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Seinfeld and Solemnity

By the Rev. Zachary Bartels

Tonight, we once again joined our Methodist and Episcopal brothers and sisters for a wonderful Maundy Thursday service at St. Paul's. I was assigned the meditation just before the foot washing.

This is what I said:

“Perhaps the least appropriate thing that I could bring up tonight would be a comedy routine. And yet, today, as I was meditating on this text in John 13, wherein Our Lord puts on the uniform of a lowly servant and does the work of a lowly servant, my mind drifted to a bit that Jerry Seinfeld used to do about ‘dry cleaning.’ He talked about how no one really knows what ‘dry cleaning’ is; we just know that we give them our clothes, they bring them out of sight somewhere, the clothes don’t get wet, but they do get clean. And no one questions this because it’s an ideal arrangment for us. We can have our cake and eat it too.

In this text, I see Peter wanting to have his cake and eat it too. He wants a relationship with Jesus, complete with all the benefits and glory that may come with it, but he doesn’t want to let Jesus in on all his filth, his dirt; he doesn’t want Jesus to take on the role of servant in their relationship—he doesn’t want to get his feet wet. That night, Peter wanted dry cleaning.

But a dry-clean Lord is of no use to us, as Jesus pointed out. ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’ If our Lord does not take on the role of servant and wash us—if there is no sacrifice—then we are still separated from Him. If He is not our Savior, He is not our Lord. (We often remind ourselves of the opposite truth, but it is easy, like Peter, to withold ourselves from His washing, and still try to call Him Lord and Teacher).

There are several foot-washings in the New Testament; all involve great openness and great sacrifice, and none of them is a case of ‘dry cleaning.’

  • While Jesus was eating at the home of Simon the Pharisee, a sinful woman came in and washed Jesus feet. There was nothing dry about it. She was heartbroken for repentance and the Greek literally tells us that she ‘rained tears’ onto Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair. The Pharisee who owned the place was horrified by this sloppy, open show of repentance and love. He thought to himself, ‘If this man were really a prophet, he’d know that this woman is the town tramp.’
  • Mary (sister of Lazarus and Martha) similarly anointed Jesus’ feet with incredibly expensive perfume. Judas was incensed (I resisted using the pun at the service), and cried out, ‘Why this waste?!’ He was keeping the books (and a cut for himself) and would have much preferred a more reasonable, dignified exchange with the Lord, and one that was a whole lot drier.
  • Likewise, when Jesus tied a towel around His waste and washed His disciples’ feet, not only was he making a sacrifice by condescending to serve those he created; he was foreshadowing an infinitely greater sacrifice. His blood, which is pictured in the synoptics by the institution of the sacrament, is in John symbolized by this water, washing away the grime and dirt from his disciples.

In that sense, then, Peter was not just holding back his feet from his rabbi; by saying, ‘Let’s keep this professional,’ he was, in a sense, trying to hold himself back from being washed in the blood of Jesus. Thank God he doesn’t wait on us.

In this text, we see the normal progression that we see in the New Testament: Indicative (statement about what God has done for us), therefore Imperative (command that we should obey). ‘Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.’

But if we try to see in Jesus’ foot washing a sterile, gerneric, dry-clean act, it is useless to emulate. We need to see the sacrifice that he undertook and the sacrifice that he was foreshadowing. When we ‘wash each other’s feet,’ we mustn’t make the same mistake as Peter and go for the dry cleaning—without tears, without incense, without the blood of Christ. To truly follow His example requires true openness and true servanthood.”

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