The Following was a sermon I delivered on Maundy Thursday (April 13, 2017) called “Eucharistic Love: Reflections on Maundy Thursday”
There is an interesting story about Peter found in the Gospel of John 13:1-9. Verse 1 begins by saying how much Jesus loved his disciples. During this scene, during the famous Last Supper, it says that Jesus rose up, put aside his outer garments, and grabbed a towel and “tied it around his waist” (vv. 3-4). The disciples would have recognized this look, for it was the look of a house servant. Scripture says that Jesus “poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (v. 5). One gets the impression that the whole room is stunned to silence. Here was the Master of the Universe, stooping over to wash the feet of commoners. One imagines that the disciples were in humbled shock, at a loss of words. But then verse 6 says that Jesus “came to Simon Peter.” Now if we know anything about Peter, we know that he was the type who found it challenging to keep his mouth shut when he needed to. He apparently knew very well that old principle which said, “Whatsoever entereth into thy mind, let it come forth abundantly from thy mouth.” Peter was a man of principle. And when the Creator God stooped down in the form of a servant to wash his feet, Peter broke the silence, as only he could: “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus responded by saying simply, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” But Peter, with perhaps a sense of piety, objected: “You shall never wash my feet” (vv. 6-8).
Peter was shocked. He was like most of us American Christians: Peter was a successful doer, a “Type A” personality. He was a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” kind of person. He was afraid of nothin’. Present him with an angry Roman Imperial Army, and he will take them on alone. And so, given such boldness and courage and strength, Peter’s Lord should not be stooping down in front of him to do something as menial as footwashing. How preposterous, thought Peter.
We can appreciate Peter, and we are always quick to defend him, laughing him off. This is because we can identify so easily with him. After all, we are also a successful people, a nation full of “Type A” folks. We are certainly a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” kind of people. Like Peter, we are a busy people: we work; we are religious; we admire religious devotion; we are capable of grabbing swords and fighting, defending ourselves, thank you very much. I really like Peter. But I am also really like Peter. And like Peter, I need a rebuke from the Lord. Like Peter, I need to be stilled; Jesus is calling me to know that I need Jesus to serve me. Like Peter, our church needs to sit still and be ministered to by the service of Jesus. We need to slow down and quit pulling ourselves up by our own spiritual bootstraps—not because we are called to be lazy but because we simply do not have any spiritual bootstraps on which to pull. We, like Peter, are a church that is impoverished spiritually. And so, I propose that from here on out we refer to ourselves as “St. Peter’s Church.” The reason is because we have his lesson to learn. I will speak more about this at the end. But first, let us draw our hearts to hear a preliminary lesson that we must learn first about this season.
One of the great reminders of Holy Week is that “while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10).
With these words, God offers the world a new language. He gives the world an example, a new posture by which we can embody love to both friend and enemy. This new posture, if we let it, is liberating. Indeed, Christ invites this world’s slaves to adopt a new form of servanthood that ends in resurrection by means of love as sacrifice.
This invitation is to a new identity. We are called to this new identity. Like Peter, we need to go from being “Stubborn” to “Saint.” It is a holy invitation to leave behind the ways of the world to embrace the ways of Christ. Let me explain.
Those who live according to the ways of this age need enemies in order to survive. Having enemies grants people a bonding opportunity with those people whose enemies are the same. When another person is defined as outsider and becomes object of ridicule and hate, then the insiders are able to quickly come together and identify themselves as “the good side” or the “moral side.” The “others” are outside the group and away from their interaction, while the “insiders” take their aim at the outside others. The world gets cliquish and exclusive in their interactions with “outsiders,” that is, with Samaritans and other types of socially-shunned “others.” The world defines people in terms of “rich and poor,” by ethnicity, etc. Consider the Berlin Wall: it was more than physical structure; it was both ideological and spiritual, separating people from people. Having boundaries is not wrong in and of itself: every group has boundaries for inclusion and exclusion, not least the church (see below). Even heaven has boundaries!
The problem, however, with the way the world constructs boundaries is that they (that is, the world), do not permit loving communication between the two opposing sides. When the world constructs a boundary between people, it is usually out of fear or hate or ignorance or all three together. For example, the rich question the poor’s ability to work; the poor question the rich person’s ability to love the poor. The world’s way of having boundaries is such that there is a lot of talking about one another, but very little talking to one another.
The problem, of course, is that the modern church has come to look very much like the world. We have boundaries, don’t we? Some of them are good; some are not-so-good. Either way, sometimes the boundaries that we have constructed serve to separate ourselves from people such that meaningful outreach to them is impossible—those dreaded “others.” For example, the church has constructed a good boundary on the question of marriage, that it is between one man and one woman for one lifetime. And this excludes the LGBTQ community. There is a lot of talk in the church about how the LGBTQ community is wrecking our society. But I wonder if the church has done a good enough job in reaching across the boundary to show love to them. Do you and I have LGBTQ friends that we seek out to do good for? Or take the Islamic community. The church has rightly insisted on maintaining a boundary between Christian doctrine and Islamic doctrine. Our ways of worship are different; there is a boundary between the two of us. That is fine. But one wonders if the church has done a good job in looking beyond the boundary between Islam and Christianity, reaching across it to display Jesus to them? How many Muslim friends do we have? According to the news, the Muslims are “taking over our country” in droves, so it should not be too hard to find one of them nearby. How is our church seeking to share Gospel kindness to them? Does the Body of Christ look at the boundary between the Church and Mosque as a mission opportunity or as a boundary to be fearful of? Perhaps we need another trip to San Francisco. The real question is whether or not the boundary between the Church and the World cannot be crossed. Indeed, can the boundary between Heaven and Earth be crossed? One wonders what would happen if such boundaries that have been constructed around the dreaded “other” did not prevent sacrificial love for the other. (Re-read that last sentence.)
Well, it did happen: the boundary between Heaven and Earth has been crossed, and the event was revolutionary. This is why the significance of Jesus’ coming to earth cannot be overstated. In a world of boundaries, Jesus offers the world a fresh vision for the identity of God not as a distant figure, but as one who became human. Since Christmas, one can now dispel all myths of a distant Deity in favor of the Deity who became like us (Phil 2:5-11). When Jesus spoke grace to a socially-shunned Samaritan woman (John 4), he was offering the world a vision of a God who is not to be identified as “distant.” Rather, the identity of God, which was offered to the world in that moment, was love-in-nearness. (Can you think of a modern-day Samaritan?) This is all the more true when Jesus died. Having been bound and scourged and murdered at the hands of violent humans, all the while maintaining a non-violent posture of defiant love for them, Jesus gave us a glimpse of what it means to embody God to others. Jesus’ crossing over the boundary of Heaven and Earth was revolutionary, especially when we stop to consider that his crossing over was so that he could take up a cross. Indeed, the event of the cross gives us a glimpse of how to respond to a world of betraying friends and wicked foes. The crossing over boundaries and the taking up of a cross for the sake of loving across boundaries is our calling as Church.
It does no good to object, saying, “Yes, but the call to love the enemy was for Jesus a specific calling just for him; after all, his sacrifice on the cross was for the purpose of redemption.” A response to this is simple: One cannot claim Christ if one will not, at the same time, embrace Christ’s cross (Matt 16:24). Moreover, the call to love your enemy (Matt 5:43-47) is grounded in the identity of a perfect God who shows love to all (5:48). If the Body of Christ hung on a cross for friend and foe in the first century, then one should not kid themselves to think that the Body of Christ is not called to a cross for friend and foe in the twenty-first century.
But of course, this presents a problem for those of us living in the twenty-first century. The problem is that we have been so inoculated with cultural power and wealth and comfort in our culture that none of us desire to take on this new identity of love for others–at least not in the extreme way Jesus did. I am personally too proned to opt out of the Jesus Way for my world’s way of comfort. I love comfort.
That said, living in the West, I am also very much interested in Christ and Christianity. Christianity is part of my social fabric and heritage. And so, my competing lusts for power and comfort on the one hand and for Christ on the other reach a point of crisis. One option for me is to fully embrace my lust for power and comfort and simply abandon Christianity altogether. Another option is to do the opposite: shun my lust for power and comfort and heartily embrace Christianity. But the blessing (or perhaps curse) of living in a consumer-centered culture is that I have the ability to create a third option. That is, I could maintain an allegiance for Christ yet all the while remain self-centered in my lust for power and comfort. In a consumeristic world where my church attendance and religious affiliation is opened up to a free market of available options, it is pretty darn easy for me to simply choose the option that best fits my own taste–one that blesses me with the preservation of my lusts of power and comfort while allowing me to profess adoration for the idea of Jesus. Yes, the idea of Jesus is attractive.
As a result of this great act of religious entrepreneurship, my culture and I are now able to circumvent the choice between the love of God, love of Mammon, and love of Power by bringing these three together in a sort of twisted trinity. It is the best of both worlds: I get myself and Christ. But the reality is that what I get is not the true Christ. It is a tamed Christ, formed and fashioned in my own image. In a great act of blasphemy, I have reversed the creation account, making God the dirt, crafting him according to my will, and then enthroning myself as a god. The result is a Christ who is muted, one who can no longer say to Rich Young Rulers like myself: “Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor.”
I am tempted to think that it is easy to be a Christian in our culture. I have come to conclude, however, that it is terribly difficult. In fact, it is difficult precisely because it is easy. One thing that I have learned is that we value things that come at great cost. For example, we will value a brand new corvette, protecting it from hail and bumps and scratches, more than we will value our recently-purchased twenty-year-old minivan. The reason, of course, is because we paid more for the corvette. The corvette, inevitably, will get more of our time and our attention and our devotion because we paid more for it. The reason Christianity is so terribly difficult in our culture is because it costs so very little to have it. Christianity gets very little of our time, attention, and devotion because we paid so little for it. It costs me nothing. Relationships that do not cost are relationships that are, by definition, cheap. A Christian’s relationship to Christ is no different. (By no means am I merely picking on the Christians in our culture as if we are horribly worse than others. After all, it is equally true that Christians in Africa, for example, have their own struggles and temptations. My present purpose here is to simply minister to my own culture, pointing out possible areas where repentance might need to occur in our specific lives as the church. If I were an Ethiopian Christian, I would be pointing out areas where we Ethiopian Christians had made serious compromises to our faith. Christ is able to critique the idols of every culture, including our own. Let us not refuse Christ when he desires to wash the feet of Saint Peter’s Church.)
It must be said, then, that the greatest temptation for us as American Christians is not that we will abandon Christianity for the ways of my world, but that we will embrace the ways of our world and call that Christianity. This is desolation. An abominable act of desolation. In fact, when those who profess Christ in the church and yet insist on living according to the ways of the world, the Bible is clear that such people are to be excluded from the congregation of Christ (1 Cor 5:9-13; Titus 3:10). In 1 Cor 5, for example, the professing Christian is defiling another person. Because this act was contrary to the ways of love, this person was commanded to either repent and start living a life of love or be excluded. In Titus 3, the person is a trouble-maker and is likewise not living out love for others. People like that person are to either repent and start living a life of love or be excluded from the church. The church is called to be “set apart” from the world by its very calling to include all people in acts of love; by doing so, we adopt our new Christ-identity. In other words, we begin to look more like Jesus. By refusing to do so, we adopt the world’s identity. In other words, we have very little share in Christ. In this sense, the church is both inclusive and exclusive, but the center is the same: sacrificial love for people. Unlike the world, our community is not dependant upon hate, but rather upon love. Our community is based upon love for people. And so the church is to be different, antithetically different, to the ways of the world. But I wonder if cultural Christianity has not blinded us to this greater reality.
If the church is built upon acts of love, and if Christ has shown us that love must, by definition, cross the world’s boundaries, then the church is called to be a church that crosses boundaries that the world has constructed. The church, unfortunately, has a tendency to follow the world’s boundaries and obey those boundaries. The church, while professing Christ with great adoration every Sunday, often fails to follow Christ across boundaries. We like the idea of Jesus, and we like the stories of Jesus talking with Samaritans and healing lepers, but the Samaritans and lepers of our culture have not taken a bath in the past year, so we find them undesireable. Showing Samaritans love is dirty and we are, therefore, uninterested in doing so. But the problem is not just that the church finds modern-day Samaritans uninteresting; the problem is that the modern-day church has itself become uninteresting (as Stanley Hauerwas often points out). There is nothing interesting about a modern-day church that prefers its own comforts and fame and power over radical acts of charity. Our dying world sees nothing unique and interesting about the modern-day church because we are so much like them: after comfort, wealth, and power. The fear I have about myself as a modern-day church person is that the only thing unique about me when compared to my world is not how I live differently from the world but that I speak highly of Jesus. That is, I know more Bible stories than the world, which might be interesting; but my life looks so much like the world, which makes me uninteresting. My fear is that as a modern-day churchman, I praise Jesus only with my lips, not with my hands and feet. (My feet, if you recall, are like Stubborn Peter’s: they are dirty and need of cleansing. Today is Thursday and Jesus has laid aside his outer garment, taken a towel, and grabbed water. And now, behold, he is approaching me. I object, though, because I am far too busy doing church.)
And so the church creates a golden calf and calls that calf Yahweh, worshipping its god in great religious fervor and devotion. The altars are full; revivals have come and gone with tears and fears. But nothing has stuck because such emotion cannot be sustained for too long. The problem is that, despite appearances, we might not have been worshipping God the way he desired. Could it be that we were worshipping our man-made image of God? It will take time to answer that question. We should chew on that a bit.
All the same, the church must do more than appear to be worshipping God; we must truly worship God. And the worship of God, to be sure, cannot take place where love for people is not taking place. Here is a truth that should not easily fade from our ears: The church loves God as much as it loves its own Samaritans. (Who might those people be?) In this way, we are called to cross boundaries. We are called to grab towels and water basins. But so long as we refuse to be washed by Jesus ourselves, we will never wash others in the name of Jesus. We should take seriously, therefore, the call to convert from being Stubborn Peter to being Saint Peter.
But first, we must make a decision. We will have to decide if we want the true Jesus or if we want the god of this world. The ways of this world is to sacrifice others for the sake of one’s own comfort. But the way of Jesus is to sacrifice our own comfort for the sake of one’s own neighbor. This is what Jesus did. And if Jesus Christ is Lord, then we must decide how we will live. We have to decide, first, who we are. Are we first citizens of this world, or are we first citizens of heaven? But again, the great cultural temptation is not that we will choose the world over Jesus but that we will confuse the ways of the world with the ways of Jesus. The great temptation is to allow ourselves to be grouped into the culture; the temptation is to confuse the fact that “we” the church is different from the “we” of our culture. We must determine who “we” are.
Stanley Hauerwas, a writer on Christian ethics, teaches by what he calls the “Tonto principle.” You know the stories of the Lone Ranger and his Native American companion, Tonto. On one occasion, as the story goes, the Lone Ranger and Tonto found themselves surrounded by 20,000 warring Sioux Indians. The Lone Ranger looked over at Tonto and said, “This is a bad situation, Tonto. What do you think we should do?” Tonto replies, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”
Stanley Hauerwas is correct: When it comes to our identities, we Christians need to decide who “we” are going to be. Are “we” first followers of Jesus Christ, or are “we” first citizens of the world? The way we can answer that question is by asking whose ways we follow. Some of the Jewish people claimed to have Abraham as their father, but Jesus said they were really sons of the devil (John 8:39-47). In all appearance, these particular Jews looked like God’s people—they prayed at Temple, they read their Bibles. But they acted evil. The real question for the church is whose ways have we adopted? The ways of the world or the ways of Jesus? Despite the temptation, we cannot have both.
The crux of the matter is that the self-centered ways of the world are antithetical to the love-filled ways of Christ. This is a harsh reality for me as a Son of Adam whose name is “Cain.” Indeed, I am Cain.
But thanks be to God that he, through the sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth, has offered me a new name for free. He has offered me a new identity. He has offered us all a new name for free. This new identity is necessarily coupled with a new way of living, that is, in radical love for all. We are to love as we have been loved.
Our old identity, like Cain, sought to turn man back into dust. Our new identity in Christ reverses the ways of Cain and the ways of this world: It brings us back to life. (This Sunday, some women will discover something earth-shaking.) The Gospel calls us to live fully alive lives. The world is dead in its hate, but the church is to be the spark of life by the way of love. If you want to know what it means to be truly human, do not admire the ways of Cain but the ways of Christ, whose boundary-breaking love on the cross disarmed the powers of hell, breathing life once again into Adam. But of course, the way Jesus broke boundaries was not through power, but through weakness. It was through the cross. Jesus broke boundaries by laying aside his plans, his wants, his desires for the sake of others. For the sake of you. He had to die.
We must ask, then, in light of this fact: What does it mean to worship a crucified Lord in the 21st century? If the boundaries of heaven did not keep back the King of heaven from showing love to the sons and daughters of earth, how must we live today? Is there not now an obligation upon us? If freely we have been given, should we not freely give? Indeed, the call to Jesus is a call to die. The altars of revival are normally full when we promise comfort and peace and joy, etc. But the call to Jesus is a sombering call, and the altars are often found empty. The people of God normally run away from such calls—Jesus is left to take his cross alone while the disciples flee in fear that their lives of comfort will be taken from them. John abandons Jesus; Stubborn Peter denies Jesus.
Truly, truly I say unto us all: Our obligation is to love others—all others—even at great cost to ourselves. But the only way to do this, the only way to live fully alive lives, is to take the time away from our busy lives and let Jesus stoop down and love us. It is terribly awkward, but it is necessary.
Our church family desperately needs to settle better into this type of worship, don’t we? We are too loud; we talk too much; we do too much; too busy; we have too many plans; we do everything but settle into the presence of God in a quiet rest. As a church family, together, we need to find more rest during each of our gatherings. Each Sunday, we need simply to be washed in the Word, cleansed by the Sacraments, refreshed by the waters of Song and Prayer. The world’s culture finds all this boring; and the entertainment-focused modern church finds it unexciting. But who cares? I am personally bored with the world’s busyness, and the modern-church’s focus on entertainment is emotionally exhausting and entirely uninteresting. True, Martha appears holy in her busyness; but Mary is holy by simply existing in quietness before Jesus (Luke 10:38-42). One wonders if the modern-day church has looked too often to Martha for a model of worship when Jesus, all along, has been pointing us to Mary. Martha was too busy trying her best to serve Jesus; Mary was better for being served by Jesus. In this way, she became a better servant herself.
Let us remember the words of Jesus to his contrary disciple, Peter: “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8). Peter might have been known as “Stubborn Peter,” but by taking the time to let Jesus love him, he was being converted from Stubborn to Saint. “Lord, not my feet only,” Saint Peter says, “but also my hands and my head!” (v.9).
Indeed, Lord, wash us and make us fit for service.
May God bless St. Peter’s Church as she witnesses his love this Maundy Thursday.