Thursday, April 1, 2010

Maundy Thursday - April 1, 2010 (John 13:1-17; 31b-35)

“What kind of mark is it going to leave?”

It’s just one of the many questions we ask when, for example, we’re confronted with the injury from an accident or perhaps the incision from a surgical procedure.

“What kind of mark is it going to leave?” we wonder in horror as we view the elaborate crayon designs a child has scribble-scrabbled across the wall or the coffee table.

“What kind of mark is it going to leave?” we ask ourselves as we consider the ramifications of a heated argument, or the falling apart of a marriage, or the untimely death of a loved one. In our more clear-thinking moments we consider the possible long-range implications of any number of events—both good and bad—as they happen to and around us. Although the acute, immediate effects of an event may not linger very long—like the pain of an operation or the turmoil of a tragedy—we know there might also be long-term consequences, like the ripples that form as a pebble is dropped in a pond.

The question reaches further applying to far more than particular events. “What kind of mark am I going to leave?” becomes a question by which we might take stock of our whole lives. “What kind of mark will I make on this planet? On the lives of those who love me? On the lives of those who come after me?” In other words, “What about me will ‘stay on’ in some way after I’m gone?”

It surely seems to be something Jesus is considering as he gathers for his final meal with his disciples on the night before his death. He does not come right out and say that such a heavy question is on his mind, but why else would he get up from the meal, tie his robe around his waist like a slave, and stoop to wash his disciples’ feet? Why else would he disrupt the flow of the austere Passover Seder and illustrate his new commandment with such a profoundly humiliating act? Jesus full well knows that his hour has come to depart from this world and go to the Father. It is almost finished. He has loved his own right up until the end. He is no doubt wondering, “What kind of impression will I make—can I make—on this small gathering?”

It is an altogether appropriate choice of occasion for Jesus to be wondering about his mark. The Passover itself was a meal of a “mark.” The crimson blood of a freshly-slaughtered lamb marked on the door lintel of Jesus’ ancient ancestors in Egypt signaled them for deliverance from slavery. And the act of eating the Passover meal was, you could say, a mark. No other event or celebration defined Jesus’ Jewish people as a community more than the Passover did. For generations it was observed as a perpetual ordinance. “Who were these people?” the world would ask. What was their mark? They were the ones who gathered for this meal, a statement of God’s mighty act of redemption.

So, in the context of this sacred legacy-molding meal, Jesus stoops down to wash the dirty feet of his disciples. He is trying to leave a new mark on them—a new commandment for them—and, in the process, leave his own mark about who he is and what God’s love is like.

It’s not simply that foot-washing is a humbling act, dirty work in an age when society’s chief mode of transportation is barefoot walking on sandy streets. Foot-washing is a slave’s job. It is fit only for someone who really doesn’t have status in the household, or in all of society, for that matter. And so when Jesus, the Teacher and Lord stoops to perform it, then how more fitting is it for the Teacher and Lord’s disciples to take part in it? How more fitting is it for his followers to humble themselves before each other and tend to the acts of service that build up community? The acts of foot-washing are those that remind us not to take ourselves too seriously, not to exalt ourselves too high in relation to our neighbor. They are the tasks of love that bind the disciples together in humility. When they are willing to be acquainted with the gritty toe-jam of their fellow brothers and sisters, the world will take heed. There is an inherent witness involved when Jesus’ followers learn to remove their robes of distinction and learn to serve the basic needs of the neighbor. It all helps to illustrate this new commandment that they love one another the way he has loved them.

This is what will stay on after Jesus is crucified. This is the mark Jesus will leave on them. “Who are these people?” the world will sometimes ask. What will be their mark? They are the ones who love each other.

The dean of one of our ELCA seminaries tells of an experience she had not too long ago as a part of a delegation of the Lutheran World Federation to rural Africa. In reaching a very remote part of Africa, Lutheran World Federation workers spent time in a village where they brought medicine, drilled wells, improved sanitation, provided caring ministry, and helped people rebuild their lives after years of drought and disease. A couple of years later, this seminary dean was a part of another Lutheran World Federation delegation that made its way through the same area en route to an even more remote region. The villagers came and lined the road with cheers and celebration. The delegation workers were confused by the response. They got out of their caravan of trucks and greeted the people, wondering what was the reason for all this joy. The villagers thanked the workers for rescuing them earlier, for bringing new life to their village by tending to their most basic, human needs.

As the villagers expressed their thanks, the LWF delegation workers explained that they were not, in fact, the workers who had done the work in their area. One of the village leaders said, “Yes, you are the workers who were here.” The delegation leader insisted that not one of the current workers had ever been in that village to do anything. At that point, the village leader took a group of the workers to the side of one of the trucks and said, pointing to the Luther seal, with the cross in the center of the heart, “Yes, it was you. You are the people of the seal. You are the ones.”

People of the seal, people of his mark. Those who pass the cup and break his bread remember that they are engaged in loving each other, that they are committed to humble service. They are the ones who have Jesus’ love placed at the center of their hearts and, like their Master, stoop to place their hands at the feet of their brothers and sisters. I first heard this story as an example of the church’s love for others, but such a love can only be borne out of a community that has practiced true charity for each other. People will see and know.

Jesus’ mark of love and service, however, will not stop at foot-washing. As his response to Peter’s protest suggests, there is more to come. For this meal of deliverance, this commandment of love—these precious final hours establishing a new covenant—are really a build-up to the hours upon the cross. That is where Jesus will really claim his destiny and glory, and he’ll do it by laying it all aside. The cross is where Jesus will secure his place as king by dying as a nobody. The cross is where he stoops to the level of death to clean the ugly feet of the entire universe, and in the end, the marks for which Jesus will be better known will be the ugly marks our sins leave on his hands.

So, then, will this foot-washing-lesson turn out to amount to anything? Will the sharing of the bread and the wine have its intended effect? In the aftermath of such a tumultuous turn of events, what will be the mark that Jesus leaves behind—on us, on the tragedy-torn villages throughout the world.?

As it turns out, he is still leaving it. In a miracle that only God can explain, the meal that was to serve as his final chance to make his mark becomes the event that will allow him to continue washing, to continue feeding his people with forgiveness and deliverance. Whenever this community gathers to pass the cup and loaf, Jesus will not merely be remembered, as if as if that had been is the end, as if he had his one chance to “strut and fret his hour upon the stage and then [be] heard no more" (Macbeth, Act V, scene v).  No, he will be present with them. Risen, he will enter their lives once again, stoop to serve, and empower them to do so in his name. Risen, he will still be with them, bearing the marks of their sin.

No need to worry, then, about how he will “stay on” after he is gone, for he will never really be leaving. Therefore it will not be entirely up to us to carry on his legacy, because he will be with us. “Where charity and love prevail, there God is ever found" (Latin hymn, 9th century, ELW #359) He is present with us, loving us right up to the end. And, thanks to Good Friday, beyond.

So, on this night of deliverance, as we take our Lord’s body and blood into our very hands, let us again ask ourselves: “What kind of mark are we going to make?” As our little caravan of gospel workers threads its way through the remote corners of each individual life, let us consider his living legacy being born again in us. And as we take the feet of each other, let the cross be at the center of our hearts, for we are people of the seal. We are people of his love.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


  1. Phillip, Thanks for this good word! At this time of year, when I think of "marks", I think of sealed and marked with the cross of Christ forever, from the baptism liturgy and of course, the marks of Ash Wednesday. We think of the marks we leave on others only through the lens of the mark left on us. Peace be with you this Three Days.-Mary Finklea

  2. Thanks for this message, Phillip. I didn't realize you posted these...I plan to do some reading :) Blessings to you and your family this Easter (a little early)


  3. Excellen, Phillip, simply excellent. I was however waiting for a Tommy Boy reference: "That'll leave a mark!" Paschal blessings to you all!