A sermon by The Most Revd Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States
Exodus 12:1-4,11-14; Psalm 116:9-16; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-11,12-15
This is my body, which is for you. The original says something more like, “here’s my body, for you.” Often we hear it offered with the word broken, as a loaf of bread, or broken on the cross. Hear it again, “This is my body, FOR YOU.” Not just the bread broken in Eucharist, blessed on a table or a tomb, but a body given for the world.
Again. This is my body, which is for you. With my body, I honor you. This is a gift of love, a parting gift that promises eternal fidelity. Jesus is telling his companions – literally, those who eat bread with him – ‘You have my body right here, and we will make a feast, and celebrate a new and enduring covenant.’ He means both his own physical body and this motley crew of diffident disciples, hoping they will indeed be transmuted into a body of substance, and continue to grow like a rising loaf into his enduring, live-giving presence.
At this feast, Jesus may break the bread, but it is to signal our wedding together as the outward sign of his own presence. We are to be his enduring sacrament, the outward and visible, bodily sign of his love alive in human flesh.
We miss the point of this passionate week if we see only betrayal, suffering, pain, and abandonment. Yes, this is the story of ultimate sacrifice, but it is made in the cause of greater life. It is God’s cosmic love story. And this chapter is of a piece with the rest of the Book. God has been luring people into faithful relationship since the days of the Genesis garden. He calls Israel bride, delivers his people from slavery, challenges them to be faithful, and sends prophets like Hosea to act out the divine yearning for faithfulness by marrying one who will not be faithful.
Now the bridegroom himself walks among us, and proclaims his undying love. “Here I am, for you, with all I am and all I have, I honor you.” Why does the first sign in John’s gospel take place at a wedding, when he blesses enormous quantities of wine for the feast? Is it a foretaste of the heavenly banquet? Or perhaps an insistence that there will always be occasion for celebration, for God is in love with us for the long haul, forever. Even though Jesus insists it isn’t time yet, his mother pushes – as though to say, ‘don’t let this opportunity pass.’ This is both a cosmic love story and a most humble one, rooted in the occasions of joy and suffering in human lives as well as the daily errors (who forgot the wine or refused to order enough?). This is for better for worse, in sickness and in health; when we get it right and when we get it wrong.
The Passover supper we remember this night is at once wedding feast, funeral meal, and a reading of the last will and testament. God delivers us from living lonely and walled out of beloved community; the bridegroom leaves his earthly home to cling faithfully to his bride; and his body is commended and pledged to eternal life, lived for others.
We eat this meal to become more of who we were created to be. We are indeed what we eat. Whether dry crackers baked in haste for the journey, or heavy, yeasty, life-filled loaf, this bread feeds us for humble service. Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth, who creates the fruit of the vine to make glad our hearts.
Even as the creator continues to care for the life of his creatures, Jesus’ gathered body is wined and dined for the same humble service. We are wedded to one another, and to all others who are members of God’s created body, to serve each one in love. It’s time to put our towels to use.
Why does Jesus focus on feet? Peter obviously doesn’t want his feet washed. Feet are intimate, and often in the Bible, ambiguous – or euphemism. Feet are also what’s closest to the ground, often dirty, occasionally smelly. They’re tender, too. In the desert feet must be protected from hot sand and stones, and in climates like this one, being trapped in shoes all the time makes our feet prone to bunions, ingrown toenails, and fungus. Most of us aren’t anxious to expose our feet, let alone our inward wounds and shame.
In Middle Eastern cultures, it’s an insult to point your feet at somebody, and throwing shoes is still a way of showing utter disdain. Yet in Jesus’ day, when a guest arrived, a good host offered to wash his feet. But the host didn’t do it, a slave did. Jesus turns that hospitality on its head. Start with the humbleness of human feet, wash lovingly, send them out to proclaim the good news of God’s love, and see how beautiful they become! This whole body of his needs to be foot-washers, literally and in as many other ways as we can imagine.
Some urban congregations mark this day by washing the feet of people living on the street, dusting them with talc, and offering several new pairs of socks. Foot clinics are becoming part of the parish ministry in those places. So is a ministry called Laundry Love, where members of the body show up in a laundromat to help the unhoused and under-housed wash their clothes. Some bring coins for the machines, detergent, and clean bags. Others bring their clothes and towels. Every one brings baskets of need. Together a feast begins, and in at least one gathering, there’s been an ordination, so that a fuller worship life might keep growing. Intimate washing of all sorts characterizes the sacramental body of Christ.
Thirty-odd years ago, my husband and I went to Marriage Encounter. I still remember one of the presenters waxing eloquent and misty-eyed as she talked about the joy of folding her husband’s freshly laundered underwear. I was appalled at her un-liberated bliss. I live in hope that any sneer I cast in her direction has been washed away.
Humble service is our response to the washing we have received. This body is sent to wash whatever or whomever appears, tend what is wounded, feed the hungry, and honor the dignity of the lonely and despairing. Together, this body is for the world God has created, to honor God’s body of creation with all we are and all we have.
We have humble service before us this night – to watch, to wait on the wounded, to accompany the forlorn and forsaken, always letting our souls be washed in love that passes understanding. He has said to us, ‘with my body I honor you.’ With all that we are and all that we have, may we honor our wedded brothers and sisters, all the peoples of this earth. Like Francis, may this body honor all creatures – brother wind, sister water, brother fire, our sister mother earth. We have plenty of feet to wash, and plenty of dying to do, that at the end of our mortal lives we might befriend our sister, death.
 With my body I honour you, all that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you, within the love of God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-worship/worship/texts/pastoral/marriage/marriage.aspx