Service, power and trust

This is the text of a sermon for Maundy Thursday, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture texts it references are John 13:1-17, 31b-35, and Psalm 116:1-2, 11-18.

Recently I was chatting to a friend who was unsure what to expect at a Maundy Thursday service.  She wanted to know, what was this about foot washing?  I explained it to her and encouraged her to keep an open mind about having her foot washed; to which she responded that she was inclined to keep an open mind and a closed shoe.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if we find that people still squirm at this.  After all, in our reading this evening Simon Peter took some convincing.  It’s fair to say that he was probably coming from a different place; after all, foot washing was an everyday occurrence for him.  His context made him embarrassed, I imagine, and very uncomfortable to have someone so respected doing something so menial for him.  As if, perhaps, the archbishop dropped by my place unexpectedly and did the dishes while he was there.

In setting us this example, Jesus showed us what Rowan Williams described as “the one big thing that Christianity had brought into the world of human imagination.”

And that was – and is – the truth of what power is for.  Power exists, in the Church or the state or anywhere else, so that ordinary people may be treasured and looked after, especially those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves.  Scripture is crystal clear that this is the standard by which the gospel of Jesus judges the powerful of this world.

It’s worth remembering this startling idea that the goal of the supreme power in the universe is that we should be nurtured, respected and loved.  What does that say – to the movers and shakers of church and society, and even all of us too – about how we understand and use the power we have, power which, in Christian terms, is only ever derivative from that ultimate power?

The Psalm this evening asked “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?” and answered the question with images of Jewish temple worship.  For us, for whom there is no temple other than the community of believers, Jesus’ actions offer a different set of images to fire our imaginations.

But I wonder if sometimes serving others isn’t what we most need to be reminded of.  What about our need to allow others to love and serve us?  This can start to seem threatening.  Allowing others to genuinely make a difference often means making ourselves vulnerable to them; allowing them to see and touch parts of our lives that are painful or difficult, or of which we are ashamed.

In case that seems very abstract, let me give you an example.  I recently read a blog post in which a person with depression compared her experience to that of having a more physical illness.  She commented that no one brings you a casserole when you have depression.  The stigma of that kind of illness is still strong enough that there is no social custom of support, and people are afraid to ask for help, since they so often face judgement and rejection.

It’s far less challenging, often, to keep one another at arm’s length; to allow the boundaries of our relationships to be set by our fear and distrust.

It seems to me also that we can fall into this same mistake with God.  That in our awareness of failings and shortcomings, we fear that God will reject or deal with us harshly, or that the change God might call us to will be impossibly difficult for an imperfect person.

But I wonder; kneeling at Peter’s feet, do you imagine that Jesus was rough?  That he was careless of the pain of blisters, from the miles walked following him?  That in removing sandals, he was heedless of tired and aching muscles?  Do you think that in washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus showed a harsh God of tough love?

Or do you see in your mind’s eye, hands working with gentleness and consideration, which eased discomfort?

Because I’m convinced that the character of God is to be gentle and encouraging with us, as much with our hearts as with the disciples’ feet so long ago.  Isaiah describes God’s servant as one who will not break a bruised reed.  If we feel bruised in heart, we should be reminded that he will not break us; it is instead by the bruises he chose to bear, that we are healed.

In this now unusual ritual action of foot washing, we have an opportunity to prod the limits of our comfort zones; to try out, in a safe space, what it might be for us to be open to the service that both God, and our brothers and sisters, offer us in love and gentleness.  We are built not to be alone but to be in community with one another, members of the one body, with Christ at the head.  If we choose not to engage in that relationship, not to allow ourselves to be sometimes vulnerable, I suspect that we choose to keep at least part of ourselves in the darkness of the grave, rather than letting the light of Easter shine into all parts of our lives.

So let us, this Easter, remember to love and serve one another.  But let us also be open enough, trusting enough, to let others reach the tender places in our lives.  Let us learn to be vulnerable with God.  Let the experiences of Easter sink in past the surface layers of our lives and speak into the core of our beings.

Lord, are you going to wash my feet?


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