Thursday: His Strength Runs Out
They had eaten thousands of meals with friends in their lifetimes.
They had eaten hundreds of meals with Jesus since they began following him.
They had eaten anywhere from twenty to fifty Passover meals in their lifetimes.
And this was their third Passover meal with Jesus.
It should have seemed familiar, comfortable, relaxed.
Just a few days ago, the disciples had seen Jerusalem welcome Jesus with open arms, hailing him as the Son of David and their King.
The disciples, by association with Jesus, were coming up in the world. The world was their oyster.
Or it should have been.
But tonight, something was indefinably different.
There was a palpable sense of discomfort, of unease.
All week, Jesus had had an air about him.
He was no longer the Teacher who thoughtfully explored scripture with them, or the Healer who touched all who came to him with gentle hands and an open smile.
There was an air of determination in him that edged on desperation.
He had the look of a man who had set his face like flint, as Isaiah says, committed to do something no matter the cost.
Then, inexplicably, Jesus gave up his role as Teacher and suddenly became a servant.
He removed his outer robe and washed their feet.
Peter, in his usual scattershot approach to following Jesus, first tried to forbid Jesus from doing it and then demanded that Jesus wash his feet and his head too.
But Jesus gently corrected him and then, slowly and tenderly, washed the feet of all twelve.
Can you imagine looking down at him doing this humble service for you?
In the ancient near East, people did wear sandals or go barefoot in that climate, and the roads were mostly dirt and mud with animal droppings mixed in.
Footwashing was the job given to the junior-most servant in the household, because it was a dirty and unpleasant task.
It would be like the President of the United States or the Queen of England scrubbing your toilet, but with the added intimacy of Jesus handling a part of your body that is very seldom touched by anyone but yourself.
In that culture, offering to let someone wash their feet was equivalent to welcoming them.
If someone was only going to be in your house for a few minutes, you wouldn’t offer footwashing to them.
Likewise, as with Simon the Pharisee in the Gospel of Luke, if you did not view someone as an honored guest but saw them as inconsequential and beneath you, you wouldn’t offer them footwashing.
Offering to let someone wash their feet is a way of saying, “You are welcome here. You are honored here.”
And so Jesus washing the disciples’ feet is such an important moment.
Jesus didn’t own a home, he was homeless.
But he had a room that he and the disciples had rented to hold the Passover, and when Jesus provided footwashing to the disciples, he was imbuing that space with power and significance.
He was making it into a home, not just a rented hotel room that they would only use for a few hours.
By providing footwashing, he was saying, “In this moment, this is our home, and I am welcoming you into it.”
So when we echo Jesus’ actions with footwashing tonight, we are doing the same thing with our worship space. We are making it into a home and welcoming one another to dwell within it in safety and peace.
There is another very important reason why the disciples and we need our feet washed. When you are on a long journey and you enter someone’s home as an honored guest, you are given the opportunity to wash your feet and share a meal with your host.
This is the host’s way of supporting you on the next leg of your journey.
You are being strengthened and renewed before you leave that home and enter a tiring, dangerous world.
The level to which your host cares for you will directly impact your ability to survive on the road when you leave again.
This puts Jesus’ actions in the Upper Room in even starker relief.
He was welcoming them home and sharing table fellowship with them, yes.
But there was more to it than that.
Our Gospel says, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
This was not just an ending. It was a beginning.
Jesus was rapidly approaching the moment when he would be taken away from his friends and dragged to prison and execution.
What did he choose to do with his last hours of freedom?
He was preparing his disciples, washing and feeding them so they would be cared for.
He was doing everything he could to strengthen them to face the hours ahead.
He knew he would soon no longer be able to take care of them, see that they had what they needed and were safe and happy.
So he washed their feet and fed them, gave them everything he could before sending them out to face the world without him.
But when they sat down to dinner together, just like we are doing here tonight, Jesus drops a bombshell.
“Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.”
And they panic.
“Surely it can’t be me, Lord?” they ask with fear in their voices.
They voice it as a question, because they’re not entirely sure of themselves.
No one boldly insists they will not betray him—well, no one except Peter, who’s boldly insisting something every five minutes.
They all want to believe they’ll stand by Jesus, no matter what the cost, but they’re not confident enough in their loyalty to him to say they will.
We’re the same way.
When Jesus says, “One of you will betray me,” we too ask, “Surely it is not I, Lord?”
Our voices waver, because we know we have betrayed him all too often in the past, and when the cost of standing by him was so small.
We’ve betrayed him to preserve our own image, to preserve the social fabric of comfortable politeness and distance, to preserve our own convenience.
Now, when our very lives are at stake, what makes us think we have what it takes be loyal to him?
We know, and it is a painful knowledge, that no matter what hope and desire we infuse into the question, “Surely it is not I, Lord?” the reply will be the same: “The one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is one the table.”
Look where our hands are right now.
“The one who dips his bread into the bowl with me will betray me,” Jesus says.
We are the ones dipping our bread with him right now.
But consider the love and generosity with which Jesus greets his betrayal.
What is the very next action he takes?
He gives us his Body and Blood.
We are about to betray and abandon him, and rather than dismiss us or distance himself from us, he gives us himself completely.
He gives himself to us in the most intimate and complete way possible, allowing us to consume his very self, to take him into ourselves.
But after this act of incandescent love and self-giving, Jesus’ strength seems to have run out.
I wonder if in a private corner of his heart, he had still hoped that one of them, any of them, would stand by him, that maybe Judas wouldn’t sell him out, that maybe they would not run and hide when everything came crashing down.
But seeing the familiar looks of incomprehension on their faces when he offered them his body and blood, this time tinged with a hint of fear, always, always so self-centered—what does this mean for me? the disciples and we ask for the hundredth time—something seems to have gone out of Jesus.
He arrives at Gethsemane devoid of hope, devoid of strength, devoid of faith.
This may be the most sacred and holy ground we tread upon in this entire week, this week that is nothing but holy ground.
Here we are allowed to see Jesus doubt, to see Jesus falter beneath his fear, to see Jesus long to do something, anything but God’s will for him.
Here is Jesus at his most human.
This is the moment we want to turn away from him because in this moment he is so far from being the cosmic Christ, the reliable conqueror of death who will fix it all, shoulder it all, always be on top of it all.
When he says that he is deeply grieved, even unto death, when he throws himself on the ground, when he sweats like drops of blood, when he begs God the Father to find another way, to let the cup pass from him—in this moment, Jesus is not in control.
The Son of the Living God is consumed by his fear, his dread, his grief, his hurt.
In this moment, he is not the one who holds the firmament together, who is the Alpha and the Omega, who commands the raging waves to quiet and heals and feeds the multitudes by the thousands.
He is a man who is afraid because he knows he is about to die.
He is a man who is afraid because he knows that in order to save humanity, he must give himself up while God the Father turns his back on him.
He has given so much, borne so much already, how can he find the strength to set out on this final and most lonely road?
The spark of divinity that awoke in him the minute the Holy Spirit caused him to stir in Mary’s womb, is flickering so low it is almost extinguished.
Suddenly, we cannot rely on Jesus to fix anything for us, to control anything, to be the miracle worker and the mighty king.
We are in freefall as much as he is in this frightening realization.
Jesus doesn’t know what to do in this moment of paralyzing fear and dread anymore than we do.
Wait a minute, we say.
We didn’t sign up for this.
We signed up to follow a Jesus who is in charge, who is in control, who is in command.
But this moment is so sacred because it is the pinnacle of the Incarnation.
It is the moment when Jesus empties himself most fully of his divinity, when he takes on at the deepest and most visceral level what it means to be human.
When Jesus doubts and rages and fears and cries in the garden, he is the very closest to us and our experience that he will ever be.
He is controlled by the emotional forces that control us—our basic instinct for self-preservation, our doubt that God can really be asking us to do these incredibly difficult things, our conviction that we don’t have what it takes to do God’s will.
Jesus expresses all of these things, entering into the darkest heart of our own human selves that we think we have hidden from him, that we think that he, the sinless one, can never really understand.
The central meaning of the crucifixion is the point that Jesus refuses to turn his back on us no matter what we do, that he will bear whatever burden necessary to keep us safe.
On the Cross on Good Friday his human body and his divine soul are crucified.
Tonight in the Garden of Gethsemane, his human heart and mind are crucified.
On Good Friday on Golgotha, he stands by us and stays with us and chooses us even over the company or the rescue of God the Father.
On Maundy Thursday in the Garden, he becomes us.
He becomes the shamefaced Adam and Eve in the Garden, joining us as we admit we can’t do what we have been asked, afraid of our nakedness before God.
He goes to that place with us.
And then, in this moment in which is very much his most human, in his weakness, in his fear, in his frailty, already feeling so distant from God and from his friends, Jesus says, “Father, not my will, but your will be done.”
It was Jesus the man who prayed that prayer, not Christ our God.
He shows us that even in his humanness, taken to the very last edge of his mental and spiritual strength, he still can offer himself to God with trust.
He is showing us that the same is possible for us.
We already know in a way that we are capable of more, because we have summoned the courage to participate in this week, this week in which we are confronted over and over by our sinfulness and frailty, the hollowness of our loyalty and the price Jesus must pay to heal and cleanse us.
We knew we would face that and yet we have come to church to hear the story, to be convicted by the truth, to face the reality of these days of pain and fear.
We have said, against all odds and against our expectations of ourselves, “Father, if this cup cannot pass from us, let not our will but your will be done.”
While Jesus has joined us in the depth of human weakness in Gethsemane, he has joined us in the bravest of human strength, showing us that we too can pray this self-giving prayer, “Let your will be done.”
Taken from the comfort and strengthening of table fellowship, to the humble intimacy of footwashing, to the desperation and agony of the Garden, we come at last to the Stripping of the Altar.
Here, even here, Jesus will withhold nothing from us.
Everything that beautifies this space that hosts his body and blood every week is taken away.
Everything that cushions us from the brutal reality of what he will suffer tomorrow is taken away.
The altar is prepared to receive the sacrifice.
Tonight we have witnessed Jesus being stripped of all his power, his control, his composure, his friends, and his hope.
So too we strip this holy place.
It is our physical embodiment of not just how Jesus is stripped of his garments and his honor, but of how we too have, by entering this journey with him, been stripped of our own illusions, our own power, our own self-deception.
We have been fed, we have been washed, and now we have been, with Jesus, stripped down to our bare and elemental selves.
All our excuses, all our hope for some other way to reach resurrection than the Cross, all our denial of death and sin and the darkness that stalks us, it is all stripped away.
At last, we are ready to join him on the road to Golgotha.
As Jesus says in the gospel, “See, the hour is at hand. Get up, let us be going.”