What Cannot be Undone

Maundy Thursday
April 13, 2017

1Now 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. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then 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. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10Jesus 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.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
12After 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? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
31b“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little 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.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:1-17, 31b-35

What begins tonight cannot be undone. As Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, the plan to betray Jesus is already underway. Jesus is now propelled toward the cross. The Great Three Days have begun, and we know where they are going. Beyond the washing of feet and the Passover meal shared is the cross, the tomb, and, yes, resurrection. What begins tonight cannot be undone.

We know about things that cannot be undone. We know that people can heal, objects can be repaired, but we recognize that nothing can undo harm that has already been done. Words we wish we could pull back into our mouths. Bombs we wish we could unexplode. Boundaries we wish we could uncross. Knowledge we wish we could unknow. Perhaps most of all we know that our bodies cannot become young again. The path we are on towards dying and death cannot go in reverse.

But that is why we need this night that cannot be undone. That is why we need the laying on of hands, the washing of feet, the bread and wine offered again. Because, dear friends, these things also cannot be undone.

It is perhaps clearest in the washing of feet. Hear this poem by Jan Richardson about the blessing in the washing of feet:

As if you could
stop this blessing
from washing
over you.

As if you could
turn it back,
could return it
from your body
to the bowl,
from the bowl
to the pitcher,
from the pitcher
to the hand
that set this blessing
on its way.

As if you could
change the course
by which this blessing

As if you could
control how it
pours over you –

Yet startling
in the way
it matches the need
you did not know
you had.

As if you could
become undrenched.

As if you could resist
gathering it up
in your two hands
and letting your body
follow the arc
this blessing makes.*

Water, once poured, cannot be gathered back into the pitcher. It could, I suppose, be mostly captured and poured back and the remaining drops soaked up, but once poured on our feet – our imperfect, dirty, worn-out, achy feet – that washing cannot be undone. Yes, they will become dirty again, but the blessing that comes with the water, the blessing of this sacrament of love and care for one another – that cannot be gathered back up or returned. People who wash one another’s feet will still be broken people who have the potential to mess up and hurt one another, but that expression of care and love is one that opens our hearts in new ways to one another. The washing cannot be undone.

The forgiveness, too. Oh, friends, we will sin again. We will break our best of intentions. We will again fail to trust in God. We will, despite the commandment, fail to treat our neighbor with love and respect in thought, word, and deed. We will continue to be complicit in injustice, violence, and prejudice. But tonight’s forgiveness – the words and the laying on of hands – is done and complete and irreversible. Forgiveness from God, once poured out, cannot be gathered up again. What is past is gone. Consequences may remain in our broken world, but that forgiveness cannot be removed. Those sins are gone as far as the east is from the west.

So forgiven and washed, we come to the table, where we eat and drink. Into our broken and dying bodies we take in the body and blood of Christ. And in doing so, the living one becomes a part of our bodies – forever a part of us. And once the life of the world is within us it cannot be undone. Even though we die, we will carry always the life of Jesus in us.

So these great Three Days begin, in the midst of our regret-filled and broken lives, with blessings that cannot be taken back. As we journey this now inevitable journey to the cross, these blessings wash over us. They fall like warm water on tired feet, a soothing balm on tired lives. They envelop us in comfort and grace. They wash over us sometimes when we are least aware and least expecting it. They wash over us through the hours of darkness. They wash over us in our living and in our dying. They create us anew into people who look forward to resurrection. They wash us to Jesus, whose victory over death cannot be undone, and whose life lives in us tonight, tomorrow, and forever.

*”Blessing You Cannot Turn Back: For Holy Thursday” by Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace, (Wanton Gospeller Press: Orlando, 2015), p. 131-132.