Guildford Cathedral, Maundy Thursday 2018
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
It would have been a lot more impressive if I’d done it while negotiating a particularly tricky ski slope. It would have been more impressive still if I’d done it whilst running into a burning house and rescuing a trapped child from the flames. But when I explained to the doctor that I was unable to move because of an accident on a building site—that is, that I’d pulled something while building sandcastles on a North Devon beach—I felt the sympathy drain from his face. And yet there I was, lying on my back and effectively paralysed: at least, I could move, I suppose, but to do so was excruciatingly painful.
And our Gospel reading this morning has something of that sense of paralysis about it: for here they were, Jesus and his disciples, sitting down to the Passover feast in accordance with the regulations in Exodus chapter 12; here they were, after a long journey from Galilee, during which Jesus had seemed tense and preoccupied, and the disciples had behaved badly, choosing the worst of moments to argue about where each was placed in some notional Discipleship League Table; and now there was no-one willing to wash the Palestinian dust from off their feet.
On a better day one of the disciples might have offered to do it; but certainly not after all that squabbling, with James and John in particular giving themselves such airs and graces. And as so often when pride and competitiveness kick in, the result was stalemate, paralysis: the stalemate of many a marriage, where there’s been a row and no-one is willing to break the ice with a quiet ‘”I’m so sorry”; the stalemate of many a church where factions have developed, along with a surprisingly vicious dispute within the flower team, and no-one is prepared to back down or seek a sensible compromise; the stalemate when two cars meet each other on a narrow lane in the Surrey Hills, with neither driver willing to give way and let the other past. In that Upper Room someone could have moved, of course: but to do so would have been excruciatingly painful.
So Jesus moved. He took off his outer clothing—the Greek word literally means he ‘laid aside’ his cloak, and is the same term used of the Good Shepherd who ‘lays aside’ his life for the sheep. Then he poured water into a basin, and calmly started washing his disciples’ feet: the feet of James and John, who’d been so concerned about their position in the pecking order; the feet of Judas Iscariot, who was plotting to betray him; the feet of Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James, Thaddaeus and Simon the Zealot, who would shortly be running for their lives; the feet of Simon Peter, who would buck the trend by following Jesus, but then deny him in the courtyard of Caiaphas the High Priest.
In normal circumstances, the slave washing their feet would have been completely invisible to them; he wouldn’t have been thanked, recognised, applauded, even noticed: the conversation would have gone on above his head. But on this occasion, I guess, every eye was on Jesus—every uncomfortable, embarrassed face was turned towards him. For here were men learning a lesson in humility, a lesson they would never forget. Here were men learning that humility is not weakness—it is rather strength, the strength of those who don’t have to stand on their dignity, who don’t have to worry about their reputation, who don’t have to nurse their fragile egos, because theirs is a calm, inner security that gets them moving, that sets them free.
Simon Peter was the one to find that most difficult, as someone who instinctively liked to ‘stand on his own two feet’. He comes across as deeply awkward in this story, neither wanting Jesus to wash his feet, nor offering to do the same for others. It was only Jesus’ quiet rebuke that set Peter off on the right track, after a typical piece of attention-seeking bravado, ‘Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!’ An older, wiser Peter was later to write to the Christian communities in modern-day Turkey, ‘And you, all of you, clothe yourselves with humility towards one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble”’. And where did he get that from? Ah yes—from that evening in the upper room.
So what it is that enabled Jesus to move when no one else felt able to do so? Indeed what kept Jesus moving, as he subsequently took bread and wine—‘This is my body. This is my blood’; as he strode off into the Garden of Gethsemane; and as he embraced all the horrors of the following day, which were excruciating indeed? Jesus’ actions were motivated first and foremost by love: ‘Having loved his own who were in the world’, writes John, ‘he loved them to the end’. Jesus’ actions were motivated too by a deep inner security: ‘Jesus’, continues John, ‘knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God… laid aside his outer robe and tied a towel around himself’. And in all this, Jesus the teacher, Jesus the role model, was never far away: ‘If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet’.
They’re important insights, as deacons, priests, bishops and all the baptised renew our commitment to follow Christ this morning: because the starting-point for all grace-filled discipleship and ministry is a willingness to be loved, settled and ministered to by Jesus our Lord. It is Jesus’ love for you, it is Jesus’ belief in you, it is Jesus’ calling of you, it is Jesus’ anointing you with water and the Spirit; it is these deep truths that should be foundational to your very sense of self as a human being, a child of God, a minister within Christ’s Church. And where we start to lose touch with such deep truths, as it’s all too easy to do—where we start ministering from our own needs, from a place of personal insecurity, seeking to put our roots down wherever we can find human affirmation, rather than abiding in the steadfast love of Jesus—it is not long before our movements become constrained and paralysis starts to set in.
So receive the life-giving Word of God to you this morning. Receive the nourishing bread and wine of the Eucharist. Receive anointing for healing in the Regimental Chapel if you would value that. Receive a fresh touch of the Spirit of God. Christian ministry is a wonderful thing, the very best job in the world—but it can also be hard, perplexing, dispiriting, exhausting; and for some of you, I know, the challenges right now considerably outweigh the joys. Yet the Lord is here, God’s Spirit is with us; and whatever the dust and dirt, the wrinkles and bunions, your feet are precious in his sight: as the prophet Isaiah nearly put it, but didn’t quite, ‘How beautiful [upon the Surrey hills] are the feet of the messenger who proclaims peace, who brings Good News, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’
We are ministered to—and now, having been released from the growing paralysis induced by our self-centeredness and fragile egos, we are called to minister to others, pledging ourselves afresh—as we will shortly be doing - to serve the Lord with faith, humility and joy; to continue in the way of Christ and wash the feet of others; to become more like the Good Shepherd, the Teacher and Servant of all—‘by the help of God’, of course, without whom the whole enterprise is manifestly a lost cause.
There’s a particular national challenge for us, too, should we choose to accept it: what is called the ‘Great Vocations Conversation’, which is being launched here in Guildford Cathedral this morning. Because the Jesus who washed his disciples’ feet, then encouraged them to wash the feet of others, was constantly investing in the men and women around him - in the likes of Peter and Andrew, James and John, Mary Magdalene and foot-anointing Mary of Bethany—not just playing his own part in the Kingdom of God, but enabling them to play their part too. And that remains our calling as Christian ministers: which is why the Great Vocations Conversation is encouraging all of us—lay and ordained alike—to ‘have at least one conversation about vocation each month, with someone different from you’. Do pick up one of these booklets at the end of the service to find out more.
Jesus washes our feet. We wash the feet of others, and encourage them to become foot-washers, disciple-makers, in their turn. It sounds like a recipe for multiplication, for growth and fruitfulness, even—dare we say it—for success. But how should we respond if that cheerful image is far from our experience? What happens if we find ourselves leading a Christian community that seems largely paralysed, stuck: a church where there’s little sense of God’s transforming presence in people’s lives; where there are few baptisms, and we’ve not seen a Christian convert for years; where all this talk of vocation seems a million miles away—indeed, it’s hard to get anyone to do anything?
Well, there’s one final element to this service, which is deeply significant - what is called the ‘Blessing of Oils’. Because when things get stuck—whether it’s human bodies on a North Devon beach, or cars or bicycle chains, hinges or padlocks—it’s remarkable how oils of different kinds can free them up.
Our oils this morning powerfully symbolise that liberating work of God’s Spirit in the life of His people: the oil for the anointing of the sick and dying, which helps bring God’s transforming presence into apparently immovable situations; the oil of baptism, which seals the work of God in the life of new believers; the oil of chrism which speaks of being freed up and anointed for Christian service. And there’s nothing magical here, of course, but the combination of love and prayer and faith and a liberal sprinkling of oil has proved remarkably effective in my experience when it comes to moving situations on, to breaking through the paralysis—hence, I suspect the frequent references to oil in the Old Testament and the New, typically in the context of healing, anointing, and the presence and power of the Spirit of God.
And so to a closing prayer: and as today we reflect on water and oil, on bread and wine, on the power of Jesus our loving, humble Lord and Teacher to break through the stalemates in our lives and communities - even the biggest stalemate of all, humanity’s estrangement from God our heavenly Father - let’s pray this prayer on our own behalf and on behalf of our Christian communities across the diocese.
Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in endless praise.
Take my hands and let them move
At the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet and let them be
Swift and beautiful for Thee.