the big handoff
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. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 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. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 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.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
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? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:1-17, 31b-35)
In my hometown New Orleans many celebrations take place around a table of food. Often, the chances and changes in life are celebrated or cried over while sucking on the head of a crawfish, peeling shrimp, or getting dirty while eating a roast beef po-boy dressed, which dumps gravy in your lap.
What was the last meal you were overwhelmed with joy to be celebrating with family and friends? Why had you gotten together? Who was there? What did you talk about? What did you eat?
Where I grew up, we prepared for meal gatherings by putting up a huge folding table under the shade of an oak tree in the backyard. Then we would cover the table with piles of old newspapers, then strategically place rolls of paper towels about every 2 feet. The paper towels are desperately needed as fingers and hands and arms need to be cleaned in order to maintain a grip while peeling and shucking. Around the table of a crawfish boil, stories are shared between family and friends which recall the past in hopes of putting current struggles and realities into context. There is a lot of laughter too.
If putting together a backyard boil is too much work, we would eat out. On Fridays, after a long week of work, we would often gather at Galatoire’s, one of New Orleans’ oldest restaurants, right there on Bourbon Street. We would get there around 3:00PM for a cocktail, grab a barstool with a view, then sit, enjoying each other’s company, and wait. We waited for Galatoire’s most famous regular, an elderly lady who was probably a vampire because she looked a thousand years old. She ate at Galatoire’s every late afternoon, rain or shine. During the coldest of days, which in New Orleans is in the mid-thirties, or during the hottest, which could be 96 degrees with 100% humidity, she arrived by limousine, hair dyed black, flanked in a fur coat. As we waited for the vampire’s arrival, we would raise a toast to good food, good friends, good times, and give thanks for God’s blessings.
The Jewish tradition has a long history of marking religious festivals with food. We know from the Gospel texts that Jesus loved food. He was always telling his disciples to feed the early believers. After 5000 gathered to hear Jesus teach, he asked the disciples to feed them. And, after some protesting, they did on five loaves of bread and two fish.
On another occasion, Jarius’ daughter was dead. People had gathered in her bedroom, surrounding her with tears, crying. Jesus entered and told Jarius’ daughter to wake up. She did. Jesus’ first request was for somebody to give her some food.
In an upper room, just within the city limits of the small town of Emmaus, Jesus’ friends gathered after his resurrection. Two disciples arrived late, bringing with them a stranger they had been talking with on the road. The conversation was so illuminating time passed quickly. They had not realized they were late. They talked about scripture, discussed the laws and prophets, and eventually got around to interpreting the teachings and death and resurrection of Jesus. After the long journey, the two disciples begged the stranger to join them. Come in and eat. So he did. Once inside, around the table, the stranger blessed and broke bread. In that instant, they recognized the stranger as Jesus, and we are asked to do the same.
While Jesus was at supper with Mary and Martha and Lazarus, Mary took an expensive oil made of the finest nard and anointed Jesus. She did this to thank him for giving her brother new life. She did this to illustrate her gratitude and her love. She used her hair, generously anointing him almost as if she was preparing him for burial. Mary’s extravagant act of love inspired Jesus to invite his friends to continue doing extravagant acts of love.
So, as Jesus and his friends gathered to celebrate the Passover meal, Jesus followed Mary’s lead. He wanted to illustrate the love he felt for those who had been walking and working with him during the ministry. He took a simple basin. Filled it with water. Then draped himself in a towel. He fell on his knees. Then, Jesus washed the feet of his friends. They were astounded. Surprised. Shocked. Uncomfortable. But he wanted them to know his love for them. Amid their discomfort, he shared the focus of his ministry. To love. “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Tonight, we gather to eat and to drink and to remember all that was and is and is to come. But, more importantly, tonight is also the big handoff. Jesus is preparing for his death. He gathers us together tonight, asking us that when we eat bread and drink wine, we remember him. Then, he washes our feet and asks us to wash each other’s feet. Because tonight, he hands off his ministry to us.
As he prepares to die, Jesus commissions us to continue his ministry. On this night, Jesus invites us to be his hands and heart in the world, to take on his nature, not by placing our scars onto someone else, but by connecting and caring for each other.
We enter our sanctuary and strip the altar. Jesus wonders, “What are we going to do with the space created by emptiness?” So we go into the garden, hoping to stay awake and pray. We learn how to be Jesus in the world by celebrating the Triduum - one long liturgy, a worship service that begins tonight with a shared meal and concludes Saturday night as we go forth into the world, leaving the Easter Vigil finding our place in the holy story and discerning together the mission we are called to do.
During this worship service, we wash feet and drink wine and eat bread. During this worship service, we sit and pray with friends, struggling to stay awake, lost in confusion in a nearby garden. During this worship service, we watch Jesus walk through the town, passing familiar streets and climbing up a hill, to be nailed to a cross and crucified. During this worship service, we hear God’s story, a history of love and relationship, remembering God’s journey with us from the stable, to the countryside, from the cross, to the grave, rising to new life redeemed and restored.
Tonight is the big handoff. Jesus hands off his ministry to us. We eat. We serve. We pray. We listen. We remember. Then we are called by God to make God’s love known in the world. We are asked to respond with generous hands and hearts for all God has done for us. Make God’s love known at work. Make God’s love known at school. Make God’s love known at home. Make God’s love known through political action. Make God’s love known when we gather and eat together. Make God’s love known in thought, word, and deed.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I love you, you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another. Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. I ask you to go out and let God be glorified through you.”