1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
In the psalm for today, the psalmist declares: “O Lord, I am your servant…You have loosed my bonds.”
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our rock and redeemer. Amen.
“Why is this night different from all other nights?” This is the question that the youngest person at the Passover meal asks in Jewish annual commemoration of deliverance from bondage in Egypt. In my freshman year of college at Cornell, it was a truly different night for me. My roommate, Rhonda Dorfman, who was an observant Conservative Jew and who grew up across the Hudson River from New York City, invited me home with her for Passover.
That night, ten of us gathered around the Dorfman’s dining room table: her parents, some distant relatives, some neighbors, Rhonda, and me. What struck me first was the happiness and joyful tone. I had expected it to be fairly solemn—after all, it was recounting the most momentous event in Judaism. But nooo, we all had plenty of merry-making alcoholic libation before the meal—those were the days when the legal drinking age was 18—and the mood was undeniably festive. When we sat at the table and began the ritual, we soon came to the part where traditionally the youngest person present asks the question, Why is this night different from all other nights? I looked at Rhonda because she was the youngest at the table, discounting myself because I was a gentile. But, she was looking at me and so was everybody else. I must have had a look of disbelief on my face because Rhonda said in her heavy New York accent, “Heathuh, you ah the youngest. Ask the question.” So, ked the question, Why is this night different from all other nights? At that moment the image of lamb’s blood over the lintels of the doors of the ancient Hebrews fused with the faces of those at the table. These were the descendants of those people who were delivered, the flesh and blood lineage of those first-born of Israel whom God had passed over for death. But God did not pass over the first born of Pharaoh’s house, which included Pharaoh’s son, or the rest of the houses of Egypt, and a great wailing went up. I then saw a new day when the Hebrews were marching en mass—free—out of Egypt. That night God made the Hebrews the liberated people of God.// A little later during our Passover meal, I was immediately reminded of a second kind of Passover that some Jews had lived. At one point, the lady sitting immediately to my right raised her left arm in such a way that the sleeve of her dress lifted, and I saw the tattooed numbers on her arm. Passed over and liberated. This was a different night indeed.//
Tonight, in our observance of Holy Week, let us also ask, Why is this night different from all other nights? On this night, in the first three gospels, Jesus shares the Passover-Last Supper with his disciples in a way that institutes the sacrament of Holy Communion.// But, in what we heard from John’s gospel, we have a dramatically different scene.//The text does not say that the occasion was the Passover-Last Supper—though there is evidence that it was—and Christians through the ages have interpreted it that way. What is so different in this account is that instead of taking up bread and wine on “this night,” Jesus takes up a towel and basin. He does something that only the lowliest of servants does when people arrive at his master’s house: he washes the guests’ feet. So, Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, tied a towel around himself, poured water into the basin, and washed his disciples’ feet, wiping them dry with the towel. He also gave them a new commandment, “that you love one another…” Just as in the other gospels where Jesus gives us the blessed bread and wine to be symbols for our liberation from sin and death, making us, too, the liberated people of God, so here in John, Jesus gives us the symbols of the basin and the towel making us also the servant people of God. He makes us the liberated and servant people of God.
Because this is a night for questions, let us as Christians ask another question: What do service and freedom have to do with each other? It begins with sin, because sin places us in bondage; it takes away our freedom to be in a full, complete relationship with God and each other. The German Reformation leader, Martin Luther, said that sin was the heart turned in upon itself. In Latin it has a nice ring to it: cor corvum in se: the heart turned in/grown in upon itself. Put another way, it is bondage to self. Unless we are grossly paternalistic or patronizing, we know that when we serve others we are freed from this bondage of self. When we engage in service—not for some meritorious purpose, not for a resume, or to assuage guilt—but when we intentionally try to make someone’s life a little less of struggle, a little easier, less lonely, less harsh, a bit fuller or richer—we get to live the freedom of being free for others, of not being turned in upon ourselves.
At the same time, service requires freedom. Coerced service is not really service; rather it is doing something under the threat of negative judgment and negative consequence. True service, by contrast, involves giving of ourselves freely because of a genuine desire to meet someone else’s need. It is an act born of compassion, not coercion. When we serve, we are acting in freedom, in the freedom that grace provides by not “weighing our merits” but “pardoning our offenses.” In being the servant people of God, we bear witness that we are the liberated, redeemed people of God.
With this in mind, it is ironic that on this night Jesus commands love. He says it quite clearly: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” How can he command love? Isn’t that like commanding service? Yet, Jesus tells us that loving one another is to be the mark of discipleship. Again, he says clearly: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” So it seems that Jesus has set an impossible conundrum before us. But, as always, he helps us out. From the example of the footwashing, we see that loving one another doesn’t simply mean being the person who does the loving. It also means being the one who is loved and served.
When you ponder it, in some ways receiving love and service is harder than offering it. After all, many of us are people of privilege and control. And, when we are on the receiving side, we have to admit that despite what we have, we do not have it all. And one reason we do not have it all is because some things cannot be obtained; they have to be received. Grace, love, and service are chief among them. No one can obtain, earn, or provoke love; it must be freely given and freely received or it is not love. The same is true of grace. And true service is not something that is earned or bought; it must be freely given or it is not true service.
On this night, the commandment to love one another means receiving the service of having your feet washed. And that can be hard. The parallel between having your feet washed and being loved is strong. To have your feet washed means that you have to take off your shoes and your socks, go without hose for an evening or just come forward with hose, and show your toes and feet with all their strange shapes, lumps and bumps, to the person washing your feet.// And then, it means being touched: first by the water as it is poured over your feet, and then by the hands bathing your feet and drying them. It is a tremendously intimate moment: skin touching skin, and not as a quick, perfunctory handshake. And intimacy is scary because again it means being vulnerable, laying yourself open to another person, especially the judgment of another person. When Christ washes his disciples feet, all he does is serve in love, and seeks to be received in love. There is no condemnation, only compassion.// Likewise for us on this night of footwashing and holy communion, condemning judgment does not enter the picture. Christ beholds us just as we are, in our wholeness—with our bared strange feet, our past failures and accomplishments, our regrets and satisfactions, our unspoken shame and healed wounds, our present challenges and our hope. He beholds us in compassion and grace. And he invites us to come and receive his love, to be freed by love and in love—freed so that we can serve “with gladness and singleness of heart.”Why is this night different from all other nights? This is the night when Christ comes leads us through love into freedom and service, so that we become the liberated and servant people of God. The Psalmist declares it: “O Lord, I am your servant…you have loosed my bonds.” Amen.
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Last Updated on Saturday, 23 April 2011 09:12