Thursday 24th March 2016
by Revd Kate Tuckett
And so here we are, nearly at the end of Lent, and the storm clouds are gathering. Lent is at its start and its end, framed in a type of absolution, by signs of forgiveness. On Ash Wednesday we received a sign of the cross on our foreheads, a reminder that we will all die and we all sin and yet over and beyond this there is love. Tomorrow we will remember that same dreadful and mysterious vehicle for forgiveness. And today we receive a different sign of God’s acceptance of us, a final desperate attempt on the part of Jesus to show us that our brokenness is not the final word.
In this day and age I’m not sure how many people there are who believe that God is holding a big grudge against them for being bad, and tonight certainly isn’t the time to debate the nature of sin. And I’m actually much less tortured by the idea of God being cross with me than I am by the secrets and the bitternesses and the resentments that corrode me inside. I’m more haunted by how what I’ve said and the things I’ve done have caused harm to myself and to others, than I am worried that God will punish me. Because in the end we aren’t punished for our sins nearly as much as we are punished by our sins.
On the night before he died, Jesus knelt down in front of the friends who would deny, betray and abandon him and he washed their feet. With the towel of a servant said that unless you let him wash you, you have no share in him. To have a share in Jesus is to receive forgiveness. To do Jesus’ work, to live the Christian life, is to receive love and forgiveness, to allow yourself to do this. So you can pretend your feet don’t smell, you can paint your nails, you can wear clean socks, but in the end we all have dirty feet and Jesus knows that. He says let me wash you with my love and you will be clean, and you will know how to love yourselves and you will be able to love one another. Jesus saw the ugly truth of those around him and loved them in a way they could never love themselves.
Maundy Thursday is perhaps the most beautiful day of the liturgical year. But it is beautiful because of the horrors that are to come. Let’s make no mistake about it. Jesus will speak of his body and blood. If Jesus had died in his bed, full of years of sweet contentment with Faure’s requiem playing gently in the background we might speak of body and soul. But instead he dies betrayed by his friends, handed over to the priests of the temple, expert butchers in cutting the throats of Passover lambs, and led to the most degrading death in the Roman repertoire.
He knows what is to come. And still he washes their feet.
Almost every year I have lofty intentions of how Holy Week is going to be. It is going to be a soaring spiritual experience, and I am going to really enter into and feel the death and passion and resurrection of Jesus. In reality of course this can be overtaken by myriad distractions and it can feel, however conscientiously we observe the week, as if we are still looking sideways. Because Holy Week is never going to be about perfection.
Holy Week wasn’t perfect for the disciples. They betrayed, ran away, lied, despaired and doubted.
Holy Week wasn’t perfect for Jesus. He wept. He wondered if there was another way. He experienced the same agony and isolation that inspired the poet David to ask ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’
Holy Week isn’t perfect for the church. It comes amidst scandal, division, financial crisis, and complacency.
Holy Week certainly isn’t perfect for the world as we see terror and violence in Brussels and Ankara and Syria.
Holy Week isn’t perfect for God as we might imagine him looking down on the messes we have made, the stupid wars we wage, and the imperfect representations of Jesus that we clumsily project onto the world.
For most of us, holy week isn’t so holy.
As Jesus washes his disciples’ feet he offers them a different way, a new commandment that can make beauty out of what is most unholy and broken and flawed and horrific. God’s grace is always that my brokenness and selfishness is not the final word. God can redeem and make beautiful what is most unlovely in all of us. Grace is never about God stepping in like a super-hero to grant us a grudging sort of forgiveness and always about God saying that we are loved too much to let our sin define us. Here is a God who makes all things new.
And if Holy Week is not about perfection maintained, but imperfection restored --- an execution device transformed into a symbol of pardon, denials transformed into declarations of love, a tomb transformed into a birthplace of hope – then this is no more beautifully shown than it is tonight as Jesus shares supper with his friends.
Because look at who is there, the first time this story is told. They are a ragged collection of people around the table --- sinners, betrayers, the power-hungry, the fragile, the lost, the lonely. But the first time this story was told Jesus promises that it was for all time, that whenever the bread was broken and the wine was poured, wheverer the story was told around the table, he would be there. And then he wraps a towel around his waist and washes their feet.
In this exquisitely bitter-sweet moment, Jesus shows us who he is and who God is. That he doesn’t need to know about our shortcomings or the things we didn’t do or can’t do or don’t do well, all our myriad imperfections. What Jesus wants to do is to wash our feet, to give us a share in his work of love. The receiving of love comes before the giving of love. We cannot truly love our neighbours until we are open to be loved by our neighbours and through that experiencing the love of God.
And so as we come together, this motley band of Jesus’ friends, eating together for the last time before betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion, we might imagine the reaction of those first imperfect disciples as Jesus took off his outer robe, tied a towel around his waists, poured water into a basin, and washed their feet. And we might imagine how much more they would have been unnerved when this strange friend of theirs said they must do the same. They should be slaves to one another. ‘You should wash one another’s feet’. Think how much they must have curled up inside, and hidden against his words, as if the world no longer made any sense.
But then nothing made any sense, until they met him the other side of death and all was resurrection.
For tonight, we cannot talk of that. Not yet. For tonight Good Friday is just around the corner. Now we must sit and let him wash our feet, and not protest, and take the disc of bread and sip of wine for the journey out of our own imprisonments by ourselves, and as we promise to remember, then we must also remember his command to us: ‘you also ought to wash one another’s feet, and make my resurrection day.’
This sermon uses material from Dennis, T. (2013), God in our Midst, London: SPCK, pp60-64