Thursday, March 20, 2008

Thursday in Holy Week

"The Sacrament of Servanthood"

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

It's Maundy Thursday again ... "MONDAY" Thursday ... as my kids used to call it. It's not "Monday" Thursday, of course ... it's "maundy" for maundatum the Latin for commandment. For on this Thursday in Holy Week we remember the commandment our Lord gave us in one of his final acts before his arrest, trial and crucifixion: "A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you so you must love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

The very familiarity of these words can take away their power when we hear them these centuries after our Lord spoke them that night in the upper room to those "still didn't quite get it" disciples. They celebrated the Passover meal symbolizing God's deliverance of Israel from death in Egypt – even while the impending tragedy of the death of God's Son loomed on the horizon. "A new commandment I give you," he said to these faithful Jews who already had ten perfectly good commandments, thank you very much. Not a recommendation. Not a suggestion. Not a "resolution" ... but a COMMANDMENT -- elevating it to the status of the ten that came down the mountain with Moses ... elevating it to "the Word of God."

This, my friends, was precisely the kind of talk that had gotten him into this no-going-back place to begin with. This insistence that God's revelation didn't quit on Mt. Sinai didn't sit well with those who considered themselves the champions of orthodoxy … the leaders of the religious institutions of his day.
Invested in the status quo, there was no room for new commandments ... for "continuing revelation" ... for Jesus -- this rabble rouser from Nazareth. "A New Commandment?" Blasphemy! Apostasy! Heresy! And so the gloom darkened, the troops gathered -- and the cross loomed. And yet, "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." Loved them enough to tell them the truth -- no matter what the cost.

Loved them enough to share all of who he was with them – and command them to do the same to each other.

But where does the foot washing part fit in to all this? One commentary I read reaches this conclusion: "Jesus was showing us that we are all equal when we gather around the table of the Lord. If the Creator could wash the feet of the created, should not the creatures wash the feet of one another in equality? And if Jesus saw himself in his creatures, shouldn't we see him in each other?"

Does that mean we're supposed to REALLY wash each other's feet? Well, let's look again at our criteria for primary sacraments in the church: We do it because Jesus told us to. ("given by Christ to His Church" in the loftier words of the catechism)

Baptism in Matthew 28: GO THEREFORE and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son & Holy Spirit.

Eucharist in Luke 22: And he took bread and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them saying, "This is my body which is given for you. DO THIS in remembrance of me.

And in today's gospel: John 13: So, then, if I -- your Lord and teacher -- have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.

I imagine our Lord shaking his head and saying in gentle despair, "What part of go and do likewise didn't you understand?" Peter certainly didn't understand ... at least at first. "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand," said Jesus -- in words of profound reassurance. That's the beauty of sacraments: you don't have to understand them to do them -- to accept them.

Could it be that part of the reason the "kingdom" hasn't come yet is that the church missed the boat on what Jesus intended to be another primary sacrament "given by Christ to his Church": the sacrament of servanthood? Sadly, examples are all too easy to find -- such as the newspaper article about a church edict forbidding women and children to participate in ceremonial foot washings on Maundy Thursday. It declared that the act of foot washing was symbolic of Jesus choosing an all male priesthood -- therefore the ceremony would consist of twelve men from any congregation -- no women and no children.
Can you imagine our Lord saying to his disciples gathered on the night before he was handed over to suffering and death: “A new commandment I give you: exclude women and children.” I can’t imagine that – instead I imagine Jesus reading the Atlanta Journal/Constitution, shaking his head in discouragement and saying, “What part of love one another don’t you understand?”

The priesthood of all the faithful: that’s the calling we ALL gather tonight to celebrate as we share with each other the bread and wine made holy. The priesthood of all the faithful -- ALL the beloved people of God: not just the ones with white plastic around their necks and seminary degrees hanging on their walls. Can we – in this "out-of-the-ordinary" week – dare to claim that extraordinary calling? Can we – each and very one of us – believe that God will give us the grace to obey this New Commandment if we will but ask – if we will but follow the One who calls us to walk in love as He loved us and gave Himself for us.

As in that upper room you left your seat
and took a towel and chose a servant's part
so for today, Lord, wash again my feet
who in your mercy died to cleanse my heart.

So in remembrance of your life laid down
we come to praise you for your grace divine;
Saved by your cross, and subject to your crown,
strengthened for service by this bread and wine.
May the Lord who has given us the will to do these things, give us also the grace and power to accomplish them. Amen.


Rev. David Justin Lynch said...

I always cringe when I hear "church people" objecting to children at Mass. Though my wife and I are childfree by choice, we cannot stand to see children suffer by exclusion. We were children once ourselves and we didn't like being "left out." As a child I found Sunday School incredibly boring but serving at the altar much more exciting. However, something bothered me that my mother and sister could not (in the 1960's) vest and be in the sanctuary with me, particularly when Our Lord in fact allowed women to wash his feet with their hair. So I grew up dating women with long hair (and eventually marrying one) because in my mind those were the kind women Jesus liked. Later I learned that the love Jesus offers is embracing of all humanity, hair or the lack of it notwithstanding. If anything, the theme of Maundy Thursday is a call to a new kind of leadership, where leaders accomplish their agenda by serving those whom they lead. Remember the foot-washing of the travelers at the Oaks of Mamre in Genesis 18? In those days, foot washing was a sign of hospitality, which flows from the same motivation as "the New Comandment." That is a lesson for all clergy and lay leaders: if you want your congregation to grow, make newcomers feel at home by, at least figuratively, washing their feet!

Jonathan said...

What strikes me is that washing someone's feet is such a NICE THING to do for them! So often we focus on the fact that it's gross or it feels degrading or that touching someone's feet is too weirdly personal.

Me, I don't think Jesus washed the disciples' feet to show he was a lowly worm -- I just think he did it because it was a really simple way to be nice to someone in a very personal and loving way.

That's why it Mandatum Thursday, right?

So I have nothing against humility as a virtue, but the value of hospitality and service seems just as important.

Love one another!

RonF said...

... such as the newspaper article about a church edict forbidding women and children to participate in ceremonial foot washings on Maundy Thursday. It declared that the act of foot washing was symbolic of Jesus choosing an all male priesthood -- therefore the ceremony would consist of twelve men from any congregation -- no women and no children.

Dead wrong. I'd be curious to see the link where this was asserted.

What Jesus was telling us is that we are all here to serve each other. That's what He came here to do, not just in this example but in all that he did. This is the work that will bring the Kingdom of God to Earth. This specific instance also taught that the more authority and power you have, the more you must actually take on obligations and actions of servanthood.

Last night my priest washed my feet. Then I, as Senior Warden, washed his. Then we together washed everyone else's feet who came forward. That's the lesson.

I also learned the lesson that I'm not quite as limber in kneeling down on and getting up from a tile floor as I used to be, but I don't think that was supposed to be part of the overall point ....

Hiram said...

My Mennonite friends celebrate Communion only once a year -- but they tell me that they do a "complete" Communion service, with footwashing an integral part of the ceremony.


ronf ... the original link I had in the footnote is "dead" but I Googled the content and came up with this:

And now, back to my End-of-Good-Friday stupor! :)