Vulnerable discipleship

This is a sermon for Maundy Thursday, given in the “church next door.”  The Scriptures it references are Psalm 116 and  John 13:1-35.  

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 in his culture.  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.

But while Jesus, in doing this, set us a high example and one we do well to imitate, I wonder if sometimes loving 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.  Far easier, 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 here is the question; 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 us 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, he will not break us; it is instead by the bruises he chose to bear, that we are healed.

I’m reminded of an acquaintance of mine, a psychologist who happens to see a lot of Christians in her practice, who told me once that she sees more new clients in the week or two after Easter than at any other time of the year.  That surprised me, but it shouldn’t have; in commemorating the events of Easter, we can allow the gospel story to interact with our own story; to touch our vulnerabilities and our tender spots; even to open places which need healing.  What the psychologist told me is an enormous testimony to the fact that the gospel matters, and that what we do in our life together matters.  It’s worth taking seriously and engaging with at depth.

The Psalm this evening asked “How shall I repay the Lord for all his benefits 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.

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.  Discipleship, in the way that Jesus demonstrates for us, is not individualistic, with each person in his or her private relationship with God through Christ.  Rather, discipleship is lived to the full in the life of the community.  In this community and its dynamics of love, disciples are drawn into the life of heaven; into that realm of truth, love, and beauty which is the dwelling-place of Father, Son and Spirit (themselves a community with an inner dynamic of love).  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.

Now, this isn’t something that comes to us instinctively.  It needs to be learned (indeed, to be a disciple is to be one who learns).  Discipleship is always a process of learning, a gradual process of conversion, of being lead from one vision of reality to another.  When God offers to teach us, to allow us to learn from him, we are invited into a relationship; and even when we struggle and misunderstand, that is met with kindness and openness.  It’s only when we assume we have no need to learn that we have abandoned the path of discipleship.

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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