In tonight's readings (Exodus 12:1-14, 1 Corinthians 11:17-26, John 13:1-35), we hear a lot about the connectedness of God's people. The Passover story treats a communal, sacrificial meal as the symbol of being under God's protection. St. Paul talks about coming together for the Lord's Supper in a spirit of equality and temperance, and in John's Gospel, Jesus shows us an image of of connecting to one another by being both leader and servant. It's in this last image that we gather here tonight to symbolically do exactly as Jesus said – to literally wash one another's feet. But, is that all Jesus was asking us to do? Or is he asking us to humble ourselves in another way, something more than the literal?
Before Paul talks about the form of the Eucharist that we use each week on Sundays, he talks about how the people come to it and how they partake in it. The Corinthians apparently have been bickering about things, and maintaining social privileges within their fledgling community, supposedly built on equality in Christ. He says “You're not really coming for the Lord's Supper, are you? You're here to eat your own supper, and you go and eat it in a corner, even getting drunk, while your fellow believer is going hungry!” Paul's strong words here call out to us in modern times as we bend down to wash our neighbors' feet and go to the table to break bread together.
When we go through the motions of religion, what are we doing? Both Paul and Jesus tell us that there's something far more important going on. These symbols, these Sacraments are a moment when the barriers between us can become thin, when we can come closer to both God and Neighbor. In the Eucharist, we are supposed to share a meal where no one goes hungry – in the washing of feet anyone who wants to be a part of Christ must bow in service to our fellow human beings. Paul's letter says “...do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (1 Corinthians 11:22) and later “For all who eat and drink without [motion to group] discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” (1 Corinthians 11:29). If we dwell here for a moment, what do these actions mean for Paul or for Jesus? For them these are not religious ceremonies, there's no pomp and circumstance, no fine linens or candles, and absolutely no one being above another - just people partaking in one another and partaking in the God who dwells within those others.
So it is no surprise that Paul is furious with those church people who are well off in the world who come to the Love Feast that predated our modern Communion and ate their own food to excess while others in The Body had nothing to eat at all. Can any of you imagine if you went to that altar rail and saw a priest only serving those who had donated a lot? Or if you came to a potluck dinner and saw people who weren't allowed to eat sitting at the tables because they hadn't been able to bring food? I would hope that each one of us would have a major reaction to such a crime, and you can truly sense how Paul says that this would profane the feast and that those who ate without sharing drank their own judgment. But why does that end there at the altar rail or at the potluck buffet line? What about in the rest of our lives? Do we become any less “The Body” when we step outside those doors? Do our excesses deprive those who have nothing, and thus pour our own judgments down our own throats?
What would happen if we each lived just a little bit smaller, just a little bit simpler? What if we took stock of our material lives and said “What do I need here? What do I have that I do not need? What of God's Love Feast around me am I taking for myself that should be someone else's who doesn't have what they need?” And when the God of the Universe, present in the person kneeling before you, washes your nasty feet for you, how will you say that you are in community with his people? How will you tell him that you are coming to the altar each week? To profane it as the Corinthians did? Or to sanctify it with the kind of radical equality that brought Jesus to his knees?