Thursday, March 28th, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 13:1-17; 31-35
How difficult it can be for us to receive an act of kindness at the hands of another! As this holy day of Maundy Thursday calls us to renew our own ministry of servant-hood it occurs to me that many of us are more comfortable taking up that role of servant than allowing others to serve. To be sure, if we are to be like our master, we are called not to be served but to serve. And yet, sometimes serving allows us to hide our own vulnerability, and strangely, in serving we find ourselves exercising power over those we serve. I cannot imagine that this is what Jesus intended by calling us to a ministry of servant-hood. Serving is not about us determining how we might serve, but listening to the needs of the vulnerable and the needy in our midst, and serving them as they need, not as we think they need. When we decide what others need we exercise power over them and when they do not wish to receive what we so beneficently bestow upon them we become angered that our charity and philanthropy are rejected, and then we no longer consider them worthy of our graciousness. This is not the servant ministry to which we are called by Jesus.
Jesus put his disciples in a difficult spot. He asked them to put themselves in that position of vulnerability in which we are served and ministered to by another. Jesus, the master, takes off his outer garment, the robe of rank, and ties the towel of a servant around his waist and washes the feet of his disciples. Surely, they must have felt extremely awkward at this overturning of the social order, but even more significantly, they felt vulnerable. Perhaps they felt a loss of control. This seems very clear from Peter’s response. He wished to turn the loving gesture of Jesus into a utilitarian act. Not just my feet, Lord, bathe my whole body; I need a good bath! Peter sought to control the experience. It was difficult for him to allow himself to be served by Jesus. Perhaps his request to have his whole body washed was an attempt for him not only to control the experience but even to play into Jesus role-reversal somewhat. Perhaps he takes upon himself the role of the master who, in having his feet washed, commands the servant to do more. But ministry in Jesus’ kingdom is not about lording it over each other; rather, it is about loving one another. “I give you a new commandment,” says Jesus, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” This is the origin of the name of this day, Maundy Thursday. Jesus gives us a new commandment, a new mandatum, a new “maundy.”
How difficult it can be for us to receive the love of another. When you are given a compliment that is offered in true earnestness, when a dear one offers a gift made from the sweat of their toil, when your beloved offers themselves lovingly, sometimes we are so humbled it is difficult to receive their loving acts with grace. What Jesus was doing, more than teaching us how to serve one another, was teaching us how to love one another. Love requires great vulnerability. Can we open ourselves to each other in ways in which we risk being hurt? Can we kneel before each other in ways in which we risk losing our own power that we might find strength together?
When Jesus kneels before his friends, he does so not as master and servant or servant and master, but as friends. Jesus will say to them, “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends.” Friendship requires risk. Friendship requires vulnerability. As strange as this may sound, the Church, as long as it understands itself as an institution that offers service, will never truly be the Church. When we see ourselves as offering something, as being the ones who control what we have to offer, and insisting that others accept what we offer on our terms, we are not being the Church Jesus called us to be. This is not what he offered us, and it is not what we should offer others.
Jesus offered us, offers us, friendship. He lays down his life for his friends. He kneels before his disciples not as master or servant, but as friend. Jesus reimagines what servant-hood means and demonstrates a servant-hood shorn of power-imbalances, and demonstrates servant-friendship. Why is it difficult for Peter to have his feet washed? Why is it difficult for us to have our feet washed? It is because we must assume a level of uncomfortable intimacy with another person, someone with whom there is a power imbalance. It involves extraordinary risk. Peter balks at it. We balk at it. My first reaction would be to balk at it if my bishop were to ask to wash my feet, as many do when they consider allowing their priest to wash their feet. And yet, we may be keen to offer that service to others, but how can we do that if we first have not felt the vulnerability that they feel? Can we offer compassionate loving service, can we wash the feet of another, if we have not first sat in that chair and allowed our feet to be washed? When it comes our turn to wash the feet of another we must understand how vulnerable that person is, what an extraordinary risk they are taking, what a privilege we have in serving them. Can we understand this unless we have felt that same vulnerability or taken that same risk?
True servant-hood, the kind of servant-hood we encounter in Jesus, is not one person acting upon another. In fact, this is the very antithesis of the servant-hood modeled by Jesus. True Christian servant-hood is a ministry of friendship. It is reciprocal. It involves mutual giving and receiving. It involves mutual vulnerability and mutual risk. It involves mutual joy. This is why Jesus says I no longer call you servants but friends. As Jesus loved us so we love him. And as we have loved him and been loved by him, so too shall we be drawn into a deeper mutual love of each other in Christian friendship.