Maundy Thursday 2014
As we have followed Jesus through Holy Week, we have been encouraged not to act as spectators but to participate. But participation requires that we see clearly what Jesus is doing.
At Compline, following the theme of ‘Light and Life’ we have taken time to ask ‘Do we See?’ – truly do we Behold the Lamb of God, slain from before the foundation of the world? For to the World the Cross towards which Jesus walks is a place of Darkness, Human hatred and Death – yet for us who believe it is the Wisdom and the Power of God. To truly See the Cross is to behold the Glory of God.
So much contemporary theology seeks to make the Cross all about us. That somehow on the Cross, Jesus is participating in the suffering which is the commonplace of all of our lives. But this is not the view of the Scriptures, nor indeed until very lately has it been the view of the people of Jesus. Rather the Cross is entirely about the Glory of God. As we considered on Palm Sunday, God vindicates those who serve Him, by making them the place where His Glory is revealed. So in Jesus, the servant of the Lord, and Him Crucified, God reveals his Glory.
But, do we See it? Certainly the disciples were at best unclear. There were to be sure moments of illumination, but weeks and months of wandering in the dark. Do we Behold the Glory of God in this gospel of Jesus washing his disciples feet?
Our gospel reading from John, the traditional reading for this evening, has an interesting parallel in Luke. In Luke, the Lord’s supper is the occasion of the disciples arguing over ‘which one was to be regarded as the greatest’. Luke describes what happens next ‘Jesus said to them ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.’ Listen carefully to those words again – ‘the Kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.’. How similar this is to our way of seeing things. Even in the Church . . .
One of the churches in my care in England was very old and up on one of the walls, amongst many plaques was one listing the church’s ‘benefactors’. Those who had given significant monies to the church. We know how much the powerful like their largesse to be recognised, plaques here and there setting out the contributions the powerful make – but it seems it is so in the church also. Benefactors. We know who they are, everyone does. They are prominent members of society and often churches . . . but what was the name of the widow?
The widow?? Yes the widow. The one who put her last two pennies in the treasury of the Temple? Benefactors who put in out of their abundance, receiving human glory – but giving and receiving far far less than the one who out of her poverty puts in everything she has. She will not be lauded with special celebrations, or a plaque. The world has forgotten her.
And perhaps Peter sees where all this servant stuff is leading. There is no opportunity for ‘acts of service’, for which we might receive a reward, or indeed take a break. ‘I am among you as one who serves’ ‘As one who serves’. Not ‘I am doing these acts of service’, no ‘I am As one who serves. The Benefactor ‘does their bit’, puts in their hours, and retires in the warm glow of admiration and respect. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, they have received their reward, the glory from human beings. No doubt many will appear at their funeral and bear handsome witness to their lives. Unlike the widow. And unlike Jesus who as The Servant goes to a criminals death.
Jesus IS a servant. It is his very being. It is his Existence – One who serves. It is no act, it is not ‘for the moment’, His Life is service and so he washes the feet of his disciples, not to make a teaching point, but because he is revealing his Glory to them. He is showing them ahead of the Cross Who he is, the one who lives by laying down his life – he is The Human. The Second Adam. Revealing what it really means to Live – his Life like streams of living water, Giving Life. Serving All.
‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.
The Benefactor performs an act – then returns to life as it was. The Servant is one who has no life of their own – their Life is at the disposal of those whom they serve. The Benefactor uses their freedom to serve whom they want, to live the life they want. The Servant gives up all freedom and acts purely out of obedience to the one who has sent Him to Serve.
‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”
Jesus exemplifies this. Washing the feet of his disciples was no mere Act – it was Jesus revealing who he was.
This is the offense of Jesus. We want Jesus to be up there – reinforcing our sense of that pile which we spend our lives trying to climb – moving up the ladder – advancing our lives. Turning his commands to lay down our lives for the brethren into opportunities of choice – to make something of our lives – And Jesus, The Human, empties himself, becoming Obedient – submitting Himself. ‘You will never wash my feet!!’ But if I do not wash your feet, you have no part with me . . . and if I do wash your feet, then you must live in the same way, for I am your Lord and teacher.
Earlier this evening we washed one anothers’ feet. I must admit I am never too sure of this as a practise – is it an outworking of our shared life – or is it pure act? Do we rise from the floor to assume our usual position in the pecking order, or does it change everything?
If the True Human loses everything – lays aside any sense of entitlement – to Be The Servant. Then everything is upside down. The wealthy will have their plaques and elegant soirees in honour of what the world calls generosity – but God is Glorified in a nameless widow and her two pennies, who follows the one who made himself Nothing. Ultimately Glorified in the one who in the words of St Paul, made himself . . . Nothing, that God might be all in all. After All, where is the glorification of God in those plaques, in those elegant funeral eulogies [sic]
What Do we See in Jesus? A Benefactor? Someone who ‘went about doing good’?
Or one who ‘made himself Nothing. Friederich Nietzche, the prophet and spokesman for the age in which we live utterly despised Jesus – all he could see was nothingness. For him it was obvious that man should be glorified – and that we should live lives that sought that glory – He was blind to the glorified Man who set aside everything to serve.
our final reading from Compline came from John Chapter 12
Although Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him. This was to fulfil the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah:
‘Lord, who has believed our message,
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’
And so they could not believe, because Isaiah also said,
‘He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their heart,
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.’
Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him. Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.
Human glory is on offer all around, Benefactors are glorified – Glory which can be bought and which finally rusts. The Glory of God is invisible to the world – yet nothing can take it away.
‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader must become like one who serves.
To all who believe in his name, he gave the right to become . . .
Benefactors? Or servants?
What do we Love? Human glory, or the Glory that comes from God?
The Cross – with its shame, its emptiness and nothingness – the Glory of God
What do we See? What are we looking for?