I’ve heard second-hand stories that some teenage children treat their parents like objects. I know it is not true of the teenagers at All Saints, but I’ve been told of teenagers who think their parents exist solely for the purpose of being transportation drivers, or grocery providers, or sources of discretionary spending. If the stories are true, I’m certain those parents feel unloved and disrespected.
Personally, I have no experience like that. It is never the case that Catholics treat priests as little more than vending machines that dispense religious goods and services on demand. While this never happens in our diocese, it is, I suppose, a possibility. Sadly, it is possible even to treat God as if God exists solely for the purpose of providing religious commodities to devout consumers. This appears to have been the case in the church community for whom the Gospel of John was written.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke narrate Jesus’ words and actions at the Last Supper. During that final Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus identified himself with the Passover sacrifice. In doing so, he provided his disciples with an explanation of the meaning of his impending death. His death would be the means by which God would make redemption available to all people for all time.
It is interesting to note that the narrative of the Last Supper in John’s Gospel is very different from the narrative of the Last Supper in the Synoptic Gospels. In John’s Gospel there is no Institution Narrative and no reference to the bread and wine of the Passover meal becoming the sacramental presence of Jesus. Instead of a Eucharistic Institution Narrative, the author of John’s Gospel presents the story we just heard. The washing of the disciples’ feet in John’s Gospel was meant to be a corrective to a mistaken understanding of the Last Supper and the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
The three Synoptic Gospels say that, at his Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus “gave thanks” to God and shared bread among his disciples. Likewise, with the cup of wine, he “gave thanks” and let his disciples drink. The narrative of the Last Supper, then, begins with the action of Jesus giving thanks to God. The word “Eucharist” derives directly from the verb in ancient Greek that means “to give thanks.” It is important to note that Eucharist is primarily an action (of giving thanks to God), that resulted from Jesus’ action of perfect obedience to God’s will.
John’s Gospel omits the narrative of the institution of the Eucharist because it seems that some in John’s congregation had forgotten that Eucharist is primarily an action. Apparently, some members of the congregation had reduced Eucharist to being an object, merely a thing to be obtained. In order to correct this mistaken notion, the author of John’s Gospel presents Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper as being purely acts of service to his disciples. He washed their feet, the act of a servant extending hospitality on behalf of the head of a household.
The very clear implication of this story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples is that the celebration of the Eucharist is an action of giving thanks to God that leads to the action of consuming the bread and wine of the sacrificial meal. The meaning of Eucharist doesn’t stop there, however. John’s Gospel emphasizes that Eucharist produces its intended effects when it leads to on-going gratitude to God expressed in love for others.
No one wants to be treated as an object, a thing, a commodity that exists solely for someone else’s gratification. Each of us would complain if someone treated us as objects, but we still treat others in the way we would find objectionable. In our more honest moments, each of us would admit that it is never acceptable to treat people as if they are things. Similarly, it is never acceptable to treat God as if God is a thing or even a provider of objects.
The meaning of the Sacraments is explained fully in the prayers and instructions that comprise the rituals by which the Church celebrates the Sacraments. The Liturgy of the Eucharist states plainly that Eucharist is the action of the Church giving thanks to God for God’s graciousness; further, the action of giving thanks is meant to be experienced in the communal meal of Holy Communion, and the spiritual nourishment provided through Holy Communion is intended to lead to loving service to others. Before and after Eucharist becomes the Sacrament we consume, it is a Sacramental action we perform in gratitude to God. Just so there is no misunderstanding about the nature of Eucharist, John’s Gospel illustrates in great detail precisely what we say “Amen” to when we receive Holy Communion. Our “Amen” is an amen to gratitude to God expressed in loving service to one another. In order that there is no misunderstanding about Eucharist, John’s Gospel wants you to see what is about to happen here because here, in this congregation, we give our “Amen” of consent to the Sacrament that provides us food for life’s journey by inspiring us to loving action.