Pick up your towel

I am breaking my Lent fast from blogging to post the sermon I have just preached. Footwashing has become emblematic of the role of the deacon – the servant/minster but interestingly for a deacon-geek in the story in John, Jesus never uses the greek word diakon. Instead he uses the doulos which is more accurately translated as slave. I believe that rather than being emblematic of the ministry of a deacon, footwashing is the symbol of discipleship. and so tonight I preached this sermon….

I once heard it said that it was much easier to remember Jesus in the days of Christendom when civic buildings like schools, libraries, town halls and even hospitals were built to look a little bit like churches. Majestic buildings, daily acts of worship in places of education, the regular reminders of bell-ringing, the prominence of the clergy – these structures were supposed to remind us we were living in a Christian nation.

And to some extent I am sure these external props may have jogged the memory of someone who needed to remember God. I once saw a woman hurrying down the High Street here, head bowed and weighed down with shopping. But when she got to the pavement across the road from the bus-stops, opposite the Church, she paused, looked over and crossed herself. As she did so, her face visibly lightened and she continued on her way.

Our reading from Corinthians today tells us that when we take communion we both remember Jesus and proclaim his death.

Remember is a rich word for us. It literally means to put the body back together again and of course that is what we do as we gather to share in the Lord’s supper – together as the Body of Christ.
Put it also means to bring to mind, to put in focus, to shape our thoughts and imagination and to be mindful of someone’s presence.

During a recent visit to the synagogue by the Mailbox in town, the Rabbi happened to mention that when the Jewish people remember the Passover with the seder meal they leave a few drops of wine from the ritual drink. These drops are to remember the Egyptians who suffered. Their joy at the liberation is moderated by their compassion for those who suffered. Their remembering is inclusive and avoids easy triumphalism, bringing what was lost to mind at the same time as celebrating what was given.

Our post-Christendom world wants us to remember a lot of things. We are constantly reminded about the things we don’t have, the holidays we have not yet taken, the beauty we do not quite possess and the youth we need to maintain at all costs. Our consumer society wants us to be a servant – or slave – to our desires for these things – to live lives that revolve around earning and acquiring.

But the Gospel reading, which we will hear after communion, about Jesus washing the disciples feet shows us that we should be slaves to the wellbeing of the other. There is so much detail in the telling of this story that we know it is extremely significant. I love some of the contrasts in the passage.

Here is a forestaste of a couple of verses: “3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table,[a] took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself”. – my childhood Bible makes the contrast even more clear. It says: Jesus knowing that the Father had put all things into his power….he took off his outer robe.
Jesus is so sure of his power that he divests himself off it – literally. Unlike the robing of a monarch or a church dignitary, Jesus strips himself of the things that protect him and takes on the appearance of a slave. And so begins the dramatic story of self-emptying that ends on the cross as Jesus, poured out literally, utters the words: “it is finished.”

And that’s what we remember in communion. Jesus enacts his love in a way that costs him his whole life. Alongside the practice of footwashing today, John tells us Jesus commands us to take on this costly practice of love. Another foretaste from John 13 v34-35.

“34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

This commandment to the disciples to Love one another does not replace the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself or put the church above the love of neighbour. It is an intensification of the command. Love as I have loved you – choose someone else’s wellbeing over your own. Love even when it costs you your life.
I was chatting to someone recently, someone who I admire greatly as a disciple. She told me that she had chosen to fold her business rather than exclude one of the partners who had become somewhat of a dead weight. This disciple chose love over livelihood.

When we live like that we begin to remember and proclaim.

I hope you remember me beginning this sermon by saying sometimes buildings will remind us of God. But here Jesus is saying that is not necessary to build buildings with stained glass and spires. When we love each each other fully we will constantly remind each other of the loving presence of God, shown to us in Jesus’ washing of the disciples feet. We will not only remember – we will proclaim.

Listen to the end of the verse: “Then all will know you are my disciples.” Then we become the living sign of Christ’s love beyond the church. Foot-washing, we take the dynamic of the Eucharist outside into the world, reminding each other and proclaiming to those around us.

Our society needs reminders of what is eternal and what is important. Those who have chosen the way of selfless love become remembered figures – think of the martyrs and saints of both the early church and more recently – the Stephens, Francis’s, Claire’s, Martin Luther Kings, Ghandis and Mandelas.

Our culture wants us to think love can be bought and desires are met by spending money. But in reality our desires are met when we seek the fulfilment, happiness and wellbeing of others.

Jesus is clear – “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them”. The stripped altar and bare church helps us remember Jesus’s stripping of his power and position, his self-emptying and then his death – all driven by his love for us.

This Lent I have found my small and pathetic attempts to deny myself have peeled off layers of complacency and self-deceit, revealing addictions and dependencies. But without that peeling off – I don’t think I can get ready to pick up my towel and begin to wash feet.

Our proclamation of Christ, crucified and risen, grows out of the remembering at the Eucharist but needs us to wash feet in our communities, if the world is going to be able to hear it. Jesus called us all to pick up our cross of discipleship but today I think he is reminding us that we not only need to pick up our cross, we also need to take off our outer garments and pick up our towels – today and every day.

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