Sunday, March 31, 2013


                                            Rise heart;  thy Lord is risen.  Sing his praise
                                                                                  Without delays,
                                            Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
                                                                                  With him mayst rise:
                                            That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
                                            His life may make thee gold, and much more just.

                                            Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
                                                                                  With all thy art.
                                            The cross taught all wood to resound his name
                                                                                  Who bore the same.
                                            His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
                                            Is best to celebrate this most high day.

                                            Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
                                                                                  Pleasant and long:
                                            Or since all music is but three parts vied,
                                                                                  And multiplied;
                                            O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
                                            And make up our defects with his sweet art.

                                             I got me flowers to straw thy way;
                                             I got me boughs off many a tree:
                                             But thou wast up by break of day,
                                             And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

                                            The Sun arising in the East,
                                            Though he give light, and th’ East perfume;
                                            If they should offer to contest
                                            With thy arising, they presume.

                                            Can there be any day but this,
                                            Though many suns to shine endeavour ?
                                            We count three hundred, but we miss:
                                            There is but one, and that one ever.
George Herbert

Friday, March 29, 2013

Pedicures and the grace of God – John 13.1–35

Maundy, as I’m sure you’ve all heard before, came into the English language from the Latin word Mandatum which means 'commandment'. It is associated with this particular day because of the gospel reading we heard a moment ago, and that some words from it were traditionally sung as people’s feet were being washed – “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Jesus’ words haunt Christianity – the Christian community is to be characterised by a quality of love which is genuinely unique. But which of us, in our experience of the community which Jesus founded, the church, wouldn’t feel some hesitation in describing it with that daunting, four letter word, love? We know that the church ought to be a loving place, but love often seems to elude us.
I have to confess that the rite of foot washing is not one of my favorite rituals. Deep down, I’m rather glad that the medieval church hesitated from making it a sacrament. And I was even more glad when I discovered that it would be bishop Ian and not me presiding this evening! It’s true, that the foot as a symbol of filthiness is not as redolent as it once was. In ancient times, when people wore open sandals and walked on dusty streets,  feet would have been truly filthy. But socks and shoes and daily showers make feet less unpleasant than they once were. But even so, the thought of washing someones feet makes you think… what if their athletes foot is flaring up? What if they have a verruca, or some other unpleasantness on their feet? There are good reasons why, in the ordinary run of things, we don’t go round fondling each others feet, because whilst it is less unpleasant than it used to be, it is still unpleasant.

Which is why foot washing is a good symbol of love. Love is hard. Genuine love costs. Love is most truly shown in our willingness to do the really horrible things. We can understand this by analogy with our own experience of romantic love. In Louis de Bernières’ novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Dr Iannis finds out about love affair his daughter, Pelegia, has been having with an Itallian Army Captian, Corelli. She tells her father that she and Corelli are in love, and Dr Iannis shares his wisdom with her:
“Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion… Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away… your roots grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom has fallen from your branches you find that you are one tree and not two.”
Love is what is left over when all of the euphoria and beauty of your first encounter dissipates and all that's left is the hard work of forgiveness, service and care. So to wrap a towel around your waist and wash feet, enacts love when love is hard.

But as hard as it is to genuinely love one another and serve one another in the way envisaged by Jesus, as easy as it is to be put off by people’s corns and unpleasant toenails, I don’t think it is the hardest thing Jesus asks us to do. Because it is possible to motivate ourselves to wash each others feet, to do the really horrible things, out of a misplaced sense of heroism, or devotion to our christian duty. We feel that this is simply what Christians ought to do, and so we put a peg on our noses and do it.

But in Jesus teaching to his disciples, there is something still harder… letting your feet be washed. Letting yourself be served. Those of you who are having your feet washed, when you heard the news that you were in the hot seat, how did you feel? You might have wanted to get on the phone and book an emergency pedicure? I remember that on my retreat before my ordination as deacon, bishop Christopher washed my feet. I made sure I packed my special toe-nail clippers that weekend! I wanted to make sure that my feet looked suitably diaconal, feet of dignity, befitting a man about to be ordained.  It can be profoundly uncomfortable letting someone do something for you as personal as washing your feet, and we see this discomfort in the way Peter responds to Jesus. He didn’t grumble when he was told to wash other people’s feet. But when Jesus knelt down to wash him, he was indignant. “You will never wash my feet Lord”. “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me”, Jesus replies.

I think this is one of the principle difficulties we all have with God. We find God hard to relate to, not because we are sinful and we know it, but because all to often, we feel too righteous to receive God’s love as a gift. We feel too holy to receive his grace. I mean, we are the holy ones aren’t we? We’re the ones who  rock out to church on a Thursday night in March when everyone else is at home. Foot washing might be hard, but we are the kind of people can accept the burden. We’re up to the task. When I wrap a towel around my waste and wash feet with this as my motivation, I do it because I feel like I have something to offer, some contribution to make which will make the world a better place, bring light and love into the lives of others, and will prove that I am worthy of God’s love. But the truth is that we have nothing to offer, except for filthy feet. We need to receive God’s grace before we can ever hope to give it. 

But the good news is that, when Jesus takes us and washes us, he can transform our tainted offering into something truly beautiful, something by which God’s grace and mercy can touch lives, and lead them to the one who can make us clean.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Becoming Small

I've been reading Karl Bath's little commentary on Philippians – This excerpt from his comments on Philippians 2 stood out for me:
"Paul sets over against [the self assertion of the Philippians] the fact that Christ does not make any such 'noli me tangere' out of his equality with God. He has no need to, because he is sure of his being equal with God. It is for that ver reason that he can also empty himself of the 'form of God', as it is presently put. 'He was in the form of God.' The expression therefore does not denote the same as 'equality with God'. En morphe theou hyparchein means to be God in outward appearance, immediately and directly knowable as such. Christ is God like that. Nothing prevents his being so only like that, mutatis mutandis like the people of Philippi who certainly not only are what they are but would also like to be seen for what they are, each in his own right, with his own point of view, with his own value which, in order to be value, of course seeks also outward credit.
But now, says Paul, Christ does not regard his equality with God in such a way as to cling to the form of God, or be bound to it. He is so much God's equal that he does not by any means have to make of his equality with God a thing to be asserted tooth and nail—not because he could also give it up, but because his possession of it (in contrast to the best that they can possess) is beyond dispute. When we are absolutely sure of a thing, we have no need to lay hold on it in the robber-like fashion described. To the extent to which two lovers, for example, really belong to each other, they can also give themselves freely, without fear of loosing themselves. So too the Son of God certainly does not give away his equality with God, does not give it up, but he does let go of it. From now on he is equal with God in the obscurity of the form of a servant. He is in humility the highest. The robber-like bearing, the half-anxious, half-greedy graspingness, the assertiveness and vanity of those in Philippi betrays the uncertainty of their possession. Christ, being equal with God, has no need to assert himself in that or to cling to it, but can renounce the outward appearance and credit that correspond to such being, without surrendering the being itself—indeed, in order precisely thereby (vv. 9 ff.) to bring it into credit."
(Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Philippians, 62–63)