Holy Week Maundy Thursday Sermon

09 April 2009 19:30 Eucharist

I want to begin tonight with a confession. Until very recently I believed it was wrong for us not to have the foot-washing here at St Mary's on Maundy Thursday. But the more I studied the passage for our gospel tonight, the more convinced I became that I was wrong! I now believe that to have the foot-washing would be quite wrong, because it cannot represent in our context what it meant in the culture in which Jesus lived., or have the impact now that it had then.
And make no mistake, what Jesus did had impact that night! Why else did Peter refuse in almost scandalised tones to allow Jesus to wash his feet? Peter is often depicted as getting things spectacularly wrong, but on this occasion his social antennae were working perfectly! For in the culture of Jesus' time the action he did lies, as David Catchpole observed, somewhere along the spectrum between the inappropriate and the intolerable! Washing feet was the task normally of a servant and the lowest one at that; the only exception was that a wife might wash her husband's feet because they were "one body. But it was a "no no" for a master to wash anyone's feet. What Jesus did was an act that turned all proper social conventions on their head. It was scandalous!
It was Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury who once mordantly observed that we all want to be known as servants now! But being known as a servant is not the same as being a servant! And part of what Christ was calling his disciples to be that evening was just that - servants!
"So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought also to wash one another's feet."
Jesus had given them a pattern to imitate - but not necessarily by doing what he had done.
And as I said just now, what he did was a scandalous act - an act of exemplary self-humiliation in which the Master becomes the servant. It is that pattern of self-humiliation that they are being asked to imitate in their relationships with each other. [And we might perhaps in this context remind ourselves that, according to Luke's account of the Last Supper, the disciples were still arguing among themselves in the Upper Room about which of them was the greatest! There was clearly a need for such a lesson].
And if the first disciples of Jesus did invest in status and personal gain in their commitment to follow Jesus (Remember James & John asking for the places on Jesus' right and his left) they were not alone in that. Many who followed them did the same. It was perhaps inevitable that over time the Church should take on the character of a pyramid - develop a hierarchy. Institutions of all kinds do that. And a church that is Episcopal is very likely to do this more than others - bishops can be VERY conscious of their status!. Though I believe that in other churches their bishop-equivalents can all too easily become just as conscious of their specialness as any bishop!
We all want to be known as servants now. But do we want to be servants?
Are we prepared to signal our willingness to share the self-humiliation of Jesus by acts that carry a similar message in our society to that which his act of foot-washing carried in his? For that is what I believe the "cash value" of the foot-washing to be. But for bishops and priests to gird themselves solemnly with towels on Maundy Thursday and wash the (previously well washed!) feet of 12 symbolic people is not an act that comes within a million miles of imitating the self-humiliation of Jesus. Apart from congregational reticence to take part in such an event, it to my mind trivialises the message that, through the foot-washing, Jesus was trying to impart! If we are to act out the injunction of Jesus to "wash one another's feet", we must do so by acts that speak in our culture of self-humiliation, of a quite scandalous role-reversal - foot-washing does not now carry that message! If done, it risks being either embarrassing or ridiculous! So what might act out what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples?
Maybe by taking a look first of all at the way we present ourselves to others and the whole question of status. I always find the Diocesan Prayer Cycle a fascinating document; its entries say so much - both deliberately and unwittingly - about the self-perception of those compiling the entries. I am always struck by one entry, for one of the Team Ministries in the northern half of the Diocese, which is, I think unique, in listing Team members (lay as well as clerical) not hierarchically but alphabetically by name - so a lay Local Ministry Team member's name can (and usually does!) stand well above that of the Team Rector. I do not know enough about the life of that Team to know if that is just window dressing or not - but knowing the Team Rector a little, I would imagine it isn't entirely. Since the foot-washing and its message were addressed to those who would be leaders of the Early Church, beginning with the question of the status of the leaders of any Christian community vis a vis the other members of that community (and of Christian leaders vis--vis each other) might be a good place to start. So the status of bishops vis a vis the Clergy and of clergy vis a vis the laity. It was St Augustine who said to his people of Hippo when he came to be their Bishop:
For you I am a bishop
With you I am a Christian.
God forbid that anyone who is involved in Christian leadership ever forgets the message implicit in those words of Augustine and in the example given to us in the quite scandalous action of Christ in washing his disciples' feet. Do we, by the way we act as well as the way we speak, show that we see ourselves to be the humble servants of others?
We all want to be known as servants now. But do we want to be servants?
But it is not just Christian leaders who need to take heed to the command of Jesus. When I was in Saxby we had, one year, a united study course for Lent with the Limber group - and on one occasion when we were talking about the life of parishes Paddy Phillips observed: "Most parishes in my experience are often a seething mass of grievances under the surface." All too often there are resentments, jealousies, spats. And often about the most trivial things. When I was at Harrowby in Grantham I dreaded the annual Christmas Fair above all other things - for I knew we would, as sure as God made little apples, have at least two nuclear explosions, usually one of them being about why someone had been given a better site for their stall than someone else. And Vicars need to tread on eggshells sometimes in asking folk to do things! Once someone moved to another church because I had asked another person to organise refreshments for a small Church event! People can be very quick to defend the particular niche in Church life that they see as their own.
In all of this I must emphasise that I speak to no one in particular - and to everyone in general!
Jesus washed his disciples' feet - and gave them an example of self-humiliation, turning status on its head. He showed them what it must mean to be a follower of his. And showed us as well. And so I invite you to reflect now and in the silence later - maybe as you share in the watch until midnight - on that action of Jesus in washing the feet of his disciples... all of them, including Judas Iscariot!
We all want to be known as servants now. But do we want to be servants?

Rev. Gordon Plumb (web page by Adrian Worsfold)