Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Missing Maundy Thursday Meditation

Oops! Forgot to post this.

“A Love Story”
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Maundy Thursday
April 1, 2010

The more I read scripture, the more I read the gospels, the more I am convinced that the whole thing, from start to finish, is a love story. The love affair of God with humanity has its beginnings in the poetry of Genesis, a God who creates, not because of a deficit or loneliness or neediness within God (and, let’s be frank, that’s how many of our own love stories seem to begin), but because God is love, and God contains an excess of love and a longing to lavish it on someone, something. And that someone, something, has its beginning as a mud pie, and then has life breathed into it, and then turns out to be you, and me. And so it begins: God loves us; we are loved.

Tonight’s gospel passage says it all again. Jesus is at the Passover celebration: Passover, the ancient Jewish feast of liberation, the story of God’s hearkening to the anguished cries of God’s beloved children and responding with power to bring them to wondrous freedom. And Jesus is at this celebration with his friends—his own, the passage calls them—and he knows what lies ahead. He knows it is his last night with them in the old, familiar way, the way we can be at the table with those friends who know what is on our mind before we speak it, the ones who know that a joke is about to come out of our mouths by the glint they see in our eyes. Jesus knows it is the end of something powerful, even as it is the beginning of something glorious. Here he is with his own, those he has loved. And he must do something with them, and for them, to try to help them truly come to terms with the nature of his love for them.

So, oddly, he gets a towel and a basin, and proceeds to kneel in front of these friends, his own, and to wash their feet. We talked about this not too long ago. Washing feet was a common enough practice in the dusty middle-eastern climate. Still, it was an action most often performed on oneself. The only person who would wash the feet of another was a slave. And this is why at least some of Jesus’ own balk. This is why they are outraged. They have been following this Jesus for three years, and they have taken on the yoke of his teaching, and they have called him Rabbi and Lord, and your Rabbi or Lord does not wash your feet. It is just wrong. I don’t know if we can really bring to mind a modern day parallel. I was going to suggest that it was as if the president of IBM would come to the home of the entry-level programmer and—I don’t know, de-frag her computer? Or maybe change the oil in her car or clean her broiler? But as US citizens we like to believe that we live in a class-free, or at least a class-mobile society, so I don’t think any comparison can have quite the punch of the original. Suffice to say: Jesus’ friends were stunned. They were appalled.

And they go back and forth with Jesus on it, or, more accurately, Simon Peter does. No, don’t do that. Oh yes I will. No, really, don’t. Oh yes I will. OK, then, do it this way, so I can be marginally less appalled. No, I won’t do it your way. I’ll do it my way. I’ll be a slave for you.

I’ll be a slave for you. What an astonishing thing for this Lord and Rabbi to insist to his own. What an astonishing thing for the one who is one with God in heaven, as John reminds us frequently, that same God who is responsible for the rescue of the Hebrew slaves being celebrated by this little gathering. I’ll be a slave for you. I’ll serve you. I’ll wash you. And unless you let me do these things… well. Just let me do these things.

Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. And in the end he needed to demonstrate in a vivid way the form that love would take. It would take a self-negation, a self-emptying that no one had ever before associated with their Lord, or their Rabbi, or—how is it even possible?—their God. Just let me do these things for you. This is what love looks like. I am giving you an example—one you’ll remember, if only because you are so appalled. This is what love looks like. Now, go do this for one another.

The gospel of John is the only gospel that doesn’t talk about what happens during the meal—when Jesus says “Take, eat, this is my body,” and “Take and drink, this is my blood.” John doesn’t dwell on that, I suppose, because that aspect of the supper was already so well known and established by the time this very late gospel hit the presses. But John explains something about the supper that is absolutely vital for us to understand. The meal is both for us and not for us. It is for us in that it exists to bring us together, and to remind us of our connection to Jesus and to one another, and to impress upon us that it is God who nourishes us, first, last and always. But the meal is not only for us, most profoundly. The meal is not only for us, and we cannot afford to forget that. The meal exists so that we will be strengthened for service. The meal exists so that we will be given the courage and the will to make ourselves servants, even slaves for others. This is what love looks like: a meal given to nourish, so that we can, in turn, nourish others. This is what love looks like: allowing the One with all power to serve us, so that we can, in turn, serve others. This is what love looks like, as God designed it from the very beginning: an endless dance of giving and receiving, in which the joy is in the dance.

God loves us. We are loved. Love is our bounty and love is our calling. We are welcomed to this table to receive the bounty and to respond to the calling. The whole thing is a love story, from start to finish. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Image from Nathalie Kelly, borrowed hopefully.

1 comment:

Sophia said...

My understanding is that wives also washed their husband's feet in that culture, and not always or only because they had lower status. I heard a powerful homily by a then nun friend speaking of footwashing as what slaves and lovers did, which says a lot about how Jesus interacts with us.