In every Church community, there are people who are always willing to do what needs to be done. They always volunteer to set up the chairs, clean up the dishes, handout the programs, and cut the grass. A church would not survive without them. They are any Rector’s dream. They are the twenty percent in the eighty/twenty rule: twenty percent of the people do eighty percent of the work. When I do their funerals, I am filled with gratitude for their sacrificial service. But…
But I have also learned over the years that their commitment—indeed my own commitment—may have a dark side. What do I mean? What I mean is that I may discover that sometimes my willingness to serve others stems from my unwillingness to let God serve me. My busyness may be part of my endless attempt to make myself loveable to God and others rather than accept that I am loveable simply because God loves me as is, full stop, whether I do anything or not.
This is the heart of the issue on Maundy Thursday when we remember Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. If we are brutally honest, Peter’s resistance to allowing Jesus to wash his feet is embedded deep within each one of us: “Lord, you wash my feet?” To which Jesus responds: “You don’t understand what I am doing, but it will be clear enough to you later.” But Peter persists. “You’re not going to wash my feet—ever!” Then come these haunting words from Jesus: “If I don’t wash you, you can’t be part of what I’m doing” (John 13.1—20).
In his book of Lenten reflections, A Season for the Spirit, Martin Smith describes the fundamental issue: If we will let the Spirit draw us into it depths, this moment of truth between Peter and Jesus can show us what our human fallenness is. At some unnameable moment in the early days of emergence into personhood, each on of us re-enacts a fateful bargain to rid ourselves of the hope of being loved absolutely. It is as though we make some decision at a level deeper than consciousness to go it alone, to earn love on our own terms, to buy it from others, or to replace it with gratification from things or our own endeavors. But the amputation of the God-implanted hope never quite works. There is the “feel of a lost limb cut off in another life”. Jesus comes to us bearing all the unnerving signs of life lived within the embrace of unconditional love. He attacks the bargain we made, undermines our craven great refusal, inflames our hope to be loved absolutely by the Father of all, tests it in the ordeal of dereliction and abandonment on the Cross, vindicates it in his shocking resurrection…On Maundy Thursday it is good to abandon the pretence that there is no vestige left in us of resistance to being served and loved. I am a Christian. I have accepted the love of God on the Cross…and yet there is a reluctance which has not altogether died down in me yet. Part of me wants to deserve love, or only get the love I deserve.
If we don’t let Jesus us wash us with his unconditional love, we may have to face the harsh reality that much of what we strive to do for God and others won’t “be part of what Jesus is doing”. This is why we sometimes feel judged and irritated by people who are endlessly busy doing things. There is something about the spirit of their heroic efforts that is off-putting—not part of what Jesus is doing. You see there is a fundamental dynamic in life: we can’t give what we haven’t received. This is what the Maundy Thursday service is all about. In most churches, this service invites people to receive the unconditional love of Jesus by having their feet washed and by receiving his body and blood around the Lord’s Table. But there is another place where this service invites us to receive this love. As Jesus prepares to leave his disciples, he gives them a new commandment, “love one another just as I have loved you” (John 13.34; 15;12-13). In contrast to the command to “loving the neighbor” in the other Gospels, this new commandment is focused on the community of Jesus’ disciples. What Jesus is saying is quite astonishing: If we love one another unconditionally, we give each other what we most desperately need: the regular reminder that we are loved absolutely by God. How about that?