Jesus spent his last hours on earth as he had spent the three years before. Speaking and acting in love – tender, passionate, desperate, challenging, comforting. As all the dramas of his life and little band of disciples comes to a head so too does the great theme of his life and work – love: the kingdom of God is near, God is love, the Father and I are one and live in one another, if you love God then you too are part of I and him, if you love me then love one another. (RCL John 13:1-17, 31b-35)
And so that his words might be better understood, and his teaching last longer than his earthly life, he underscored them with an act of such humble intimate love and service that they could not fail to hear and see what loving meant. Peter as so often, hears and yet to start with does not quite hear what is being said, firstly declaring that he cannot bear to have Jesus wash his feet and then wanting all of him to be washed.
Dr Sheila Cassidy, a doctor who worked in a hospice for the dying, and had survived imprisonment and torture in south America after being taken captive as a medical missionary, wrote of spending Maundy Thursday at the L’Arche community. A community of young Christian able bodied people living in intimate community with severely disabled people. Sheila had often attended the foot washing ceremony in her local church in which the priest had symbolically washed the feet on one or two fellow clergy or liturgical assistants. She had found that rich enough. And yet now she took part in a service in which the members of the community washed the feet of the most severely disabled people and some of the disabled were able to wash, haltingly and very attentively, the feet of their carers. And being part of this very earthy and clumsy liturgy of loving service Sheila came to understand at an even deeper and more profound level her own ministry of working with the dying. Of pouring all her medical skills, energy and love into those who only had hours or weeks to live.
At this time she was given a poem by Sydney Carter which she came to take as her own thesis.
Poem by Sydney Carter: The One Surprise of Being Loved. (Sheila Cassidy, "Sharing the Darkness: the Spirituality of Caring", Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1988)
No revolution will come in time
to alter this man’s life
except the one surprise of being loved.
He has no interest in Civil Rights
neo marxism, psychiatry
or any kind of sex.
He has only twelve more hours to live
so never mind about a cure for cancer,
smoking, leprosy or osteoarthritis.
Over this dead loss to society
you pour your precious ointment,
call the bluff and laugh at the fat and clock faced gravity
of our economy.
You wash the feet that will not walk tomorrow.
Come levity of love,
show him, show me
in this last step of time
leaping and capering.
Jesus did not only wash the feet of the good and worthy but of all the disciples. He washed the feet of Peter who would so soon deny him. He washed the feet of Judas who moments after the meal would slip out and betray him. He washed the feet of those who had squabbled among themselves about who was the greatest. He washed the feet of those who would fall asleep while he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. He washed the feet of those who would desert him.
Jesus’ last night of love and teaching was not only a private sentimental farewell it was a last passionate act of reverence for all human life, of love for all – even the most flawed and dubious of companions – Judas. Jesus in his last moments, fearful though he was, did not become timid in his love but achingly, humbly available and vulnerable to all the hateful fearful responses to love that were gathered against him.
The closer to death he came, the more he loved those around him – even those who were not worthy. And it is this depth of love divine and human that makes his immanent death redemptive rather than tragic – because the greater the opposition to love the greater his love for those around him and for us. His death redeems us because his love reaches beyond failure and death into eternity itself and rescues us.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ.