AN EXTRATERRESTIAL CELEBRATION
On July 20, 1969, the space rocket Apollo 11 became the first manned vehicle to land on the surface of the moon. It was an event that inspired awe all around the world. The first of the three astronauts to walk on the surface of the moon was who? Neil Armstrong. Do you remember the name of the second man, after Armstrong? It was on that same mission and the astronaut’s name was Buzz Aldrin.
After landing on the moon, Aldrin radioed to earth with these words: “I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.” Then, when he journeyed out of the space module onto the moon’s surface, he did something quite significant. He took out a small home Communion Kit and became the first person to celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion on the surface of the moon. This is to say that the event we celebrate this night is the only religious rite in all the world that has been celebrated on the surface of the moon.
Here’s an interesting sidebar. Aldrin kept his intent to celebrate Holy Communion on the moon a secret, even from his fellow astronauts. Why? Because earlier someone filed a lawsuit regarding the reading of Genesis 1 by the astronauts on Apollo 8 as they circled the earth on Christmas Eve a few years earlier.
It’s nice to know isn’t it, that the Lord’s supper has been celebrated by a man on the moon. It’s much more critical to know that we have this rite to celebrate because God came down to earth. This is a rite initiated by Jesus himself. Understanding that is particularly significant when we read John’s portrayal of that first Holy Communion, which we know as the Last Supper.
John tells us that it was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and to go to the Father. The evening meal was being served, and Judas Iscariot was already plotting to betray him. According to John, Jesus wanted his disciples to know how much he loved them, so before we get to the story of the bread and the wine, we have one of the most shocking scenes in human history. The Son of God got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. And he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
Can you get your mind around that event? Through the eyes of faith we see Jesus is the very incarnation of God, God made human flesh, and what does this God do? God washes the feet of mortal men. Imagine that happening in any other religion.
There are those who believe religion is merely a human construct, who believe that humanity made up religious belief to help deal with the uncertainties of life. God’s were sacrificed to by primitive humanity as a way to increase crops or to assure fertility. These gods were often petty tyrants who demanded that the people who served them sacrificed their best and their dearest. Christian faith sets religion on its head. It is not people who do obeisance to God, who approach Him with downcast eyes and wash HIS feet with their contriteness. No, it is God who washes humanity’s feet. Prior to Jesus, people offered sacrifices to their gods, but in Christian faith it is God who offers the sacrifice of his son for humanity’s sake. I know you have heard that all your life, but have you ever accepted in your heart the dimensions of such an idea? The concept is absolutely staggering. But here is Christ Jesus, whom the world has for so long awaited, and he is kneeling there washing the dirt off the feet of his disciples.
Since people in Jesus’ day walked either barefoot or in sandals, their feet were not protected from the dirt as they progressed along roads which were essentially rough tracks, where rubbish fell unhindered. These roads were also traveled by animals, whose recent presence was always visible from the droppings which they left. In towns, where there was no rubbish collection, people swept out their homes into the street. Not only dust but any household rubbish might be cleared out, so it would be hard to prevent your feet from becoming very dirty as you walked around. This was the sort of thing Jesus was dealing with as he washed the disciples’ feet. We can understand disciples washing their master’s feet, but whoever heard of the Master performing this rite?
He came to Simon Peter, who asked him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “you do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“No,” said Peter who always acted like he knew more than the Lord, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” Simon Peter suddenly had an epiphany. He knew something important was happening. “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
Then Jesus said something interesting: “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” Then John adds, “For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not everyone is clean.”
Writer Max Lucado has a way of capturing truth and little verbal snapshots taken from Scripture. I love what he wrote about this event.
“It has been a long day. Jerusalem is packed with Passover guests.
“The disciples enter, one by one, and take their places around the table. On the wall hangs a towel, and on the floor sits a pitcher and a basin. Any one of the disciples could volunteer for the job, but no one does.
“After a few moments, Jesus stands and removes his outer garment. He wraps a servants girdle around his waist, takes up the basin, and kneels before one of the disciples. He unlaces a sandal and gently lifts the foot and places it in the basin, covers it with water, and begins to bathe it. One by one, one grimy foot after another, Jesus works his way down the row.”
Max Lucado continues, “I looked for a Bible translation that reads, ‘Jesus washed all the disciples’ feet accept the feet of Judas,’ but I couldn’t find one.
“What a passionate moment when Jesus silently lifts the feet of his betrayer and washes them in the basin! Within hours the feet of Judas, cleansed by the kindness of the one he will betray, will stand in Caiaphas’s court.
“Behold the gift Jesus gives his followers! By morning they will bury their heads in shame and look down at their feet in disgust. And when they do, he wants them to remember how his knees knelt before them and he washed their feet. He wants them to realize those feet are still clean. ‘You don’t understand now what I am doing, but you will understand later.’
“Remarkable. He forgave their sin before they even committed it. He offered mercy before they even sought it.”
Does that move you as it does me? Jesus washes the feet of the man who will betray him as well as the one who will deny him. How like our Lord! It’s one thing to teach about loving your enemy and praying for those who despitefully use you. It’s another to kneel down before them and to wash animal waste off their feet. This is what the Gospel is all about.
When he had finished washing their feet, Jesus put on his clothes and returned to his place. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 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.”
Does that mean that we should have a celebration of foot-washing? Some groups do, and that might be a very helpful demonstration of humility. But I doubt that Jesus was advocating another religious ceremony. What he was advocating was none other than a new heart for those who follow him, a heart of love and compassion and service. All this is bound up in this celebration of the Good Friday Lord’s Supper. Truths of staggering proportion. Understandings of life-changing implication.
Allen Brindisi, a Presbyterian pastor, tells about a celebration of the Holy Eucharist that he once participated in. He took a youth group to a Sunday evening Vespers service at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. He jokes that it was not the kind of service that you expect to find in a Presbyterian church.
The entire service was led by clowns, and everything was in pantomime, with a background of Scott Joplin ragtime music. The mountaintop moment was when a beautifully wrapped gift was presented to the lead clown; big letters on the bright box announced, “From God.” The clown opened the gift from God and took out a long loaf of bread. He unwrapped it, examined it, and cradled it like a baby. He walked it up and down the aisle. The congregation could imagine the baby growing as he did that. A toddler, a youth, a man. At the clown’s direction, the congregation applauded the presence of this gift among them. Then the clown took a long railroad spike, jammed it through the bread, and nailed it to a wooden cross on the communion table. There hung the bread from God. The clown fell to his knees and cried. Then he reached up, broke off half the loaf from the cross, and with it served them communion. They ate and drank. Allen Brindisi writes, “I confess that my eyes were opened that evening, and in some fresh new way as I ate the bread from the cross I saw in my heart the light of Jesus Christ more clearly than usual, and that has helped me on my way.”
If only all of us could see with new eyes the meaning of this night, if only we could hear with new ears, feel with new hearts. Holy Communion was served on the moon, but much more importantly it was celebrated on earth when God came down and washed the feet of sinful human beings.