‘Participating in Remembrance’
May I speak in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Tonight’s readings are scriptures that have been tried and tested in our Easter liturgies for thousands of years. They are not merely the stories we have told but, as with the Eucharist and foot washing, they are the stories we are remembering through our very participation in them. We open ourselves up, in this participatory remembrance, to have our very being ruptured by the in breaking of God’s Holy Spirit. But what is it that we are remembering? What are we opening ourselves up to? And what, if anything, do we expect to be the tangible outcomes of such an experience?
I was challenged this week when I was listening to an interview podcast with author and theologian, Tony Jones. He was being asked about his new book on the atonement called, ‘Did God kill Jesus?’ In the interview he talks about the cultural temperature surrounding Jesus’ passion. Pilate, in contrast to the common belief, was actually a man that vehemently hated the Jews. He was known to have crucified thousands of Jews; some in response to the possibility of insurrection and others to simply exercise his power. Alongside this Roman oppression, there was the confident belief of the Jews as they waited for their true Messiah. They were waiting for the realisation of God’s vindication of his people and the one who would overthrow their Roman oppressors. When Jesus enters the scene, he is, in so many ways, not a unique man. There were many who proclaimed themselves, or their teachers, as the true Messiah, but no one had brought this to fruition. Many had come and declared God’s kingdom is coming, but nothing had changed.
Jesus, in contrast, comes preaching a specific commitment to the poor, oppressed, sick, widow and orphan; all his teachings founded on love of God and our neighbour (Mt 22.37-40, Mk 12.29-31, Deut 6.5, Lk 10.26-27); in our gospel reading tonight we hear Jesus’ command that the disciples must obey this new command, ‘that they will love one another.’
The Messianic movements at this time were, to my mind, similar to our current election campaigns. Jesus appears to throw his hat in with the groups and takes to the streets and cities to proclaim this in breaking of God’s kingdom to any and all who would listen. It is very clear from the disciples responses, that they were under this impression; Jesus is, to them, the best chance of bringing this realised vindication into reality. Each wishing to be seen as the greatest disciple and seeking to be named as the one who would sit at Jesus’ side in his kingdom, they seem to constantly miss the point. It is into this political/religious milieu that Jesus sits down with his disciples one last time.
You can imagine that the disciples are feeling energised by the celebration of God’s supernatural salvation of Israel from Egypt. Add to this all Jesus’ talk of the future, they seem charged to see God’s kingdom come into their world. But Jesus, in true fashion, shows that his words and actions over the past years, were not a means to a political end; he really did come to serve.
How many times have we heard promises made by politicians and leaders who seek the vote of the people to a seat of power and find that at the end of their term, there are far more promises broken or lacking than there are promises fulfilled? I hold my hands up to the fact that I am not a politician and I have never run a political campaign, but I know I am not the only one to feel that there is a major chasm between the promises given in response to the voices of the people and the reality of what politicians can change and influence. Jesus does the reverse, he insists on proclaiming the in breaking of the Kingdom of God and the love of God for people and creation, and lives out promises to that effect; serving through washing feet and humbling himself unto death. The promises, rooted in God’s love and realised through the service of Christ to the world, paint a different picture of what it means to lead and serve humanity.
Canon Sue Wallace, in her Maundy Thursday sermon last year at Winchester Cathedral, spoke about the radical service of Christ (can be found at: http://www.winchester-
When you entered a room, the master of the house would provide a servant to wash your feet. It would most likely be that your foot washing servant would be a woman, especially as men never carried water. How many times do we hear in scripture of women going to the well for water, and yet we do not think anything of it. Parts of Africa still reveal this structure, it is the women who carry this precious gift for their communities. By simply carrying the water and washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus disrupts cultural presumptions, all of which are misunderstood by the disciples and often ourselves.
I would imagine, if I were one of the disciples that had been fighting for the spot at Jesus’ right hand and I saw him grab the items to ready himself to wash our feet, I would have volunteered one of my brothers, who I deeply loved but who was obviously not my equal. Even Peter’s response, that Jesus should wash ‘not only my feet but also my hands and my head!’ seems to have missed that Jesus was not saying he was creating a kingdom of people with clean feet – Peter’s logic seems to be that if the feet being washed is a good thing, then the more washed body parts the better! I am always shocked, but only slightly, that none of the disciples offer to take Jesus’ place! Here is a sign of true humility from Jesus; this is not something forced upon him, where he is to eat the humble pie of his proud acclamations, but where we are shown that true love is lived out through the intimacy of willing action.
The disciples have yet to understand what God’s kingdom is and how it is lived in this world, but the time is coming when they will see, when they will know and they will participate in remembrance.
We have spent Lent focussing our attention on justice, asking how we can serve our community and actively participate in making our world a more just place. I cannot speak for anyone but myself, but I must confess that I have been challenged to think about how I live this out. I have needed to ask how I spend my money, where I invest my time, and to question what are the idols I have in my life? But tonight, I am being asked something even more probing, whose feet am I willing to wash? Jesus shows us that those in power are not above humbling themselves to serve. ‘Men can carry water for their sisters [and brothers]…leaders can wash the feet of their servants, and…the greatest among us can act as a slave.’ (Sue Wallace) Washing feet is not a spectators sport, it is not something that can done by you through the actions of someone else. Washing another’s feet is as intimate and personal as you can get, and Jesus is willing to do it for each and everyone of us.
As a church we have joined credit unions, looked to join London citizens, been challenged to ask which people are not represented in our community, and been asked to think about how we vote in the upcoming elections. All of which are good and worthwhile activities. But, have we learned the names of our neighbours? Have we asked if we can buy groceries for the single parent who works two jobs to try and make a life for their children? Have we listened to the stories and needs of the asylum seeker, the immigrant, the elderly and the young? Have we let our own feet be washed by someone else?
Participating with God requires us to spend our money and resources in new ways, but if it is to be action that is rooted in love, in the self giving service that Christ calls us to, then it will require us to look into the eyes of the ones we help, bend down and wash their feet, giving ourself to them not because God is trying to teach us a lesson in humility but because the love we have received comes to us in the same way. We cannot simply rely on middle parties that transfer our resources into help, care and support for those who are in need, outcast and powerless.
This participatory remembrance allows us to see the truth of leadership and power. Not found in wielding might over another, but in using strength to care for and lift up another.
I heard a quote this week from theologian, Fred Craddock, that I would like to leave you with. He says, ‘The question is not whether the church dying but whether it is giving its life for the world.’