Thursday, March 24, 2016

‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me’: a reflection for Thursday in Holy Week

May my words be in the name of the Father, & of the Son, & of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Tonight we have some passages from St John's account of the Last Supper as our Gospel reading. And it is notable, to those who are alert to such things, that St John, alone of all the evangelists, does not include any reference to the institution of the Eucharist in his Gospel – by which I mean he does not recount how our Lord took the bread and blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples telling them it was his body and they should take and eat; nor his taking of the cup and blessing the wine and telling those present it was now his blood of which they should drink. Why he does not do so has been cause for much scholarly speculation. Most compelling, I think, is the theory that all of John's Gospel is already so Eucharistically centred, particularly as it relates to the miraculous feeding narrative where he tells those who follow him the hard teaching that they must eat his body and drink his blood if they are to have life in them, that the evangelist sees no need to repeat again what has been said by the other gospel writers concerning the Institution of the Most Holy Eucharist, instead choosing to focus on other details of that night.

A very striking detail – and one that has very much entered into the imagination of Christians down through the ages – is Jesus' washing of the feet of his twelve apostles. He does so with great deliberation. The thirteen men are all gathered in the upper room and already recline at table. Jesus gets up and takes off his outer robe and then ties a towel around himself. The apostles must surely have wondered what was going on. Then he fills a basin with water and goes to each of these men, one by one, and washes their feet and dries them with the towel tied about him. Think of it: Christ, the Son of God, kneeling at the feet of men, doing the work of the lowliest of servants … and one of them is Judas!

St John records no speech while he does so; so presumably these men are shocked into silence while he is doing this. An uncomfortable silence … the only sounds that of the basin being moved from person to person, clanking on the floor as it is set down each time, the water splashing as our Lord washes the feet of each apostle, and then the rustling of the towel as he gently rubs their feet dry. Until the silence is broken by Peter who, always impetuous, asks our Lord what he is doing? Who at first refuses to accept such service from his master … and who then, in a moment of comic relief in such a solemn occasion, when told that he can have no part of Christ if he will not let him wash him, offers to then let him wash his hands and his head as well!

Christ is teaching here by example. He could have just said – I want you all to show loving service to others; instead he acts first, showing that he does not see such service as being beneath him; and if it is not beneath him, then it is not beneath any man. Wash each other's feet he tells them … following my example … serve one another …

And then he points to another way he has led by example: he reminds them of the love that he has shown for them and tells them that they must love each other other as he as loved them. He elevates this teaching to the status of a commandment – a new commandment I give to you that you love one another just as I have loved you. This love will show all the world that they are followers of his.

So by word and example, Christ calls us to loving service of each other. But let us not think he means here what the world sometimes calls love – letting a person do as they please, no matter how disobedient their actions are to the will of God, and not only nodding approval, but speaking warmly of their deeds and even applauding them. We have details in this passage that speak to the fact that Jesus does not mean anything like this by love. He looks at Judas and says not all here are clean – he knows what Judas will do and he does not approve and he says so; and he tells Peter if he will not do as he says he can have no part in him – obedience is called for in the Christian life, and failure to be obedient has consequences. And so just as Jesus, as part of the way he showed his love for mankind, warned his followers of the consequences of disobedience to the will of God, so the love we show to others, if it is to be Christ-like must also warn people of the dangers they risk by straying from the path that Christ sets before us all.

So this night, the night before he died, we think not only of Christ's loving service by the washing of feet, not only of the wondrous grace he bestowed upon his people by giving them his body to eat and blood to drink, not only that night but every day until he comes again in glory, we think of his command to love as he did – a love that is not afraid to correct, even as it is not afraid of the most humble service. I pray that you have the courage to show such love; and I ask that you pray the same for me. Amen. 

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