John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Some years ago I had the privilege of taking a course with Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian who was then on the faculty of the Divinity School at Duke University. Dr. Hauerwas, the son of a bricklayer, was a straight-shooting, no-nonsense kind of guy who believed that living as true disciples of Jesus in the world would necessarily put us in conflict with the culture in which we live. I remember being surprised to hear him say that participating in the Eucharist was one of the most radical actions any Christian could undertake. Tonight we will understand why this is true.
Tonight we watch in wonder as the only-begotten Son of God, the Eternal Word who was “in the beginning with God” and through whom “all things came into being” (Jn 1:1-3), stoops to wash the dirty feet of his disciples. Tonight we behold the Incarnate Son of God, the “King of kings” and the “Lord of lords,” tying a towel around himself, pouring water into a basin, and assuming the role of a servant. The King kneels before his subjects; the Master washes the feet of his disciples.
This is not how the world works. In the world there is a pyramid of power. At the top are the rich, the powerful, and the intelligent. They set the standards and enforce the rules. At the bottom are the weak, the poor, the powerless, the vulnerable: the immigrants and refugees, the unemployed and destitute, the mentally ill and physically disabled, the uneducated, the exploited and oppressed, the excluded and marginalized, those without power and without a voice. This is true of every human culture. In every human culture there is a pyramid of power.[i]
Jesus subverts the pyramid of power by taking the place of the least and the lowliest. He stoops to align himself with those at the bottom; those in the last place, the place of servants and slaves.
For Peter this is unacceptable. “You will never wash my feet,” he insists (Jn 13:8). He does not yet understand that the Kingdom of God which Jesus has come to inaugurate and proclaim is an “upside-down kingdom,” in which the first are last and the last first, in which the greatest are the servants of all. He does not see that in this Kingdom, there are no second- or third-class citizens: Every person is valued, every person is honored, every person is loved. Jesus subverts the pyramid of power, turns it upside-down, and then replaces it with the image of his Body. In the body, every member is precious, and each part – whatever its abilities or limitations – contributes to the whole.[ii]
Jesus insists on washing Peter’s feet, not because he is instituting a new ritual in which all must take part, but because what he is demonstrating here is essential to his message of love. Unless Peter can grasp this, he will have no part to play in the New Community of Christ’s Body.
“I have set you an example,” says Jesus, “that you also do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:15).
Just as I have knelt before you as a servant, so you are to kneel before one another, rendering loving service. Just as I have gazed into your eyes to behold your dignity and worth, so you are to gaze into the eyes of the lost and the forgotten, the poor and the marginalized, and reflect back to them their dignity and worth. Just as I have lovingly washed your feet, so you too are to touch the lowly with kindness and gentleness, lifting them to their feet so that they may stand with you, in freedom and dignity, before the God who has created and redeemed us all.
“I have set you an example.” Seek out the broken and the lost. Listen with compassion to those whose dignity has been trampled upon, who have come to see themselves as failures in the world, who have forgotten – or never really known – what it is to be loved, truly loved, just as they are. What a contrast this is to the ways in which the powerful so often act to promote their own interests!
By washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus does not diminish his authority. He is still their “Lord and Teacher” (Jn 13:14). But he has come to show them a new way of exercising authority, a new way of being with others that is characterized by humility, compassion and loving service. He exercises authority not from above, but from below. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants over them,”the Teacher said. “It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:25-28).
The Church has often lost sight of this call which is so essential to its life and ministry. We have often gotten caught up in the “pyramids of power” that reward the wealthy and privileged, and burden the poor and the powerless. Sometimes we have done so unconsciously. We have not realized the degree to which the structures of society have been organized to benefit some and penalize others. We have not been fully aware of the countless ways in which we and others at the top of the pyramid profit by reason of our race or class, our educational opportunities and our social status. We have not been willing to see and acknowledge that we have allowed others to do the really difficult, strenuous work – (often enduring long hours without adequate compensation) — that we ourselves were unwilling to do. We have relied on their labor to build our industrial societies, much like the pharaohs of Egypt relied on the labor of slaves to build their pyramids. We have benefitted from the labor of those who manufacture our clothing and grow our food, but whose lives are full of suffering. Sometimes we have participated in these structures unconsciously. But at other times we have been fully conscious and have done our best to preserve the status quo, simply because it benefits us. Whenever and wherever the Church forgets that the poor and marginalized are at its heart; whenever and wherever it aligns itself with “pyramids of power” for its own benefit and gain, its witness is compromised and its message is drained of its power to transform human lives, including our own.
To walk in the footsteps of Jesus is to catch his vision and to follow his example. It is to kneel with the lowliest and the neediest, and to raise them up. It is to gather with them around the Table of the Lord, recognizing our oneness and unity. It is to stand together before God as equals, all with our hands outstretched to receive the gift of life that nourishes and sustains us in our struggle to make real the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven.
When you come to this meal, you have a chance to align yourselves with this alternative vision and give witness to its values, which stand opposed to the values of the world. Here you have an opportunity to pledge yourself to participate in the subversion of pyramids of power that benefit the strong and oppress the weak.
What could be more radical than that?
[i] Source — Vanier, Jean; Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John; (New York: Paulist Press, 2004); pp. 223-239.
[ii] See I Corinthians 12:12-31.