Photo Credit: The Wake Forest University School of Divinity
On April 2 I lead the Wake Forest University School of Divinity in a worship service commemorating Maundy Thursday. Below is my sermon and post-communion prayer from that service.
The story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet takes the place of the Last Supper narratives found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. For reasons I was unable to articulate until quite recently, this passage in the Gospel of John has always intrigued me. “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand” in John 13:7 became a mantra as I discerned my call to ministry. I didn’t know what I was doing; I was uncomfortable with my sense of call, and to be honest sometimes I still am. In the years since I first began my discernment I can thankfully say I do understand a great deal more than I did.
So, what is Jesus doing in this pericope unique to the Gospel of John? Many have looked at the foot washing narrative as a connection to baptism; others argue that Jesus’ act of embodying the role of servant means that we too should become servants ourselves. However, I feel that the point of Jesus’ gesture goes far deeper than either of these arguments offer.
Foot washing was commonplace in Jesus’ social context, with very practical applications. What is unique about the gesture in this narrative however, is who performs the foot washing. Typically the ritual would have been done by the guests themselves when entering a home or by the host’s servants as an act of hospitality. I can’t help but notice the hierarchical relationship present. So when Jesus asks “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another’s feet” Jesus is upsetting the status quo, reconfiguring a societal relationship that would place the Teacher above the disciple, and through the intimate act of foot washing establishes a new relationship with the disciples: that of Holy Companionship, an intentional and close form of friendship.
An anonymous quote came across my newsfeed the other day that defined a friend as “one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.” Jesus’ interaction with Peter in this passage does all of those things. Peter is noticeably uncomfortable with Jesus’ gesture and strives to make sense of it in his own context. Jesus takes a moment to be with Peter in his vulnerability. He listens to Peter’s concerns, responds to them, and offers Peter the hope of greater understanding in the future. I recall moments throughout my time here at Wake Divinity where I’ve needed someone to sit with me in my experiences of vulnerability, to listen to questions that I have wrestled with and to remind me that maybe later I will understand.
Sometimes in those instances no words are necessary. Just having someone there who is willing to look you in the eye as you vent, cry, and question is far more powerful than any sentiment can express. Like with Jesus and Peter in the foot washing, that presence offers the opportunity to be held in love and in Holy Companionship. Here Jesus does not stop what he is doing to spell out the significance of the moment for Peter. Instead Jesus plants a seed of growth. He sits with Peter and offers him the tools with which to grow in his understanding.
Jesus tells the disciples that he will be with them only a short time longer, and offers them the tools with which to continue their journey from this point on. To that end Jesus calls the disciples again, this time not to follow him, but to love one another, to be with those whom they encounter in their times of abundance and in their times of struggle, not as a teacher, though they will be that too, but as a caring friend.
RITUAL OF HOLY COMPANIONSHIP
Just as Jesus and Peter embodied close relationship in a few moments I will offer you the opportunity for embodiment of Holy Companionship. I invite you to engage Holy Companionship by silently choosing one person across the room from you to observe. Sit comfortably where you are, relaxed in body but still attentive. Look at the person you have chosen. Look and see who they are, where they have been, and who they have become. This may feel uncomfortable for you, to see or to be seen, like it was for Peter when Jesus washed his feet. If it is uncomfortable, I invite you to open yourself to what it feels like to share that in community and to hold one another in mutual vulnerability, offering each other space for growth. No words are necessary; just be with one another. As we settle into this time of Holy Companionship music will play at the beginning and fade into silence. We will join, again together in community to sing the refrain of “God is Love.”
AFTER RITUAL OF HOLY COMPANIONSHIP
Here at Wake Divinity we come with diverse experiences and beliefs. At times those differences are points of tension, even anger, when we share our strengths and our vulnerabilities. Through it all, I offer to you today the hope that you will hold one another in Holy Companionship, to love one another in that way which is unique in each one of us, learning from one another’s differences and sharing your own so that the love that joins us in faith is welcoming to all.
Though ministry takes many forms, whether you are taking steps toward ordination, chaplaincy, non-profit work, counseling or any other form of ministry, you will encounter people in need of Holy Companionship, sometimes it might even be yourself. It is for this reason that these words in John 13 hold such a special place in my heart. They are a call to radical love of one another, a call to Holy Companionship. Amen.
Let us pray.
Holy God, source of all love, on the night of his betrayal, Jesus gave us a new commandment, to love one another as he loves us. Write this commandment in our hearts, and give us the will to experience Holy Companionship with you and with one another, not just in our Easter mornings, but in our Maundy Thursdays and Good Fridays as well. In the name of the Voice, the Word, and the Listener we pray. Amen.
Stripping of the Altar
In the Lutheran denomination and in many others it is tradition for the altar and worship space to be stripped of their vestments. The act of stripping the altar symbolizes the abandonment of Jesus by his disciples and the stripping of Jesus by the soldiers before his crucifixion and in preparation for the solemnity of Good Friday. After the stripping of the altar is complete I invite you to depart in silence remembering to walk with one another in Holy Companionship and love.