Harrowing Of Hell
April 1, 2021

Jesus’ New Commandment

The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

Good evening Christians, seekers, and friends,

I wonder what it would be like for someone who doesn’t really know much about Christianity to come into the Church tonight. At this point, a little over eighty percent of the American populace knows that Easter celebrates Resurrection but what, exactly, this means to those of us who are still alive they don’t really get. Heaven is a little far off, if not too far out, for a lot of folks to think about. But what tonight or tomorrow have to do with Christianity very few folks know. So, let’s imagine someone walking by tonight. Stuff is opening up now, but there still isn’t a ton to do, so when they see the doors wide open and are greeted by a friendly person, they are interested enough to sign in and get their temperature taken and be shown to their seat.

Let’s just take a moment to really notice and look at the church for a moment with new eyes.  What would they notice?

Because of the work of both Jesus’ disciples and the empires who’ve culturally appropriated Christianity, they would probably recognize as they enter the sanctuary what appears to be a cross in the front. Culturally, lots of folks recognize the symbol of the cross and lots of folks choose to wear the cross – normal folks they see at the grocery store, at work, or in the office. Even celebrities like hip hop artists and Madonna wear a cross. And so, they’ve probably seen all different kinds of crosses. Some that are just the cross, others that are on beaded necklaces and some that have a figure of a man, who they probably know is Jesus, with some kind of acronym over his head – INRI.  But it is likely that they would never have seen a cross covered as this one is now. They probably wonder why.

After being seated, they would have more time to notice the beautiful windows and folks around them reading the leaflet that they were given, whispering softly to one another, or sitting silently. And when the music begins on the organ – something they may never have heard in their day-to-day musical life, they may notice that the organ sound, coming as it does, through pipes which are built into this structure itself, is the closest thing they have ever heard to music swelling. The sound is, indeed, unique and fills the space. 

Next, they would probably watch as folks in robes follow behind yet another covered cross and listen to folks praying aloud back and forth for a bit and some singing too. While most Americans know who Moses is and that he helped free the Israelites from slavery, our reading from Exodus probably seems pretty harsh to those who have never heard it. Think about this reading, for a moment. How might you hear it as an agnostic, as an atheist, as an Egyptian? While in context we know that this story is part of God freedom movement in which he chooses and saves those enslaved over the greatest ruler on earth –the Pharoah, here is just seems terrible and retributive. The Passover is great, but those who are lost in this story are babies.

In non-Covid times, our guests would soon see foot-washing—which, in my experience, always seems to make a lot of very hygienic people feel uneasy and a little vulnerable. I have always been curious to know how a nonbeliever would experience this. Because it isn’t something that we normally do, is it? Think of all the close friends you’ve had in your life or even your most beloved siblings or partners. Unless we are talking about babies or children or someone whose health is compromised or unless we serve in a profession which requires it, we rarely touch another’s feet. And except in very specific settings like a podiatrist’s lecture or a reflexology class, could you imagine a scenario in which your teacher or your boss would touch your feet – let alone wash them? It seems totally inappropriate and somehow extremely intimate to us. And while tonight we will not wash one another’s feet, this act still remains at the center of our worship tonight. Our gospel, and our recollection of this special night, is centered around Jesus getting up from the table, pouring water into a basin, and washing the disciples’ feet. And this is what distinguishes this night from other holy days’ worship.

Now, I know that not all believers necessarily center their observance of Maundy Thursday on the foot washing. Yet I would argue that to a seeker, Jesus’ washing of his disciples feet this evening, in light of his earthly ministry and in light of his intentional getting in the way, as John Lewis would say, of the empire and the ossified faith centered in the Temple is the most profound thing they could initially witness.  A man who was courageous and strong enough to stand up for those who were marginalized–for those viewed as unclean—who seemed fearless even to the point of death was also humble enough to do something that was the work of servants or the wife of the host. But Jesus, their teacher and leader, washes the feet of each of his disciples, even Judas, who afterwards would leave the meal and betray him. Because we are also told that he dries their feet with a towel wrapped around his waist, we know, too, that Jesus wasn’t imperiously flicking some water over their toes while standing in front of them. He would have had to be kneeling in front of them and perhaps putting their foot on his lap to dry them. But humility like this is not something that our culture endorses. Yes, we do love to talk about a life of service—but that more often gels in line with ‘bigger’ things we think of as heroic or and self-sacrificial not the quotidian if intimate work of servants. But think about how surprising this might be to newcomer. The savior of the world down on his knees goes counter to everything our culture tells us about leaders. Surely someone like Jesus shouldn’t have to do this kind of grunt work. 

 Yet this act was of utmost important to Jesus. We read tonight that when it came to Simon Peter’s turn and he initially refuses Jesus insistence saying, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” When Peter says to him again, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Let me say that again: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” As much as it may make us feel awkward and uncomfortable, the meaning of this cannot be interpreted away.  This kind of humble service is an essential part of being the body of Christ; the Church.

Jesus explains this more when he returns to the table. He says to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So, if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

And then Jesus, having given them this example says, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now, I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

After our gospel and a little preaching, our visiting guest will now watch listen to prayers and song and join us as we set our table and have communion together one last time before Jesus’ death.  For them, this is probably a little strange–the language a little jarring even, but hopefully they can hear the still small voice of and feel the presence of Spirit’ maybe even enough to wish to come forward and share in this holy meal with us. Afterwards they will watch as the altar is stripped, the reserved sacrament taken to altar of repose, and finally be part of the congregation departing in silence. And I wonder what experience–what if any new knowing will go with them.

In the midst of societal shifts, civic unrest, and a pandemic we all seem to be looking for heroes—larger-than-life figures to ‘save’ us. In our specialized world where we expect excellence in school and in the workplace, however, we seem not expect too much when it comes to human hearts.  We no longer seek the beauty and perfection of the human form as seen in Michelangelo’s David or Pieta. Now we find it in fictional superheroes or avatars or ‘enhanced’ influencers on social media. But if our visitors walks away with anything this night, I hope it is with a better understanding of the law of love, what real love looks like, and a new vision of how God actually works in the world.  But more than anything else, I hope that our visitor will have truly known we are Christians by our love.