When I was a minister in Birmingham, the Section held a meal on Maunday Thursday to symbolically rehearse the Last Supper. There was of course the Matzah unleavened bread, and wine and other components that went to make for a Passover meal:lamb representing the pascal lamb; horseradish to recall the bitterness of slavery; and salt water, the tears. Worshippers would also be greeted at the door by two enthusiastic people with towels, wanting to wash their feet and, it is fair to say, that the anxiety of exposing followed by the risk of someone tickling their feet, caused most people to avoid the beginning of the service. Many would arrive once the eating was under way and the rest would agree to have their hands washed or better still wash their own hands.
All of which made me smile and reflect that somewhere along the line, we were reducing Jesus’ great symbolic action of servant hood into a healthy community hygiene ritual, usually taught at pre-school. Not of course that there is anything wrong with that but Jesus, I think, was after so much more.
As I make my preparations for this coming Holy Week, however, I’ve reflected that perhaps their avoidance was far more integral to the story that I initially thought. In the foot washing, Jesus was showing that the method is the message. In washing the disciple’s feet, Jesus chooses to empty himself rather than promote himself. His act of humble service is then the church’s model of mission into the world – the means by which God’s glory will be experienced by all who follow, after Jesus has gone to be with his Heavenly Father.
The wonder of this simple strategy is that everyone can do it, whatever role, position, title, gender, race, sexual orientation and even age – all can serve one another. And if we really got hold of it, this strategy could allow God’s love to shine into every life. So foot washing becomes a sermon if you like, to the whole world about how to love.
It’s interesting therefore that echoing the reluctance of Birmingham worshippers to have their feet washed, Peter’s response is, “Jesus, you will never wash my feet.” Peter of course is coming to Jesus after the excitement of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the disciples’ anticipation that Jesus will fulfil his mission by putting the world to rights and raising up Israel once more. However, Jesus’ actions are anything but kingly and certainly not the glory anticipated by the longed for Messiah. Peter’s response suggest that Peter has his own vision and agenda of what Jesus should be and do. After three years of being called, taught and generally put to the test by Jesus, the rewards of glory are just in sight for him. The hour of Jesus’ triumph would bring a rise in Peter’s standing and status. It was, he hoped, all going to come good!
Peter’s protest resembles ours when we are confronted with a Jesus who does not serve our expectations or fulfil our hopes. And it caused me to think that within Peter’s protest is the seed that will lead to his betrayal. No Lord, not like that, like this!
And so Jesus responds to him, “Unless I wash you, you have no share of me”.
We seem to be called to surrender to the service of others, as much as we are called to serve them. To allow ourselves to receive, to not always be in control. Rev. Julia