I’m in New Haven for the weekend, preaching through the Holy Week liturgies at Christ Church. Margaret and I have a special love for this congregation, so when Fr. Cobb invited me up to preach, I didn’t hesitate a second; we love to spend these sacred days at this church that’s meant so much for so long.
I’m still working on the Easter Day sermon, so I can’t take time to post everything I’d like to say about the sermons. That’s just as well, since my self-critical restlessness would impel me to want to point out all the loose ends, the inexact locutions that retrospect makes seem to prominent. Instead, without further ado, I’ll post yesterday evening’s sermon here, and this afternoon’s in the post above.
Ex 12:1-14a/Ps 78:14-20, 23-25/1 Cor 11:23-26(27-32)/John 13 1:1-15
March 20, 2008
Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
In the name of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — Amen.
It is Thursday evening, at about 7:00, the Day of the Preparation, a day of remembrance for us. In seventeen hours, Jesus will die. As John’s Gospel reminds us, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world. Tonight’s lesson confronts Jesus with a deadline as stark and ominous as any popular-media countdown, from James Bond thrillers to basketball buzzers to “24”; the hero has only a short interval left in which to resolve some complex challenge before the clock runs out. Tonight, the clock is running out on Jesus; tonight we come to dine at the table of a dying man.
With so little time remaining for us, I thank you especially for inviting me to spend these holy days praying with Jesus, praying along with you. Every visit to Christ Church stirs my heart with the joy of sharing the life of this lovely congregation, of recalling saints among whom I served, but whom we see no more; of the saints who preceded us all, who built this church as a beacon of glorious praise. As the clock ticks, as time runs on toward death, this congregation welcomes dying love; these walls offer an exquisite hospice for mortal devotion.
On a night such as this, with time running out, it’s harder than ever to distract ourselves from the life and death stakes of every moment. St John reminds us that Jesus knows that his hour has come, and we know too, and we wait, clinging to life, clinging to an imitation of life that sells itself as the genuine article.
So to help us overcome our misguided clinging, Jesus has one last lesson for us; knowing that his hour has come to die, he teaches us how to live. He gathers his friends this evening to share one last meal, one last hour of comfortable togetherness before death exercises its power to take Jesus from us. Among Death’s powers, this may terrify us most deeply: that death can appall us with utter alone-ness, with ultimate isolation. Death’s visible effects threaten to tear us away from every friend, every familiar sight, every comforting sensation, and encyst us forever in a gloomy, silent, solitary crypt — sealed, as the hymn teaches us, in a stone-cold tomb. Tonight, Death clenches its brutal fist and raises its grim hand against Jesus — so from the valley of the shadow of Death, Jesus gathers us tonight to protect us, to feed us, to remind us how our lives may defeat death.
As the watchman’s boots clatter in the alley below, Jesus brings us together and explains to us a new expression of God’s great commandment. “Love one another, just as I have loved you.” But he does not simply lecture at us, he is no mere preacher; Jesus does not instruct us to love after he has already shared with his friends the bread of life and cup of salvation. Jesus does not instruct us to love until he has first washed our feet.
Often enough, preachers will tell us that foot-washing is symbolic. It symbolizes humility, it symbolizes gentle care, it symbolizes out-reaching service to the least of Jesus’ brethren. Well, I suppose perhaps so, in a symbolical sort of way. Yet we cannot afford to lose our sense that this footwashing is quite real, is realer than a symbol, is realer than a fact, is realer than the power of death that Jesus confronts tonight. As terror and bully brutality loom just hours from unleashing their full power against Jesus, he organizes his followers for their last stand: he washes their feet, and wrenches them free from death’s nightmare. He washes their feet, and triumphs.
In that footwashing, Jesus offers to cleanse us from the illusions of mortality. We are cleansed, not of our bodily nature, but of the similitude of true life that temporal concerns substitute for a life that endures to eternity. Our willingness to receive footwashing — and our willingness to wash another’s feet — unite us with one another in an intimacy and mutuality that betoken the unity Jesus mandates that we perpetuate and amplify. “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
In a communion defined by mutual footwashing, the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect. Daring submissively to wash our neighbor’s feet, no matter how grimy, no matter how foul, no matter how hostile their owner, no matter how much holier or wiser or righter or no matter how much humbler! we are, we wash our neighbor’s feet and interlock their lives with ours. We receive our share with Jesus in a sharing that is not a matter of justice or fairness, but of loving concern for another’s solace.
As such, footwashing is necessarily quite real. Footwashing draws us out of self-involvement into tangible, sensual contact with one another. Fingers weave between toes, water splashes your legs and my sleeves, you tickle and I smile. In this scene, Jesus touches his friends with an intimacy the like of which he has not shown on any other occasion. He touches our sensitive flesh; he gazes into the naked heart of our fear, with the candor of a valet who may look on the master’s nakedness. And we, receiving his command, look into each other’s fears, shames, scars, without flinching. Tonight, the Head washes the feet.
Jesus’ footwashing thus can’t be, mustn’t be limited to a symbolic gesture. The gentle grace that draws aside the shabby shield of our suits, our gowns, our fashionable sheaths, and touches us where we are most naked — God’s utterly intimate grace is unreal if it is not utterly real, as real as amputated stumps, as gnarled toes and calloused soles. God’s grace serves us, not as formal provision for unconnected monads, not as social service legislation or policy or polity; God’s grace knits our lives intimately into communion with others, with unchosen and even unwelcome others, and in allotting to each a share with Christ, God’s grace gives us life, the real thing, the full and abundant life that endures when the imitation of life wears out and yields its dust and ashes to the earth from which we were made.
Those ashes and dust do not mark our end — we are marked as dust and ashes from the moment of our quickening. But, ah! what dust and ashes — beloved of God, redeemed by Jesus’ friendship, our dust and our ashes share in heavenly grace. We share in the rich, pungent, intoxicating blessings of creation, and our dust and ashes stretch outward into our destiny as spiritual bodies while we share those blessings among our partners in the Body of Christ. We are dying, our time is running out minute by minute; but tonight Jesus reminds us how to live, how to endure, how to flourish, by offering his very flesh and blood on behalf of the friends whom he gathered in a radiant fellowship. The night is gloomy; the candle sputters out; love’s poignant sustenance shivers with fear-flecked glory; and Jesus Christ gets up, ties a towel around his waist, and kneels before us to wash our feet.
With only what? sixteen hours, forty-five minutes remaining to him? With the soldiers’ footsteps clattering past in the street, with the betrayer squirming for his opportunity, Jesus takes up a towel and basin and marks us as his friends, who share his ministry and his destiny. Between now and tomorrow’s darkness at noon, he will be stricken; we will be stricken; but between now and the hour when we come to that departure, we have a command to take up. The work of love that Jesus began among us, that he taught us to continue, that he sealed in footwashing, falters if we imagine an indefinite horizon of robust mortality. If we set aside our obligation to love our enemies, to wash their feet, as we decline fully to dwell in our share of Jesus’ unity, we partake instead of Caiaphas’s reasoning. It is more expedient for one man to die, than that the rest of us should suffer.
Tonight, as the sand runs out, as the officers receive their arrest orders, Jesus does not scold or threaten us. Having loved his own who are in the world, he loves us to the end; he takes a towel and a basin, and washes away the grime of complacency, the rank odor of compromise. He touches us, intimately, and he gives us a last command, that we do as he has done for us: love one another and wash one another; that we hang onto each other, abide with each other; and in our unity with sisters and brothers, that we live, that we share with Christ and with all his children in the abundant life he promises us.
As the candle blinks, as the guard nods and dozes, as the the Romans and the crowds and the clueless disciples and the edgy religious professionals fumble and blunder; as poor Judas — God bless him — and dull Peter and doubting Thomas darken counsel by words without knowledge; as darkness steals in to hide the light, Jesus prevails, light prevails, we prevail as we open our hearts to one another, as we feed one another, as we wash each other’s feet. For he has set us an example, that we also should do as he has done to us.
It is Thursday evening, at about 7:30, the Day of the Preparation. In sixteen and a half hours, Jesus will die; his hour had come to depart from this world. Tonight, the clock is running out on Jesus; tonight we come to dine at the table of a dying man, and we receive his promise that he will never be parted from us, nor we from him.