Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Work of a Servant: Sermon on John 13:1-17

Artist: Robert Gilroy, SJ. More at

Scripture can be found here...

Thanks be to Thee, O God, that I have risen today,
To the rising of this life itself;
May it be to Thine own glory, O God of every gift
And to the glory of my soul likewise.[i]

It’s a story that makes us cringe. It’s a scene many churches replay each Maundy Thursday, and not everyone loves it. It’s a gospel passage that is just plain uncomfortable.

We have Jesus, whom this gospel has shown us to be the living presence of God in our midst, taking on the role of a slave and washing the feet of the people who are looking to him as their leader, their Lord.

We have push-back—an incredibly pained and uncomfortable conversation between Jesus and Peter, who insists on reversing those roles to the more comfortable and expected order.

And finally we have that conversation-stopping statement of Jesus. “Not all of you are clean.” Which means, to Judas, the one who has already sold him out to the authorities, I know who you are, and I know what you have done.

Today we have reached a turning point in the gospel of John. The public ministry of Jesus has come to an end. With the raising of his friend Lazarus from the grave, Jesus came to the conclusion of what scholars call “the Book of Signs.” Now begins “the Book of Glory.”

This is a passage we often hear on Maundy Thursday, and so it’s odd for us to hear it a full four weeks before Holy Week arrives. But this is another unique feature of the gospel of John. In the other gospels the story of the betrayal and crucifixion are saved for their very last chapters. But John devotes fully one half of the gospel to it. The other gospel writers seem to be struggling to fit the terrible scandal of crucifixion—a death reserved for rebels and slaves—into their overall story.

John is different. John sees Jesus differently, and he sees the crucifixion differently. We will talk more about that as we come closer to Holy Week. For now, it’s important to remember once again: this gospel is different.

One feature John shares with the other gospels, though, is this: In the last hours of his life,  Jesus gathers together with those closest to him. His disciples. His followers. Those who have shadowed him—men and women, though the gospels highlight the men—those who have been with Jesus through it all.

And so the story begins:

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. (John 13:1)

Sit down angel friends.
Sit down Cana couple.
Sit down Martha and Mary.
Sit down Patrick and Bride.
Sit down guest and stranger.
Sit down poor and homeless.[ii]

Jesus turns his attention to “his own” in these last hours. And with his withdrawal from the public eye, we find there is a different tone in what he says and does. There is a meal, but it is not the Passover meal in John’s gospel. It is not Passover yet, because, for John, Jesus will embody Passover. But that’s later. Here the focus is not on what happens at the meal, but what happens afterward.

Jesus comes to wash our feet.
Jesus comes to dry them well.
Jesus comes to pour our wine.
Jesus comes to break our bread.
Jesus comes to heal our wounds.
Jesus comes to lead our song.[iii]

It is extraordinary. Jesus rises from the table, removes his outer robe, and, half-naked with a towel wrapped around his waist, proceeds to wash the feet of his disciples.

What does it mean, for Jesus to have washed the feet of his disciples? In the ancient world it was common courtesy to have your slaves wash the feet of your guests. My dad, when he was living in Ventnor, had a standing, twice-yearly appointment with a podiatrist for the purpose of caring for his feet as he got older. I know lots of women who make it a regular treat to get a really great (and lasting) pedicure. I know people who would tell you that they would rather die than have someone look at and touch their feet. But it’s also true that there is a remove when you are paying someone, a professional, to do these things, to handle this part of the body that we don’t expose for much of the year, and with which we’re often uncomfortable. Our feet carry our weight, and they show the wear and tear of age—callouses and bunions and thick toenails.

To wash someone’s feet, or to allow your feet to be washed, is an intimate act. Now imagine presenting your feet to be washed by the person in the world you most look up to—whoever that might be. Your favorite author, or sports figure, or actress. The Dalai Lama, your yoga teacher, the Pope. The president you most admire, or senator, or congressperson. Rachel Maddow. Bill O’Reilly. Imagine the very last person in the world you would ever want to look at or touch your feet.

Then imagine being in Peter’s shoes. So to speak.

Jesus has given us all these signs, to tell us of who he is, and who God is. I think that John slips some other signs in, too, but they don’t get as much airplay. Here is one of them: Our God is a God who cares about our souls. Of course. But ours is also, very much, a God who cares about, and cares for, bodies.

God to enfold me
God to surround me,
God in my speaking,
God in my thinking
God in my sleeping
God in my waking[iv]

I’ve been weaving little prayers throughout this sermon, all drawn from Celtic Christianity. When Saint Patrick “converted” the Celts sometime around the fifth century, they held on tenaciously to their conviction that the body was good and important. That notion is something which set them apart from much of Christianity, which, somehow, got caught up in this idea that the body is only a vehicle for sin, for messing up. For Celts, the body was a precious gift from God, and so Celtic Christianity came to be permeated with prayers and songs and actions that reinforced that conviction.

And here, in the midst of the gospel which can be pretty esoteric and otherworldly, we have Jesus engaged in an act of care for the bodies of his people, “his own.” And this, some would argue, is the true birth of the “Beloved Community,” both in Jesus’ act of service, and in his instruction to his followers that they should do likewise.

“I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).

We are called to engage in acts of service to one another, in imitation of Jesus and in his name. I’d like to suggest that, for many of us, this service also encompasses the hard, intimate work of being in human relationships. Here is how one pastor describes it:

I think of the word conspire. Not in the secret, plotting way we might think of the word, but with its roots. Con + spire (spih-RAY). To breathe with. Intimacy means a kind of breath sharing, a closeness that breeds a movement together, a waiting and dependency.

This is intense. This is what it felt like around that table. There was a conspiracy afoot, but it was not about crucifixion. It was a joint breathing- a God-breathing human being with other God-breathed beings, gathered together, and brought into a new kind of intimate community. This is what it means to be the community of Christ- to be a group who breathes together in worship, in work, in play, in service.[v]

Intimacy can be powerful and beautiful and life-giving. It can also be excruciating and embarrassing and vulnerable. But I think this is what’s at the center of the persistent metaphor for what it is to be the church: we are the body of Christ. You can’t be much more intimate than that. But that intimacy is what the great Patrick acknowledged, submitted, and yielded to in the prayer we call “the Lorica,” or “breastplate”:

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

This is our calling: a life of service that is not at a remove, at arms length, but one of God-breathed intimacy. A life in which we let our bodies be vehicles of blessings—from the water poured over us in baptism to the ash smudged on our heads at Lent’s beginning; from the bread we break at home and at church and in a soup kitchen to the dear bodies of friends, children, beloveds we cling to; from the welcome of a hand outstretched to the healing hug of forgiveness. Having been loved by God, who breathed life into us from the beginning, let us love one another until the end. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, Lindisfarne Press 1992, p. 188.
[ii] William John Fitzgerald, A Contemporary Celtic Prayer Book, ACTA Publications, 1998, p. 62.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Carmichael, op. cit., p. 204.
[v] Rev. Julia Seymour, “Narrative Lectionary: How Beautiful Are the Feet Edition,”, March 11, 2014.

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