Talk for the World Day of Prayer
6 March 2015 – Theme of the Service: Domestic Violence
The reading set is: John 13:1-15 (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=292090860)
I can’t help worrying about Simon Peter. He’s an angry man, and angry men can be a worry for all of us. We live in a world made dark by the shadow of angry men.
First, let me thank you for the privilege of speaking to you today. The World Day of Prayer has long been a movement which brings together Christian women and men to pray and to be together, and, I believe, is a real force for good.
Our Bible reading this morning is a story about Jesus. And nearly every story about Jesus brings us closer to his cross, and in this story in particular, John helps us to prepare for the great events of the crucifixion and resurrection.
In this story, at the last supper, Jesus lays aside his outer clothes to prepare for ministry.
On the cross, Jesus lays aside his human life to prepare for his death and resurrection to eternal life.
Jesus washes the feet of his disciples in water to make them clean – and this cleanliness goes beyond the physical cleansing of dirty feet. It is described as an all-over clean; holistic cleansing.
Jesus washes away our dirt in the blood of the cross. I know this metaphor is not always pleasing to Anglicans; it’s not a pleasant image, but it’s a strong Biblical metaphor and totally unavoidable.
And the thing about being cleansed by Jesus is that once you are clean, you stay clean. “A person who has bathed does not need to wash,” Jesus says. Once you have accepted the cleansing power of the Cross, your sins are forgiven; you start again with a clear page; you are a new person.
Jesus accomplished this cleansing by giving himself. He takes the role of a servant – even more than that, as we will see – to wash his friends’ feet. He gives his whole life on the Cross to wash the lives of all humanity, of all who will hear and accept.
This is what upsets Simon Peter. Offering to wash his disciples’ feet is more than a role reversal. It’s more than Jesus just taking the part that a slave would normally take. Or a woman. In poorer homes without a slave for this task, visitors would be welcomed by a woman to wash the dust of the road off their feet. It’s bad enough for Peter that his Rabbi and Lord is acting the role of a slave — or a woman, God forbid – but foot-washing seems to take too much away from Peter.
It’s hard for those who are frail to accept someone helping them to shower. It seems to be a complete loss of dignity. I’ve been in hospital when nurses and other care-givers have helped me with my daily routine. I had to swallow my pride. I can’t imagine how hard it would be if my Archbishop came to help me shower. Embarrassed, angry, a complete loss of self-respect. At least, that would be my first reaction.
I think that’s what provoked such a strong reaction from Peter. His Lord and Teacher was offering to do something for him for which, in part, Peter had to swallow his pride. He was embarrassed and angry. “Lord, do you wash my feet?”
It’s a hard lesson for Simon Peter: first to accept the loving care that Jesus offers, and then to be told to offer and receive that level of care from others. The implication for Peter is that he has to put aside that pride in himself for ever if he is going to be any use in offering loving service, and if he is to continue to have the joy of receiving loving service from others for himself.
We know Peter takes a while to learn, but St John thinks he gets the message after the resurrection, (in John 21:15-19) when Jesus asks him three times, “Do you love me?” If you still have that macho pride inside, you can’t answer that question, even if the answer is yes. As long as you carry that pride inside saying “I love you” is a sign of weakness. That’s why Jesus insists Peter makes the declaration, “Lord, you know I love you!” otherwise it’s a waste of time telling Peter to “Feed my sheep.”
You see Peter has two choices after his feet have been washed and the blushing has receded from his face: either he can put the old pride back in his heart and go on being an angry man, the kind of man that lashes out with a sword and cuts off the ear of a servant (John 18:10). That’s only a few steps away from the kind of anger that fuels terrorists who coolly cut off the heads of their captives.
Or he can learn to dismantle that pride by accepting the loving service of others offered to him, with the implication that he is a vulnerable human being. Giving and receiving love leads to intimacy and to a genuine experience of love, of being cleansed from anger and pride. St John knew that Peter was a work in progress.
I don’t find this path easy. I am definitely a work in progress. We men would rather hang on to our macho pride of independence. That’s the picture of manhood our culture teaches us, and to be different requires an effort. But I see the positive effect that strong vulnerable Christian men have on others.
All of us, men and women, are challenged to lives of mutual self-giving service, and the vulnerability that goes with that.
Women, and men, too as mothers, fathers, or grandparents are challenged to give their sons and grandsons a cleaner picture of what makes a strong man: the angry, macho self-reliant hero, or the caring, strong and vulnerable servant-leader.
The more there are of us who tell the story of strength in vulnerability, the more we push the shadow back, and the more God is revealed.