Thursday, April 2, 2015

Humble Service

A Sermon preached on April 2nd, Maundy Thursday, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Exodus 12:1-14, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Immediately following my sermon we will have the ceremony of the washing of the feet – just as we heard about in the Gospel reading. But if any of you would like to have a full body washing as Peter asked for, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" (John 13:9) there will be a separate station outside, right next to the big bucket of water ….. But seriously:

This evening we heard three institution narratives – they are called that because they tell us how and why a religious ceremony that is carried on today was instituted. First we heard about the institution of the Passover meal, and in this section all about the proper preparation of the Passover lamb, and how the Israelites are commanded by God to keep Passover as a day of remembrance and celebration of the physical liberation of the Israelites from Egypt.
Then, in his 1st letter to the Corinthians, Paul describes the institution of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper to use some of the names it is given. This is the transformation, for Christians, of the Passover into a regular remembrance of the New Covenant. Like the one in Exodus it is a covenant of rescue or salvation – mostly from what we do to one another – and of forgiveness for our sins – again mainly for what we do to one another and thereby indirectly to God. This Covenant is marked and sealed not just by the bread and wine that Jesus took, broke, and gave, but by his death the following day – when he, the Paschal Lamb, gave his body and it was taken and broken. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes,” Paul tells the Corinthians. And that is what we do at whenever we celebrate the Eucharist. 

Finally in John’s Gospel we have the institution of the ceremony of foot washing. But wait, where did that come from? Why didn’t we read one of the Gospel passages about the Last Supper? Well we did, because it was “during supper that Jesus … got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.” (13:3) But it’s true that John doesn’t focus on the meal as such and does not provide an explicit Communion institution in his Gospel – for a number of reasons.

For one thing, by the time of writing his Gospel there was no real need. The weekly, communal, ritual meal was already well established in Christian communities. That’s why elements of the Communion meal permeate the whole Gospel. Wine, water, and bread all play a role in Jesus’ ministry and teaching. Jesus’ first sign or miracle has to do with wine at the wedding in Cana, it was the first revelation of his glory. (John 2) When Jesus meets the Samaritan Woman at the Well he refers to himself as the water of life. And finally the words Jesus has to say right after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, sound very like his words in the Last Supper narrative of the other Gospels: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’” (John 6:51) 

But the main reason why John focused less on the meal and more on the act of foot washing was because John was having a similar problem with his Christian community as Paul was having with the Corinthians, and as every Christian community has, including this one. We are very good at talking about love, but not always as good at practicing it. 

Paul’s reaction to this problem is to emphasize the real meaning of the meal – as a sign of love, of equality before God and in Christ, and of the need for loving, humble service. This was something the Corinthians had not been doing, as the richer members were eating well and separately before meeting the poorer ones. So in the verses immediately following the passage we heard, Paul warns the Corinthians that if they “eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner,” (1 Corinthians 11:27) that is without real love for one another, they are not celebrating the Eucharist Christ instituted and instead are eating and drinking judgment against themselves. (11:29) 

John’s solution to the lack of love, of equality before God and in Christ, and of loving, humble service in the group he lead and taught is to put the story of the foot-washing at the center of the his version of the Last Supper. It was very common for a host to have the feet of his guests – which will have been dry and dusty – washed, but normally by a slave. In Luke’s Gospel we hear how Jesus criticizes Simon the Pharisee for neglecting this sign of hospitality. Jesus tells Simon: “I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.” (Luke 7:44) In this evening’s Gospel reading it is Jesus who slips into the role of a slave to wash his friends’ feet. And he makes very clear to his disciples that this is an act to follow: “For I have set you an example; that you also should do as I have done to you.” (13:15)

Jesus’ action is symbolic of his coming sacrifice and of the love he embodies. He is proclaiming by doing. No one is greater, no one is above loving service, not even our Teacher and Lord. Jesus sums up this teaching, the teaching of the act of foot washing, in the new commandment he introduces: “That you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (13:34) This is a command not just to love your own group or clique, and certainly not just those you agree with. It is the command to love each and every one. Christian love is always about the other, never about self, and Christian love overflows into service as its natural form. 

Lent is almost over, so I can’t call on you to take on a Lenten discipline: so take on an Easter one instead. We have many opportunities here at St. Augustine’s to practice love, to demonstrate our equality before God, and in Christ, and to show loving, humble service. We must practice it with one another and we can always use more volunteers in our hands-on outreach ministries – with the residents of the Hildastift long-term care home, serving breakfasts to the homeless at the Teestube or I hope soon working with refugees. Then, in Jesus’ words: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (13:35)

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