Thursday, April 21, 2011

“Do You Know What I Have Done To You?”

Maundy Thursday – Year A
Exodus 12.1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116.1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 13.1-17, 31b-35

Thursday, April 21, 2011 – Trinity, Redlands

“Do you know what I have done to you?” (Jn 13.12)

In John’s telling of the events of Maundy Thursday, what Jesus has done has nothing to do with the Last Supper. While the Synoptic Gospels all tell of Jesus’ final Passover feast with his disciples and document the institution of what will become one of the two major sacraments of the Christian faith – the Eucharist – John says nothing of this event. There is nothing about breaking of bread. There is no command to “take, eat; this is my body” (Mt 26.26). There is nothing about taking the cup and giving thanks. There is nothing said about “drink of it all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26.27-27).

Yes, today’s Gospel lesson is set in the context of a meal. In John’s telling, we hear of the events of the day of preparation, the day before the Passover feast is celebrated. But this is just an ordinary meal among friends. For John, it is not the meal that is important. In fact, he never really tells us about it. For John, what is important is the rather unusual event that occurs in the midst of this ordinary meal. Jesus “got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him” (Jn 13.4-5).

This act is significant in a number of ways. In the simple act of washing the disciples’ feet, he is giving them the secret to what it means to be his followers. This act is one of service, of giving of self for the benefit of others. But even more so, is the manner in which the service is carried out. Jesus is the master to these disciples. He is the host of the dinner gathering. But rather than exalt himself, rather than demand that his disciples serve him, Jesus humbles himself, taking on the role of servant. In this, he is modeling the quality of humble service – of putting the needs of others before self – that all who follow this servant king are called to undertake.

Even more than humble service, the act of washing of feet demonstrates some of the qualities that are needed to live the Christian life. These are not adequately conveyed in the Gospel narrative, but are only evident through experiencing the act of foot-washing – not just having your feet washed, but also in the act of washing the feet of another. In this I am reminded of my first experience with foot-washing. I shared this story a couple of years ago, but as I have been reflecting on Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet, I have gained increased insight though reflecting on my own experience with that sacred act.

My first experience with foot washing was when I was in high school. Our entire youth group went to a camp in the San Bernardino Mountains over Presidents Day weekend. There were hundreds of youth there from all over Southern California. On the first night, as part of the opening worship experience, we were told to sit down in small groups, in circles. The room was dimly lit. There was soft contemplative music playing in the background. Someone brought basins of water and placed them in the center of each circle. We were instructed to pair up, and to wash each other’s feet. There was a great deal of reluctance on the part of most present, myself included. Finally, my foot-washing partner took the initiative. He took my bare feet and gently, tenderly washed them in the basin of warm water. Almost as soon as he started, I began to cry. Having someone wash my feet was such a humbling experience. I felt so vulnerable, having someone care for me in such a way, to completely give up any control over the situation and what was being done to me, to drop my guard enough to allow another to care for me.

And then, when he was done washing my feet, I washed his. I continued to cry, but for a different reason. I was crying because I had to be vulnerable in a different way. Once again, I had to let my guard down, but this time it was to set aside my ego, to allow myself to be open and vulnerable to serving another in an intimate way. This act required that I tear down any barriers I had between me and this other person, to allow myself to enter into an intimate connection with another. Even in the midst of the tears, I felt the joy of being able to care for another. The tears of humility and vulnerability turned to tears of joy. I felt the joy of being able to connect in a very deep way, in a non-verbal way, with another of God’s children, to share a moment of mutual vulnerability, where we were able to connect on a spiritual level, knowing who we are, and more importantly, whose we are.

I think that is what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples as he washed their feet – that they need to be able to humble themselves to serve others; that they need to be willing to open themselves to be vulnerable to others, to be vulnerable in the presence of others, particularly those whom they are serving; and that they must allow an intimate connection to develop with those they are ministering to.

We are called to live those same qualities in our life as Christians:

Humility – putting the needs of others before our own, even when – especially when – it may be a little uncomfortable;

Vulnerability – allowing ourselves to be open to the movement of the Spirit and to the ways another human being can touch deep within our being – a place where very few see, let alone are allowed to touch; and

Intimacy – allowing the ability to be close with others, in their vulnerability and in ours; to be with others, sharing their deepest hurts and their deepest hopes.

These are all key hallmarks of what it means to truly be a Christian, to live a Christian life.

The calling to exhibit these qualities is beautifully illustrated by Quaker elders in England, several centuries ago. They used the term “tendered” to describe their experience of coming to the faith. “Tendered” in this context meant having been shown tenderness by another. For them, it was the experience of tenderness, through humility and vulnerability; tenderness leading to a sacred intimacy with another person – an intimacy that conveyed something of Christ’s love, of God’s grace and mercy, that led them to becoming followers of Christ. While the specifics are not documented, I cannot help but think that such experiences as having one’s feet washed might have led to the sense of being “tendered.” I cannot help but think that is what our Lord had in mind as he washed the feet of his disciples – giving an example of what it means to be his followers and how to spread that message to others, not in words, but in tender action and presence.

As we commemorate Maundy Thursday, we of course remember the institution of the Last Supper, as commanded by St. Paul in our lesson from 1 Corinthians. After all, the Eucharist based on this event is central to our weekly worship experience as a community. That’s what it means to live as Christians in community. But the message behind the washing of feet – the call to humble service, to openness to vulnerability, to intimate connections with others, sharing God’s love, grace, and mercy to a broken world; that’s what it means to live as Christians out in the world. That is why Jesus came into this world. That is why Jesus shared this last experience with his disciples. That is why Jesus willingly went to his death on the cross the following day – the ultimate act of humility, vulnerability, and intimacy.

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