Behind closed doors, at the Last Supper, Jesus did not say or do something different than he had all along in public. As he taught and healed, and made his way to Jerusalem – the city that kills its prophets – he remained consistent and true to himself and his mission. On this night, in the upper room, just before his glorification, Jesus gave the clearest example yet of his forgiving love and peace, behind closed doors, within the intimacy of his closest friends.
On the night in which he was betrayed, he went the extra mile and got down on his knees -as servants and slaves do- to wash his disciple’s feet. “The last must be first,” Jesus had taught along the way. “Do not take the seat of honor, when you are invited to a dinner party, but wait to be called up higher.” And in Jesus’ parable about the great dinner, when the important guests made feeble excuses not to come to the eschatological banquet, he declared that we should just go ahead and go out into the streets and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame to feast at the communion table.
With words and demonstrations of love, Jesus taught and lived this example in all he did. And on this night, the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus whispers in our ear, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer [but] I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another…”
Jesus calls it a new commandment, but it is not new for him, only for us. For us, the sound of the term, foot washing, and even, forgiveness of our sin, can be jarring. So let's just say, in the words of our liturgy this evening, that in Jesus, we come to know that God never wearies of forgiving sin, and giving the peace of reconciliation. Whether behind closed doors, or publically, this is good news to us. Not like the president of the Chicago Teachers Union who yesterday publically accused the Mayor of working behind closed doors to come up with the recommendation to close 53 schools, and thereby taking away the rights of students and parents; Or the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who publically accused the President of devising, behind closed doors, a gut-less policy of not defending DOMA.
And not like any of us, really, who in our humanity, whether we admit it openly or not, usually default to, defending our own interests, enjoying personal independence and the virtue of needing no one. We like to be in control more than surrendering; and deciding behind closed doors what works best for us. Yet the community ideal, all things being equal says Jesus, is inter-dependence and inter-communion with all things and all Being. Therefore, God loves vulnerability! In Jesus, we see a God who, whether behind closed doors or out in the open publically, fully discloses – for the sake of the other, and for our abundant life in this global village we share.
Where are the leaders who have the courage for this Grace-filled model, to love one another as Jesus loves us? Though Jesus and the martyrs are continually being sacrificed from Jerusalem to Memphis, we are not disheartened, for we have the gospels’ and their eternal witness. Jesus washed the disciple’s feet, not as some kind of test if we can stand the smell of our neighbor’s feet, but as a jarring and powerful transformation of a well-worn, everyday custom, of a 1st century Palestinian tradition, that only servants wash the feet of their masters. “[But] That I, your Lord and Teacher,” said Jesus, “have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet… Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master… Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another…,” he says.
Jesus loved, by giving himself away – by losing himself. Genuine love always means losing oneself – in another's arms, in another's laughter, in another's tears, and in doing so, to find ourselves, and our true humanity. This was and is the love of Jesus, who lost himself and gave himself up for us in his public ministry, culminating on the cross. And in rising, the first born of the dead, he now lives in us who are his body, the baptized, gathered by his Spirit. The love that Jesus commands, he also gives. (Phrases in this paragraph from: "Proclaiming a Crucified Eschaton," by Frederick Niedner, Institute for Liturgical Studies, Valparaiso University, copyright 1998, pp. 10-14.)
On this night, the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus, in the intimacy of the Last Supper, behind closed doors, shares with his closest friends exactly what he will demonstrate publically, on Good Friday and Easter, in his death and resurrection. He loves us, and asks us to love one another, and in giving ourselves away, we become leaders who lead by being servants.
The banquet is set before us. And, in the bread and wine of the Last Supper, just as in Jesus’ foot washing, we receive a new commandment, celebrating that God never wearies of forgiving sin, and giving the peace of reconciliation.