Service, Friendship and the Reign of God
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
Colleen Hartung on Holy Thursday, April 18, 2019
It has been a crazy week. There’s the tragic fire at Notre Dame. There is the chaos around the 20th anniversary of the school shooting at Columbine. And today, there is the The Mueller Report. Who can blame us if our attention is scattered? And in a way, today’s readings do not help. We heard three iconic texts; the Passover in Exodus, the Words of Institution and John’s version of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. All three are key texts for Christians and demand our attention. And so there is the temptation to try to do it all. But, for sanities sake, I am saying, “Not today.” For this reflection, in contrast to the craziness at home and abroad, I turn us to a narrow, intimate focus on the interaction between Jesus and Peter.
In today’s gospel, the disciples gather for a meal. They are hungry. They are tired. They are anxious. And they need to talk about the passionate and desperate hopes as well as the controversy and conflict that is swirling around them and especially around Jesus after their return to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. They recline at the table anticipating the traditional rituals of preparation where attentive servants will wash their hands and feet. For though they are not rich men, they do occupy positions of relative status and privilege. And so, according to tradition, they recline at the table and wait to be served. And then Jesus does what he always does. He does something surprising, something they hadn’t anticipated. Jesus rises up from his place at the table. At first no one notices but then he removes his robe. When he wraps a towel around his waist, the disciples stop what they are doing and they turn, almost in unison, toward Jesus. When he pours water into a basin the room goes still. And they watch, riveted as Jesus stoops to his knees, as he takes the feet of each of his disciples into his hands. First Andrew, then Phillip, Thomas, Nathanael, James, John and Judas. They watch as he moves from friend to friend, as he lifts each man’s feet and gently washes away the stench, the filth and the grime of that day’s journey.
Jesus knows this is the job of a servant, a person of marginal status, maybe a slave owned by a rich landowner. But today with the experience of Mary bathing his feet in perfume still reverberating on his body and in his spirit and with his own clear-eyed understanding of what lay ahead, Jesus has this one last gift, this one last act of service, this one last bestowal of love to offer each of his disciples. Peter is baffled. Jesus their Lord and teacher, on his knees, at their feet. And Peter senses it. It feels like a farewell, like a parting gift and his heart pounds as Jesus approaches. He thinks “this is not the way it is supposed to be.” Not any of it. Peter knows, like they all know, that these are dangerous times. He knows that Jesus’ proclamation of the Reign of God where the poor, the neglected and the outcast find a place at the table is a serious challenge to the religious and political powers that be. And now, with Jesus at his feet he begins to understand what Jesus had been trying to tell him all along, that this might not end the way he expected. That the Reign of God is at hand but it is not what he thought it would be. And for the first time, Jesus’ challenge hits home.
Peter’s been with Jesus for three years, left his home, his family, his livelihood. He’s heard the challenge to those in positions of political power. He’s heard the challenge to the pharisees and other religious elites. And he has heard the challenge to the despairing crowds – the challenge to follow the commandment to love – to love your father, to love your mother, to love your neighbor as yourself. Peter has heard all of this and counted himself as a chosen disciple and a faithful servant. But until that very moment he had not really understood the challenge. He had not really understood what it meant to be a faithful servant. But, in that moment, Peter knows that Jesus’ offering turns his idea of the good and faithful servant, his idea of love and his hope for the Reign of God and his place in it, on its head and he resists. “Are you going to wash my feet?”
In her book “Written That You May Believe”, biblical scholar Sandra Schneiders explores Peter’s resistance in today’s gospel by interrogating the ideal of service (pp 191-194). She notes that service as a pure gift of self for another’s good is rarely if ever realized. That, in fact, in our everyday comings and goings our claims to the ideals of servanthood and servant leadership are often less than ideal – used as a shield or protection against challenges to our own positions of status and privilege. She identifies three models of service in order to help us understand the enigma of Jesus gesture and Peter’s resistance.
In the first model of service, a person is bound to provide service by virtue of his relationship to someone like a master. For example, a slave in relation to her owner, a child in relation to his parent, a subject in relation to her ruler, a poor person in relation to a rich person and so on. Here service is a function of the unequal relationship between two people. Service in this model reinforces conditions of inequality and is, according to Schneiders, a basic element in the hierarchies of domination that structure our lives.
In the second model, a person aspiring to servanthood perceives a need. This aspiring servant has the power to meet the need and they do it freely. For example, the service a mother offers to her child, a doctor to her patient, a politician to his consituents, the rich to the poor or the strong to the weak. This seems ideal – the unforced service toward another’s good. But Schneiders points out that the basis of this service is still inequality. She notes that “one reason people often rebel against the insistent ‘service’ of parents, teachers, clergy, professionals and general do-gooders is because they instinctively recognize [this] service as a subtle but powerful form of domination”.
Schneiders goes on to identify a third model that she calls friendship. Ideal service as friendship is a human relationship based on an equality that rises from the fact that the good of my friend is also my good because my own good is achieve as a by-product of my friend’s well-being. I am raised up. I am glorified in the other’s happiness. This model of service is not based on things like loyalty, familial ties, collegiality or merit. It is a pure gift. Freely given beyond expectation.
In today’s gospel, Jesus stoops to wash his disciples’ feet because he loves these people. They are his friends, his beloved. Their feet are dirty. Jesus knows the way ahead will be hard and all he can do for them now is to show them one more time how much he loves them and how much he hopes they will follow his lead and love each other as he has loved them even when he is gone.
Jesus is right when he tells Peter, “You do not know now what I am doing”. What Peter knows is that in this moment his life has been turned upside down and in this moment he just cannot see a way forward. Not yet. And he says to Jesus. “You will never wash my feet.” And Jesus answers, “Unless I wash you, you will have no share with me.” And even though Peter will allow Jesus to wash him, the fact is, he is not prepared. He is just not ready. Jesus knows that Peter will betray him, like Judas and like the rest of them at the table. And Jesus love him anyway. He takes Peter’s feet into his hands, he washes away the grime and filth and, in that moment, kneeling at Peter’s feet, Jesus is glorified. It doesn’t matter if Peter is prepared. It doesn’t matter if he is good enough. Just like it doesn’t matter if we are prepared or good enough. With Jesus at his feet, with Jesus at our feet, the Reign of God is at hand.