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.


Unknown said...

Dear Barnaby: this is good and necessary, but I am left wondering, is this all there is? Clearly you have an excellent subtext, but I feel there should heve been a wider view. Or deeper. Should the text have been less sub? I am studying Ps.118 at present, and have got used to the extraordinary. But John 13 is also extraordinary!!

Barnaby Perkins said...

There is plenty more to say about John 13! It's just that there is a limit to what you can preach in 10 minutes at 8.30 on a Thursday night. I thought it was better to have one clear thought (or two in this instance) to help the weary righteous open themselves to God's grace. So yes, I agree that there is more to say, and deeper things to say. But disagree with you that this sermon was necessarily the place to say it.

Unknown said...

Clarity is itself a virtue, and memorability its own virtue. And print is a different medium from the spoken word. So I'm happy to acknowledge a misjudgement here ... Not that I was judging - more like mentally turning things over. I love the George Herbert, thank you.

Barnaby Perkins said...

Thanks Chris - I didn't take it as judgement. I have these kind of conversations with myself all the time. I have the problem of trying to make a sermon do too much, and ending up with a sermon that does very little particularly well. I regularly have to pull my self back from this. Thanks for mentioning the Herbert. It is beautiful, isn't it? It has been accompanying me the last week or so. Really great to see you on Sunday morning, by the way.