Pastoral letter: Maundy Thursday
‘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.
Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.’
John 13.13-14, 16
One of the more particular skills of community leadership is preparing people to learn and understand something that they do not yet know. That may seem obvious: that teaching is about helping others to new understanding, but the reality is that our understanding and learning tend to be built on foundations that have already been laid down. If the foundations are not already there, they need to be built.
The work of introducing a new idea, a new way of thinking, a new self-understanding needs to take place progressively over time. When good teachers teach, about 85% of what they say is already familiar to their disciples – gaining a further 15% can require time and repetition. Community leaders develop the skill of seeing what it is their community needs to come to understand – and then lay a trail that unfolds through time to allow the whole community to develop a new understanding together.
We read in the gospel accounts that Jesus repeatedly predicted his own death. His disciples react to what he says: Peter says that this can never happen to him – but their understanding of what Jesus is saying takes time to grow. They don’t believe it – not because they reject it, but because they don’t yet understand. They know Jesus’ words, but they haven’t yet grasped their reality or the underlying meaning: it is not real for them yet.
I believe that on Maundy Thursday, Jesus gives to his disciples a key to unlock meaning that they have yet to grasp – indeed, it will be months and even years before they see the significance of Jesus washing their feet - and yet in the future it will allow them to grasp the meaning of what was to come: why Jesus had to die; how this was an act of service and love; how to know and live the faith that Jesus was demonstrating for them.
Many of us are queasy about feet. We don’t particularly like having our feet touched; and the prospect of a foot-washer being exposed to an unpleasant odour or remnant-of-sock is enough to make most think twice about offering their feet to be washed. Equally, for the foot-washer, there can be a sense of gritting one’s teeth and bearing it: I am doing this because I must, not because I want to. More so in a middle Eastern culture, in which the feet are ritually unclean. You may have noticed people who are staying two metres away from you in the street also look way, can’t make eye contact, communicate their distance. The spectre of the Coronavirus makes someone who is unknown to them into a stranger, a potential danger. With coronavirus, the stranger becomes ritually unclean: a potential threat to our health and well-being. Just so the significance of feet: they are not meant to be touched; they contaminate. I don’t think it is a mistake that Jesus uses such a visceral, felt experience to connect what he understands the cross to be about with what it would mean to be a community of disciples following Christ. If on the cross, God ‘made him to be sin who knew no sin’ (2 Corinthians 5.21), that experience involved becoming unclean: Jesus taking into himself that which he found repugnant in others. It meant the man who was God giving himself over to what was untrue, unjust and evil in order to be consumed by it.
Jesus knows this is difficult; he knows it is offensive; he knows that too many will be too weak to follow him. And yet he also knows that this is not his call alone. If we are to live together, live with each other, if we are to have unity, we will bear the marks and burdens of one-another’s sins. It is the call of discipleship to live voluntarily with this.
These thoughts are immediately relevant to the interim process here. I can’t tell you how proud I’ve felt of the community here as people have reached out to each other in support as volunteers; and for the gratitude expressed by those being telephoned or called on a regular basis. This is really good news and it brings me joy and delight, as I hope it does you. But when Coronavirus is over and we’re back worshipping in the same building together – and yes, that time will come – we will need to make some decisions together as one community. Our needs and preferences will compete, some of them will not be met, we will feel hurt, that my right to be myself here has been taken from me. Tolerating this and then accepting it is part of the call to discipleship – it is part of following Jesus. We don’t know better than those around us; we don’t have more ready access to spiritual truth: servants are not greater than their master. We are called to serve one another, rather than to dictate what is needed and what is right.
So as we enter the Triduum – those three days from Maundy Thursday through to Easter Sunday – I want you to know that I am grateful for you – for this community at St Lawrence. In these days, we will re-member Christ’s sacrifice for us, and taste again the joy and freedom of his resurrection. That comes with a call, though, to re-member in ourselves his sacrifice for others.
May God bless you and fill you afresh with his Spirit as we enter this sacred Triduum.