He simply washed their feet: The Maundy Thursday difference

It`s hardly the most inspiring of scenes. The Gospel community; the heralds of a new way of being human… reduced to twelve- or should that be eleven(?) And it had all started out so well. But here is Jesus holding a meal in secret; with his enemies out to get him. In the background; just the memory of so many would-be followers who `no longer went about with him`. And meanwhile the disciples (those who remained) are arguing among themselves about the succession; about which of them had the best leadership credentials to take over from Jesus. And very shortly, one of them will betray him.

So, there`s animosity from without. Self-seeking and squabbling from within the Gospel community. It`s just not a very promising sight really, is it? It`s not that Jesus didn`t warn them; “The hour is coming” said Jesus, “indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone”. (John 16.32)

And looking through these particular spectacles we could be forgiven for wondering why Christ didn`t just give up on them. Make a deal with the Chief Priests to simply go away quietly back to Nazereth to the family business. Why would he bother with people such as these? And I mean, how would you begin to turn around a situation like this?

But then I found myself thinking, “But we`re here tonight, aren`t we?” Things didn`t end there. So, why didn`t he give up… what it was that Christ saw and gave them which did indeed turn things around?

Well, certainly not a master strategy or a five-point plan. Basically, he just washed their feet… and told them to do the same. John tells us that he “got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel”. (John 13.4-5)

The first thing to note is that encapsulated in these few words is what St. John wants to tell us about God. In describing this incident, he`s saying THIS is what the Lord God has done in Jesus. He laid aside the garments of (what we think of as) his glory and took on those of a servant: a towel. In other words, in Jesus we encounter the self-giving God… who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He cleanses us from our sin and all that separates us from God.

And the reason why John makes a point of mentioning that altercation with Peter is because he knows how difficult it is for us to grasp. It doesn`t seem right for the teacher to demean himself like this. It doesn`t seem right to have a God who kneels to wash your feet. John is fully aware that we don`t want a God like that… so up-close and personal.

But of course, we have no choice. As he told Peter, “You have no part in me unless I wash you”. There`s something indispensable about it. And it`s from here that we begin to derive our understanding of what the word `Church` means. We are the fellowship of those who have been washed by Christ. We have received from him something we cannot do for ourselves.

So, this is the first thing: This Gospel community, (this motley crew) if it is to turn around and be what it is meant to be must first of all get its ideas of God right. It must receive a new vision of God… the servant; the one who gives.

And that leads secondly, to a new vision for the future. A sense of who they will become…. And what their life together will look like. And this is the almost laughable thing. That he assumes there will even BE a future for them. Again, you wouldn`t have thought so to look at them. I mean.. What future? What life together? Surely, these fair-weather friends will soon be scattered to their homes; curled up in front of the telly… won`t they?

So, what is it that will make the difference? Well, as I`ve hinted; I think it`s simply the fact that HE sees a future for them…. It`s the fact that HE doesn`t give up on them, insisting that he will be there with them in every act of foot-washing, every act of self-giving. Whenever…`taking up the towel` is at the heart of everything they do.. No, these twelve.. or should that be `eleven`? really don`t look that much. But then if we`re honest, they`re a pretty fair picture of many a Christian congregation aren`t they?

People ask me why I don`t read the Church Times anymore…. Candidly, it`s because I`m afraid I struggle to muster the same enthusiasm as the Lord for a body of people which so resemble the disciples… That we are so often full of status-seeking and self-importance. Ready to give up and go home if we don`t get our own way. Where so often our words and our style of living are a glaring betrayal of him…

But as I often remind myself… “Thank the Lord it`s not down to me.” The remarkable thing is that it`s this kind of dishevelled group like the disciples; (like us!?) it`s this kind of community on which Christ has set his heart… Real flesh and blood; warts and all.

He doesn`t give up on them. He sees a future for them. He doesn`t give up on us. He sees a future for us. But again, it`s a future in which life together is modelled on this strange and enigmatic thing he did… He just washed their feet. He gives them a totally different vision of God and of what life together will look like.

Now, we all know what keeps a community going don`t we? We usually say, “It`s the same old faithful few.” Yes, it`s the tireless efforts of those in the background who give of their time and energy to carry out what we often call the `menial` jobs, for the good of us all. We couldn`t do without them. But if this is how we look at things…as if the Church is just another Voluntary Organisation… then we miss something important.

The problem is that it`s very easy to play what I call the `exhortation` game. Which, roughly translated is people like me getting folk to do more, work harder and more sacrificially…. But invariably, what we end up with is a very `driven` Church; an increased sense of guilt and anxiety in an already hard-working people. All of which seems such a far cry from Jesus saying, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11.30)

So, what makes the difference? What prevents such service from becoming drudgery? How does this change which Christ envisages actually come about? St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians, says this:

“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God,   did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—   even death on a cross. (Philippians 2.4-8)

Now, this really is one of those purple passages of Scripture… with distinct echoes of what happened the night Christ washed the disciples` feet. But I`ve always been `struck` by the way Paul`s words to the Philippians were translated in what was called the New English Bible. It`s the one I was brought up with.

What we`ve just read as: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” was then translated, “Let your bearing towards one another arise out of your life in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2.5 NEB) I`ve always been encouraged by how this way of phrasing it seems so consistent with the Gospel as being Good News, rather than exhortation to `do better` or `try harder`.

It speaks of a people who have firstly, been overtaken by the vision of God revealed in Christ…. And then secondly, they let this shape the way they interact with one another and the kind of community they are becoming. And the result is `foot-washing.` We love because he has loved us… and so on. “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13.5)

So, the outcome is not so much exhortation as inspiration. Foot-washing is what happens to you when you are indwelt by the Spirit of Christ. It`s not haranguing but holiness. Foot-washing is what happens to you when you have been washed by Christ. So, we pray this night …..not for the grace to `try harder,` or `do better`… No, we pray as Paul says, “that we might have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that (we) may be filled with all the fullness of God”. Because in this lies the future of Christ`s Church.


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