Thursday, April 13, 2017

Model of Loving Service

Maundy Thursday
John 13.1-17, 31b-35
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

As we again enter into God’s time, we are gathered in the Upper Room with Jesus and the disciples. We are here to celebrate a special meal. This is the Passover feast, instituted some 1,200 years before as the children of Israel are preparing to flee Egypt – the meal described in our Old Testament reading. A meal that is established as a “perpetual ordinance” for the Jewish people. But tonight, that meal takes on a new meaning for those of us who follow Jesus. In God’s time, this meal commemorating the liberation of our people takes on a greater significance. Jesus takes the bread and wine, common elements of the meal, and gives them new meaning only possible in God’s time. The elements of a past meal are signified with meaning of a future event – Jesus’ death and resurrection. Elements of bread and wine becoming Christ’s body and blood, given as a symbol of Christ’s redeeming life and work. Given as a new covenant for the salvation of us all. Given as a sign and a promise of a deeper form of liberation – liberation from sin and death. In God’s time, in this one meal, we are experiencing the beginning of the Exodus toward new life in the Promised Land, and a New Exodus toward eternal life in the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.

As we attempt to absorb all of this, to fathom the significance of this event, these two events – occurring in the mystery of God’s time – Jesus does something unexpected. He “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). After he has washed their feet, complete with an awkward exchange with Peter, Jesus explains what he has done. Why he has done this. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Jn 13.34).

This is the true meaning of Maundy Thursday. “Maundy,” from the Latin mandatum, which means “commandment” – the first word of the Latin translation of Jesus’ statement to his disciples. This new commandment is more important than even the meal which preceded it – at least from John’s perspective. For John, the primary action at the Last Supper is Jesus washing the disciples’ feet as a symbol of love and service – a model of how they are to relate to each other. In the washing of the disciples’ feet, Jesus performs the duty of a servant. He is modeling that the true sign of discipleship, of being his disciple, is not leading but serving. This new action – washing of feet – enters into the flow of God’s time. To the overall experience of Passover meal, Last Supper, and new covenant, is added a new commandment. “That you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

In my personal experience of God’s time on Maundy Thursday, I don’t just experience what happened 2,000 years ago in the Upper Room. At the same time, in a way only possible through God’s time, I also remember – I experience again – another foot washing that took place 38 years ago.

My first experience with foot washing was when I was a junior 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, and to take off our shoes and socks. (Even though it was snowing outside). 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 then 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, Dennis, my foot-washing partner and also our youth group advisor, 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 Dennis’. 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.

That is what Jesus is trying to teach his disciples as he washes their feet. That they – that we – need to be able to humble ourselves to serve others; that we need to be willing to open ourselves to be vulnerable to others, to be vulnerable in the presence of others, particularly those whom we are serving; and that we must allow an intimate connection to develop with those we are ministering to. Only by allowing these – humility, vulnerability, intimacy – to occur, can one be open to truly experience God’s love and God’s presence.

In God’s time, Jesus is demonstrating humble, vulnerable, intimate love for his beloveds. As he is washing our feet, he is at the same time, in God’s time, demonstrating the love that would be more fully enacted the next day in his death on the cross. The ultimate act of humble service. The ultimate act of vulnerability. The ultimate act of intimacy.

The act of washing feet is probably one of the most meaningful signs of my priestly ministry – to be of service to the disciples I am called to serve. I no longer experience tears when I am privileged to wash someone’s feet, but rather great joy. Washing feet reminds me, even if only once a year, that I am called to a ministry of hospitality, to be vulnerable to enter into intimate relationship with God and with God’s beloved children.

By entering into God’s time on Maundy Thursday, we are reminded in a very real way that we are all Jesus’ disciples. And that we are invited by our Lord to love one another more humbly, more deeply, more fully, through our own actions. Demonstrating the essence of holy love that he showed for us all through his own actions – especially in going to the cross.

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