Jesus took off his outer garments and put on a towel… John 13 v 4.
These simple every day words are some of my favourite in the Bible. For me they describe poetically and precisely what it means to be a follower of Christ. They speak of the every day and ordinary, but they carry the truth of a sacrament – they point us to what is eternal and universal.
Jesus took off his outer garments – outer garments protect us and define us. Often, we wear clothes to make a statement about where we belong, who we want to be like or who we want to like us. They might carry markers of our ethnicity, class and perhaps most obviously gender. Our outer garments could be compared to the face we present to the outside the world- the face that proves our success, our strength or our status. They are the stuff of every day, the stuff we are encouraged to focus on, to make judgements on, to invest in. But to really follow Jesus we have to strip those things off and reveal our shared humanity – so we can come alongside other not as rescuers or saviours but as equals and friends. To really join in with the work God is doing in the world we have to rip up our own agendas and let go of our need for recognition and reward. The ultimate symbol of this, for us as Christians, is the crucifixion, where Jesus emptied himself completely, until he could say, ‘it is finished’.
And when we have got to that place of emptiness we have the space to fill, we have open hands and hearts and we can put on a towel – a symbol of compassion, care and humility. From the place where we have revealed our humanity in all its fragility, we can begin to wash the feet of those who need the balm of clean cool water on tired dusty limbs.
The people I would describe as followers of Jesus are people who prepared to take off their outer garments. I’ve met them in Birmingham, in Bosnia and in Belfast. I have met them in the Holy Lands where there are people who do not allow their identity as Palestinian or Israeli, Christian, Jew or Muslim to obscure the shared humanity they found with those they were supposed to oppose. I have met people who resist the role of victim so it doesn’t give them a reason for division and hatred, people who do not allow their trauma to allow them to retreat and erect hostile, defensive barriers.
Many of these people across the world have put on a towel. They have learnt how to forgive quickly, how to transform conflict, how to hold hurt and pain and how to look fear in the eye. Many have skills in peacemaking, healing, environmental work or a passion for theatre, space for hospitality or a commitment to education and empowerment. When they see their neighbour tired, thirsty and wearied by the journey they are ready to respond with love and compassion, grasping dirty, dusty soles and offering rest and solace for a moment.
Covid-19 has forced all of us to loosen our outer garments – although I am in no way saying we are all equally effected by this. But now is a time when our humanity – with its need for oxygen, friendship, touch and food is at the forefront of our minds. We are reminded that we fragile and interconnected, blessed and privileged yet vulnerable.
Tonight, we remember Jesus breaking bread and sharing wine with his disciples, He reminded them that they were fragile, they were interconnected, they were blessed but they were vulnerable.
Tonight is the night when we usually strip the church of all its trimmings, revealing angular wooden furniture, bare walls, empty candlesticks and silence, the silence of prayer.
Today I am reminded again that prayer is sometime all we have – and we can wrap ourselves in it. And in prayer we can offer our friend and neighbour, our enemy and our oppressor, our families and those we love the balm of cool water running over tired weary feet, the relief of loving touch and the gaze of compassion. So in these unusual and strange days, which are holy for many, when we’re not zooming and skyping, let us pray.
Here is one to get you started – offered today by the Corrymeela community:
God who washes our feet,
God who commands us to love:
before the prayers in the garden,
and the stations of the cross;
before the tomb and the spices
and the stone they put in place,
there was this moment
when you showed us what it meant
to be divine.
May we not forget
that the power to defeat death
was not what you wanted us to imitate.
It was to lay aside all other things
and to love.