to these last words, this was how important he and the early church felt these words were.

And he sets the context for us in these first two verses.  “It was just before the Passover festival”, John tells us. The Passover festival, the greatest festival in the Jewish year, celebrating the nation’s liberation from slavery and the sacrifice of the lamb that made it possible. If you have been following the daily email readings you will already have seen how Jesus is identified with Passover, how John the Baptist calls him “the lamb of God”. The theme of sacrifice and liberation are already being woven into our story.

John then tells us that “Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the father”. The events over the coming hours – his trial and crucifixion – will be no accident, no mistake. This is his timing; he is the one in control.

We’re then told, “Having loved his own, he loved them to the end” or “loved them to the uttermost”. As the events of the next few chapters will show, there is no limit to his love. Love is central to the heart of all that takes place. And yet, it is a love that will be rejected by some, including the one who betrays him, Judas. Such opposition and rejection  has been a consistent theme throughout John’s gospel, but it is about to reach its crescendo.

Sacrifice, liberation, love and rejection, Christ in control, these are all key themes as we hear Christ’s final words to the disciples, but it is with actions not words that we start.

And it is a stupefying action. But before we get to it, John wants to tell us one more thing: “Jesus knew that the father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God.” He is from God – He is God’s Son, holy and pure. He will return to God – His future is at the right hand of God, there to be worshipped by myriad angels, in glory and honour, exceeding the most magnificent and honouring of praise he could ever receive on earth. Those who seek to destroy him, the political and religious leaders of Israel, are mere scurrying ants in comparison to his power and authority. This is who Jesus is.

And so he stoops down on his knees, removes his outer clothing, and washes the smelly, dirty feet of the disciples. Not despite his holiness and greatness, but because of his holiness and greatness, he bends down and washes his disciples’ feet. This is who God is. This is what divine love looks like.

For divine love is practical. The feet of the disciples, having walked through the streets of Jerusalem in sandals, would have been covered in dust, mud, animal dung, sewage and worse. Their feet needed washing, especially as the traditional way to eat would have been to recline at the table, meaning your feet were not hidden under the table, but actually up at the same height as the table, right next to the person on the couch with you. Washing feet was a job that needed doing. Love is not just a matter of saying words. Love is about service – seeing a need and responding.

Divine love is also sacrificial. If the job of washing feet had been pleasant – maybe just the squirt of some perfume or the handing out of warm, sanitised face cloths like you get on airplanes – no doubt there would have been no shortage of volunteers. But the job Jesus did was unpleasant, smelly – getting down on his knees to wash with his bare hands the dirt, muck and excrement off his disciples’ feet. A sign of love is when someone does the jobs no-one wants to do. And note that the next time Jesus’ outer garments are removed will be before he is whipped and led out to crucifixion. Love involves sacrifice.

And divine love is humble. The job of washing feet was only ever done by the lowest of the low. Not even the poorest Jewish slave could be compelled to do it; only Gentile slaves. And yet here is Jesus, the one who before the beginning of time helped to fashion with his Father the universe and the heavens; the one who is King of heaven and earth; here he is willingly choosing to to do a job so abhorrent that only the lowest of slaves could be compelled to do. Love does not insist on status or pull rank. It is not proud. It is humble – putting the needs of others before oneself.

This act is not for show nor is it simply a symbolic act designed as an illustration of Christ’s love. This act is just simply part of who Christ is. Shocked though the disciples may have been, what Jesus does is entirely consistent with his entire ministry – the taking time to talk with a shunned woman at a well in Samaria, the healing of an abandoned paralysed man, the seeking out of a rejected blind man. This act is not done for symbolism. It is done because of course Christ would do that. It is part of his very nature. The danger of only focusing on this act once a year on Maundy Thursday is that we can turn into religious ritual something that is far more basic and profound than that: an act of deep, practical, sacrificial, humble, love. The kind of love we too are called to live.

So what is our response? Well maybe one response is that of awe and wonder. In a world full of the love of power, a world where people grasp for status and influence, where we all fall prey to putting ourselves and our interests above others, even at times, above those whom we love, here we encounter in Christ the true picture of who God is, and it is a staggering picture. God bends down to wash feet, to comfort the widow, to welcome the outcast, to feed the hungry, to bless the child. This is what divine love looks like. Surely the giving of our our worship is a worthy response.

And another response may be that of gratitude: this is how much Christ loves us. Peter could not get his head round it – that he should receive this personal, intimate act of love seemed initially impossible to him. If you have ever witnessed someone nursing a dying or bed-bound spouse, or witnessed a parent caring for a sick child, you will know that the most menial of tasks become acts of love. It is with this tenderness, this dedication, this tender care, that Christ reaches out to each one of us. This is no distant and far removed God, but the one who comes alongside, the one who weeps with us as he wept at the tomb of Lazarus, the one who cares for us as he cared for those who were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd, the one who will think about the future care of others as he is stretched out upon a cross. Alongside worship, comes a response of gratitude. This is how much Christ loves us.

And a third response is that of love – practical, sacrificial, humble love for others. Who can we love today? What tasks are out there that are waiting to be done because no-one else wants to do them? Which people need our love who we would rather avoid? What does such love look like for you today?

And Jesus finishes by saying: “Now you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” When we love, we become truly human, we become truly the people God has made us to be, we live our best life, we discover even greater depths of God’s love. No wonder when we love we will be blessed. As last words, and actions, go, this is a truly remarkable start. May God help us to respond to his love with awe, with gratitude and with acts of love.