Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10) 11-14
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19 (13)
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
My first introduction to North-American hymnody was at the Vancouver School of Theology. I found it a great challenge to read unfamiliar words and music at the same time. Since I returned to Germany after my year at VST, I did not learn the 19th century standards until I started to attend and preside over funerals during my internship. It’s one of those cultural things we take for granted, things everyone knows and used to learn by osmosis.
The same was true for cartoons. I loved The Far Side, but about half of the cartoons Jackie had to explain to me because I lacked the cultural references to things like Mr Ed the Talking Horse, The Wizard of Oz, and such.
As I read the Gospel for this evening, the old hymn Abide With Me popped into my head.
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
As I sung the first verse in my head, I realized that the words of that verse echo Jesus’ pleading with the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane: ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray,’ and ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’
These are the words from Matthew but they echo a word from today’s reading from John, stay with me, abide with me.
Abide with me asks Jesus to abide with us in our darkest hour while it carries the memory of Jesus asking his friends to remain with him during his darkest hour.
When Jesus, without warning, takes off his robes and washes the feet of the disciples and finally comes to Peter, Peter refuses, “You will never wash my feet.”
Jesus answers, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Another way to translate this verse is, “If you do not allow me to wash your feet you do not belong with me.” ‘Not because I choose to but because you do.’
I did not grow up with washing each others’ feet on Maundy Thursday. The first time I experienced it in worship was through a Mennonite friend who was a new Christian. We were all young and I can tell you that we probably all did have smelly feet, something that could not be said for most of our Maundy Thursday services. We changed this ritual action a little today, but what Jesus is saying to Peter is still true for us all: Having someone else wash me, any part of me, makes me vulnerable. And without vulnerability we cannot belong. The alternative to having Jesus wash our feet is to claim that we are not in need of such an act of service. The problem with our world is that no one wants to be vulnerable because vulnerability is seen as weakness. Which is why we try to solve conflicts by helping people save face. And yet, the strength we seek to claim isolates us from one another. Jesus expresses this when he says to Peter,‘If you do not allow me to wash your feet you do not belong with me.’
I thought of John Swinton’s words about inclusion and belonging: To belong, you have to be missed. There’s something really, really important about that. People need to long for you, to want you to be there. When you’re not there, they should go looking for you.
Perhaps you have read Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability, or watched her TED talk. In short, she says that what keeps us from connecting with one another is the fear that we are not worthy of the connection, that somehow if you knew who I really was, you would not want to be my friend.
She says that what makes people able to connect with others is the courage to be imperfect (i.e. let others wash my feet), and the compassion to be kind to themselves and to others. She says that people who are able to connect are people who embrace their vulnerability. They believe that that which makes them vulnerable also makes them beautiful. They are people who are willing to say ‘I love you’ first, who act without guarantees, who call the doctor after the cancer test, and invest in relationships that may or may not work out.
Now Jesus was no social scientist. What he did and said was not based on research but on being human and on knowing his disciples, on loving them to the end, loving them completely, without reservation, even Peter who did not think he was worthy; even Judas for that matter.
Abide with me, remain in me, belong with me, Jesus says to his disciples, in the meal, at the footwashing, in his last hours. Abiding belonging can only happen if we allow Jesus to come close to us, and if we allow Jesus to come close, then what’s there to fear.
Abiding, remaining, and belonging reveal the life of the Trinity, of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Later Jesus prays for his friends, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
Abiding, remaining, belonging are the life of the church, the life of the Christian community. This is the place where we can live without shame because we are loved and forgiven. It is the place where we are not just included, or tolerated but where we belong and are loved because the love of God is revealed to us in the breaking of the bread, the washing of feet, and the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus asks us to show this love for one another, which means that faith is in fact a practise, is a social practise.