Holy Week: What To Do When You Can’t Wash Feet

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Maundy Thursday is a time of rituals. The name derives, apparently, from the Latin mandatum, ‘commandment’, based on Jesus’s insistence that we love each other, and so today represents service and charity: we re-enact Jesus washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper, we see the Queen give out Maundy Money to deserving pensioners (although this year it’s gone out through the post thanks to COVID-19. Times are strange.).

That love was, for Jesus, a very practical thing. The Son of God picks up a towel and a bowl of water, kneels down and takes the posture of a servant as he washes the sweaty, dirty, blistered feet of his followers. Here in the UK, we’ve developed another Thursday ritual over the last couple of weeks, cheering and clapping for the NHS from our doorsteps at 8:00pm, and I can’t help but bring the two together, especially the nurses and cleaners, porters and doctors who are holding things together while being over-worked and under-paid. I have a picture of Jesus washing hands and not feet, singing ‘happy birthday’ in a hospital staff room to make sure his timings are right.

There will be a lot of people grieving the cancellation of foot-washing services today, and I understand why. There’s an intimacy to our re-enactments that many find meaningful and moving. It can break through our pride and our self-consciousness and help us to practice humility, both washers and washees. Maundy Thursday helps us re-position ourselves, and that’s a particularly stark reminder this year, when we’re realising just how much we rely on those we take for granted, grocery workers and binmen suddenly on the frontline of a terrible pandemic. So maybe this year Jesus is also stacking shelves and emptying garbage, because although our church buildings are empty tonight, there’s still work to be done, love to share, feet to wash.

See, there’s a danger in washing each others’ feet in a nice, organised service (and how many people have a shower and change their socks right before going out, just so they’re plenty clean before the pastor and his bowl gets anywhere near them?). Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, showed them love and grace, but not long after he’s sweating blood in Gethsemane and instead of praying with him, Peter and the gang are falling asleep, right when Jesus needed them.

(We also don’t read of any of the disciples then washing Jesus’s feet. Well, apart from Mary earlier, and that caused all sorts of trouble.)

It’s easy to be a servant for an hour under controlled conditions. But we’re in the time of the Coronavirus, and conditions are anything but controlled. There are people who can’t go out to get shopping, there are those who can’t get hold of essentials because someone else decided to panic buy and start hoarding. There are people who can’t go on lockdown, key workers who have to be out there on the front line, putting themselves at risk, often without adequate PPE (and the list of medical staff who are passing away because of this is getting longer by the day). There are parents who now need to home-school, there are kids who are now trying to learn in a liminal space and time that’s beyond their experience and yet is adding to the climate change and economic chaos and political confusion that have marked recent generations. There are those at heightened risk from the virus because of inequality, poverty and lack of privilege and access.

And then there are those who have to make life and death decisions. There are those who can’t be with their loved ones in their final moments, there are families who have to choose who gets to go to the funeral and who has to mourn alone. There are those asking ultimate questions to which all our pre-prepared answers may feel trite.

And there are those who are vulnerable, the elderly, the disabled, the people who, from the beginning, have been told that they’re the ones most at risk, the ones who are spoken of almost as if they’re expendable, the ones who are left in limbo as political decisions are made in haste, the ones being asked to sign ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ forms, the ones who know that, if they catch this thing, they may well not recover. People whose feet are perfectly clean but whose hearts are breaking.

On this Maundy Thursday, the whole world is a Gethsemane. Jesus weeps alongside us, but as the Church we’re called, not necessarily to wash feet or carry out a ritual, but to embrace servanthood, justice and love. That’s not something we can be responsible for purely on an individual level – the world is big, we are small – but that’s why Church is a team sport. And in the middle of all this, I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit is with binmen and nurses and carers and delivery drivers and today, and every other day, is a day to follow His lead.

Putting the Chairs Away (a repost for Maundy Thursday): John 13:1-5

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My eldest son loves putting chairs away. Give him a church full of chairs that need stacking and he’s happy as Larry, giggling and bossing people around as he tidies up. And while I love his enthusiasm, sometimes I just want to get home for lunch, you know? I mean, surely he can leave some chairs for someone else?

And that’s when I realise that my lanky autistic 14 year old has a greater servant heart than me. Because when he gets to the end of an act of worship, he doesn’t just want to drink his cup of tea before escaping to the comfort of the living room sofa, he wants to help put things away, to collect hymn books, to wash up.

I’m reminded of this here on Maundy Thursday, when we commemorate Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. The King stoops to do the job of a servant out of grace and compassion, even though the disciples don’t understand, even though he’s washing the feet of a traitor. The power of this moment extends beyond our squeamishness and our repulsion at washing another; it reveals the heart of God and as such it isn’t a ritual, it’s a fact of life.

Some churches latch on to this, making their Maundy Thursday events an act of service. Trinity on the Green in Connecticut holds a foot washing and examination service where they provide podiatric support for homeless people who, on average, walk 8.5 miles a day. There’s something of the original power of the story reflected through this – I doubt Peter ever had a pedicure. The heart of service reflected here isn’t a mere ritual, it’s genuinely showing the love of Christ to people in dire situations, a pair of socks becoming a blessing. Maundy Thursday becomes an act of remembrance of those who are too easily forgotten. In that sense we should also be convicted.

We also remember those carers who embody this every day, when they wash a child or a parent or a spouse who can’t wash themselves, when they clean up after visits to the toilet, when they stay up all night making sure that their loved ones are safe until the morning. And this brings with it stresses and strains, but it’s done out of love, as a way of showing a loved one that they are precious and protected and cared for. And those being washed are made in the Image of God and we also remember that, even when they’re persecuted, dehumanised, neglected. Maundy Thursday is a singularity of compassion; we turn it into an annual ritual at our peril.

Last Sunday I was out preaching, and eldest was with me, and at the end of the service while I’m shaking hands, he starts collecting books and washing cups and charming old ladies just by being helpful. And he’ll never be asked to preach, he’ll never lead worship, but he’s embodying the heart of Jesus and that’s far more powerful.

Many will go to foot washing services tonight. Maybe during those services there’s an opportunity to remember those who wash and clothe others, to take our rituals and turn them into practice. And as we remember Jesus washing feet, maybe the lasting power isn’t just about remembrance and sacrament, maybe it lies in the grace of putting chairs away at the end, of doing the washing up, the grace of showing up, of a clean pair of socks.

Putting the Chairs Away (Maundy Thursday): John 13:1-5

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My eldest son loves putting chairs away. Give him a church full of chairs that need stacking and he’s happy as Larry, giggling and bossing people around as he tidies up. And while I love his enthusiasm, sometimes I just want to get home for lunch, you know? I mean, surely he can leave some chairs for someone else?

And that’s when I realise that my lanky autistic 13 year old has a greater servant heart than me. Because when he gets to the end of an act of worship, he doesn’t just want to drink his cup of tea before escaping to the comfort of the living room sofa, he wants to help put things away, to collect hymn books, to wash up.

I’m reminded of this here on Maundy Thursday, when we commemorate Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. The King stoops to do the job of a servant out of grace and compassion, even though the disciples don’t understand, even though he’s washing the feet of a traitor. The power of this moment extends beyond our squeamishness and our repulsion at washing another; it reveals the heart of God and as such it isn’t a ritual, it’s a fact of life.

Some churches latch on to this, making their Maundy Thursday events an act of service. Trinity on the Green in Connecticut holds a foot washing and examination service where they provide podiatric support for homeless people who, on average, walk 8.5 miles a day. There’s something of the original power of the story reflected through this – I doubt Peter ever had a pedicure. The heart of service reflected here isn’t a mere ritual, it’s genuinely showing the love of Christ to people in dire situations, a pair of socks becoming a blessing. Maundy Thursday becomes an act of remembrance of those who are too easily forgotten. In that sense we should also be convicted.

We also remember those carers who embody this every day, when they wash a child or a parent or a spouse who can’t wash themselves, when they clean up after visits to the toilet, when they stay up all night making sure that their loved ones are safe until the morning. And this brings with it stresses and strains, but it’s done out of love, as a way of showing a loved one that they are precious and protected and cared for. And those being washed are made in the Image of God and we also remember that, even when they’re persecuted, dehumanised, neglected. Maundy Thursday is a singularity of compassion; we turn it into an annual ritual at our peril.

Last Sunday I was out preaching, and eldest was with me, and at the end of the service while I’m shaking hands, he starts collecting books and washing cups and charming old ladies just by being helpful. And he’ll never be asked to preach, he’ll never lead worship, but he’s embodying the heart of Jesus and that’s far more powerful.

Many will go to foot washing services tonight. Maybe during those services there’s an opportunity to remember those who wash and clothe others, to take our rituals and turn them into practice. And as we remember Jesus washing feet, maybe the lasting power isn’t just about remembrance and sacrament, maybe it lies in the grace of putting chairs away at the end, of doing the washing up, the grace of showing up, of a clean pair of socks.

Reclaiming Easter 1: Maundy Thursday

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(This is one post in four parts… Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.)

I’m worried. I’m worried I’ve lost Easter. I’m worried we’ve lost Easter.

Today, apparently, as it’s Maundy Thursday, the Pope is going to wash the feet of refugees. I was moved by that –  think about where those feet have walked, think about what those people have seen. There can’t be many more groups as dehumanised and othered as refugees, and do I’m glad the Pope is going to be their servant. It’s a Christlike attitude, one I need to take root in my own hard heart.

But our churches are now so big. The contemporary Christian book deals and recording contracts are so lucrative. Look at our lighting rigs, our sound system, the artisan coffee bars in our foyers. Excellence is something to strive for, but are we using Maundy Thursday metrics? Do we kneel and wash feet every day, or as part of a one-day ritual.

There was a lot of heat a few months ago about “the War on Christmas”. I’m not sure there’s a comparable secular assault on Easter, but maybe that’s because we’re looking for the wrong battle. If Easter is about servanthood and compassion, grace and sacrifice, then the battle is against anything that works counter to those. The desire for power and the promotion of prejudice, the chains of legalism and a willingness to exploit the weak… These are some of the sins that worm their way into the church. These are the things from which we need to reclaim Easter.

Maybe we need to save Easter from ourselves.

(Continued tomorrow)

Maundy Thursday 2014: Treason (John 13:18-30)

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When did Jesus know that Judas had turned traitor?

It’s hard to discern from the gospels, partly because it’s hard to get a grip on Judas’s motivations. Was he in it for the money? Was he a nationalist who wanted to force a confrontation between Jesus and the authorities? Did he finally get tired of listening to teachings he disagreed with? We don’t know, and a thousand and one theories and apocryphal texts don’t make things any clearer.

But Jesus knew, and that puts a scandalous slant on the story of the Last a Supper and washing the feet of the disciples. It’s not just the fact that a king kneels to serve his servants, controversial as that may be; no, here we have a king serving his betrayer, which is far more tragic and horrifying.

Our ideas of grace and love sometimes only extend so far. Embracing the broken and the lost is one thing; extending that to those actively plotting against us is something else entirely. What are you doing Jesus? At least tie Judas to a chair so he can’t go and sell you out.

But no; he washes Judas’s feet. He shares the Passover meal with him, and the implication is that Judas had a place of honour – it sounds like he’s sitting next to Jesus, which means that the Son of God is intentionally sharing a meal with a traitor.jesus said love your enemies – this is him living that out. It may even be the greatest example of that philosophy – after all, this betrayal came from within. This betrayal was personal.

This is not how we live. It’s alien, the idea that Judas should be here, among the Twelve, among all the other disciples who went out and performed miracles in the name of Christ. It’s not right. It’s not fair.

But this is Easter, and at Easter the rules lie broken in the shadow of the cross. The king rides a donkey. The traitor receives fellowship. ‘Tis mystery all, the immortal dies. And death? Death no longer has the last word. There are moments throughout the Easter story when we have to push aside our instinctive human reactions and see things like the washing of Judas’s feet not as crazy or tragic but as the coming of God’s kingdom.

Amid the blood and horror of Gethsemane and Golgotha, the kingdom comes; the Son takes his throne. And this is expressed through strange moments we struggle to understand. But that’s why grace is a scandal – it offends our sensibilities, yes, but is that because our sensibilities are forged by Earth more than they are by Heaven?

Judas walks away from the Last Supper and John makes it clear that the night has come. But this is not the end – a new day starts at nightfall; a new order is being born. A traitor is loved and, In this, the kingdom comes ever closer.