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  • Writer's pictureRyan Heckman

Maundy Thursday

John 13:1-17; 31b-35

A little over a year ago, I was bumping along a winding and pitted dirt road up and down through volcanic gorges in a red mini-bus with 20 seminary companions. We were on our way to a small village called La Esmeralda in the Yucatan rainforest in the Peten department of Guatemala. We were traveling with the Iglesia Luterana Augustina de Guatemala or the Augustinian Lutheran Church of Guatemala – the regional church which the ELCA is in partnership.


We had been on the road for about four hours that day and nearly three hours on this dirt road where at times we had to get out of the bus and walk up hills so that the bus could make it up the slippery slopes created by Guatemala’s January rainy season.


We finally arrived to our destination, a town of about 500 people a little more than a 3 hour drive from a major town where the members of Iglesia Luterana San Agustin were awaiting our arrival at the foot of an outcropping hill where at the top, sat a gleaming, stucco white one room church.


We clamored out of our bus to the embraces of about 50 people and calls of Bienvenido – welcome.  


We were first showed to the toilets – a welcome moment of hospitality after so long on the road, and then we were showed to the kitchen and fellowship hall. This was a clapboard building that had a giant corner wood burning oven made out of cinder blocks, huge round steel pans that looked a bit like woks and two or three tables made out of planks of wood set up in an L shape. It was smokey and dark but for chinks of sunlight streaming through the walls, and the smells inside this place of fellowship were heavenly. The smell of wood smoke intermingled with baking cornmeal, simmering soups with home grown vegetables, roasting chicken and fresh brewed coffee – for, we were reminded Lutherans must gather around coffee. We were given warmed water off the oven and a tub of powdered soap – something I’d never seen before – to wash our hands before our dinner.


Then bowls upon bowls of soup were served, as much as we wanted! And mountains of corn tortillas arrived at the table and we ate and relished the delicious savory soup packed with spices and flavor. Our hosts then brought out the fresh coffee and several pitchers of hibiscus tea for us to drink to our fill.  


It all happened so quickly and generously that I didn’t notice until later that we visitors were the only ones eating! The Rev. Karen Castillo, President of the Lutheran Church of Guatemala, who was accompanying us said that our hosts always serve guests first and then eat of the left overs. Several days later, she explained this to us and added that the meal we ate that evening was one of the most extravagant meals she had ever seen the people in La Esmeralda prepare. They knew we were the largest delegation of foreign Lutherans ever to have visited the Guatemalan Lutheran Church, and they wanted to celebrate this! Pastor Karen said that the members of San Agustin prepared three chickens that day – something very rare, typically only done on Christmas and Easter - and almost every household had brought vegetables and spices from their home gardens to help in feeding us – strangers in their midst.


The hospitality, generosity, and extravagance showed to us during our visit was literally of Biblical proportion and was a very real embodiment of what we read in tonight’s text from the Gospel of John.


In the Gospel, Jesus wraps a towel around his waist and gets on his hands and knees to wash his disciples feet before a meal. The Rabbi, the Messiah, the new King, the host, the one who is God incarnate gets onto his hands and knees to perform an act of welcome and hospitality.  He extravagantly – radically serves the disciples by taking their feet and washing them before they dine.


To see how this act was so radical, we have to consider the customs in Jesus’s time. When a guest would arrive to a home, it was typical to have the guest’s feet washed as a sign of hospitality and thanks for making the journey – after all the visitor would have walked to get there and would have dirtied their feet. Wealthy households would’ve had a servant perform this task for the guest, while in less wealthy homes the host would have a basin prepared for the guests to wash their own feet. In other words, this was a custom of welcoming one into a home.


But Jesus was not the slave nor the servant. He was the one being proclaimed as Messiah he was the very fulfillment of God’s Word! Just the day or so before he was welcomed into Jerusalem by crowds of people shouting Hosanna in Highest Heaven while they waved branches in celebration and laid their fabrics on the ground for him to walk on!  Jesus was the one who was to redeem all people to God, the one who was to show us that God has open arms and welcomes us into God’s grace and love.


And that’s exactly why Jesus, takes the form of a servant and performs this act of welcome. Because Jesus is welcoming his disciples “home” but this home is not a house it’s not the physical place but Jesus is making an invitation to dwell with Jesus himself, to dwell with the very presence of God made incarnate. Jesus is showing us God’s open arms, God’s great welcome home! God who has stooped down in the form of Jesus to wash our feet is showing us that through Christ Jesus, we are redeemed, we are saved, we are named and claimed as the beloved of God, we are brought home to God in Christ Jesus. That is why Jesus puts on his towel and enacts this welcome home ritual – because over these Great Three Days, we are to become witness to Jesus as he brings us home to God.


Maundy Thursday is the beginning of this annual Three Day journey which we take alongside Jesus. Tonight, we see God as servant, we see God welcoming us into God’s house through Jesus Christ. We see God washing us and preparing us for this journey by giving us the sustaining food of life – bread and wine at communion. We are blessed by Christ’s great and radical hospitality tonight. And for that gift from God, I am humbled and eternally grateful.     


After our extravagant meal in La Esmerelda, Guatemala, we worshiped together and then we were invited to sleep at the homes of the church members. I slept in my host’s bed as they took their places on mats in the main room of their home.


I don’t think I had ever really experienced the hospitality and generosity of Christ, who stoops to wash his disciples feet, until my visit to this community in La Esmeralda. I am grateful to God for them, for their ministry, and for their lived-expression of our Lord Jesus Christ who we meet tonight wrapped in a towel - ready to wash us and to welcome us home.



Ryan Heckman | Maundy Thursday | March 28, 2024

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