The Reverend Philip Tierney
April 17, 2014
Like sequential frames in a moving picture, the events of what we’ve come to call Holy Week move quickly across the calendar. And yet each event—each frame—is of such momentous spiritual significance that we pause to contemplate it. From that shared contemplation, the goal is for each event to become present, here and now. It all happened 2000 years ago and yet—as we remember together—we are there. That’s the basis of sacramental theology. The fancy name for it in Greek is αναμνεσισ, which is the opposite of amnesia or forgetting. Anamnesis involves a group of people remembering together an event of spiritual importance with the conviction that that past event and its spiritual significance become present to those people in the present.
And so, if we are there in that upper room, back there and then, what do we see? Tonight, we see an intimate gathering of close friends eating around a table. Its peacefulness is set in sharp contrast against the turmoil of the frames just before and after it. The one before—Palm Sunday—was full of tumultuous enthusiasm. A crescendo had been reached—crowds of bustling onlookers cheering the one they hoped would be their long-awaited Messiah as he entered the capitol. Simultaneously, behind closed doors, a plot brewed to do away with him. The next frames will reveal the unfolding of that plot—with all its turbulence and dyer consequence. But tonight the crowds are out of sight and all we see is Jesus—at table with His closest disciples.
As we look more closely, this is what we see. Sometimes, ironically, it helps us to close our eyes to see something that’s already happened. So close your eyes, if it helps. There are Jesus and His friends, sprawled on the floor, around a table in the upper room. Consistent with the custom of the time, they lay on the floor, propped up on their left arms with their feet outstretched behind them. Jesus stands up, and moves to the edge of the room. He removes His outer robe. He reaches for a towel—one used for ritual washing at mealtime—and ties it around himself. He pours some water into a bowl and moves slowly from person to person. At each disciple, He kneels and bathes that one’s feet. He dries them; rises; and moves on to the next. Since we are there, imagine that you are next. He comes to you—reclined there on the floor. He kneels at your feet and begins to wash them. What do you feel? Awkward? Possibly; and self-conscious too—embarrassed. You want to draw your feet back or to say with Peter, “Please don’t. It makes me awkward. It isn’t fitting. You’re my hero. It’s beneath your dignity.” Instead, you simply avert your gaze. You think, “Why is He doing this?”
Later, when He’s done, He reclines at the table again, and explains. “It’s an example for you.” He says. “Wash each other’s feet,” He says. It’s an act of service, of humility, of loyalty. That’s what He wants of His followers—three attributes of good servanthood. Not dignity, not respectability, not intelligence, not competence, not productivity—though they’re all fine. But what He wants is our humility, our service, and our loyalty. Otherwise, we miss the point of what it means to follow.
The thing that gets me, though, is that Jesus knelt at Judas’ feet, too. Knowing what he had done and what he would do in just a short time, Jesus knelt at his feet. He took them in His hands. He bathed them and dried them off. He humbled Himself before him. He served Judas and was loyal to him. If ever you feel unworthy of God’s grace and of Jesus’ service, remember that. Jesus served Judas, too. His sin was less that he betrayed Christ than it was that gave up on his inclusion in God’s grace and Christ’s service after he did.
The lesson for tonight is to receive God’s love and Christ’s service. Receive it, and pass it on. Humble yourself, be loyal, and serve—not only those you love, those you like, those you respect, and those who treat you well—but also those who betray you, belittle you, criticize you, reject you, snub you, take advantage and mistreat you. All it takes is the mind to serve—to be compassionate, an eye to see what others need, hands ready to get dirty, feet prepared to take you to their place, a heart to care, and knees to bend in service and prayer. It doesn’t have to be grand. Little gestures are fine—simply putting your self at others’ disposal. That’s what Jesus did—what He does for us—and what He asks us to do in turn.
That’s when Christ becomes real and present, here and now, through us.
God help us to follow His lead!