Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Towel Before The Tomb

[Jesus] got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him...After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said 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.
John 13:4-5, 12-15

The footwashing ritual invites disciples, then and now, to break through our cultural and psychological barriers to intimacy and learn tenderly to accept one another as we are. Footwashing calls us to reveal a part of ourselves that is usually hidden...To invite people to look at, to wash, to care for our feet is to invite them to accept us as we are.
Wes Howard-Brook, John's Gospel & The Renewal Of The Church (1997)

In each of the four canonical Gospels, Jesus is portrayed in terms of kenosis, or self-emptying. In none of the canonical Gospels is the scandal of the cross removed in favor of the divine glory. In each, the path to glory passes through real suffering. Despite all the diversity concerning the details of Jesus' ministry, the canonical Gospels agree on this fundamental pattern.
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus (1996)

For those just now tuning in, Western Christianity is in the midst of a massive intramural contest over just what exactly it means to follow Jesus. Fortunately & strategically, Holy Week reminds us of and recalibrates us towards a creative & constructive imitation of Jesus' life of service, sharing & sacrifice. If the various brands of Christianity (from evangelical to ecumenical, from Catholic to Charismatic, from fundamentalist to free thinking) can come together on Thursday and focus our respective energies & resources on acting out the Gospel script (Jesus washing his disciples' feet), we can realistically hope for a more compelling witness to our audacious claim that a redemptive Something pervades our existence.

According to biblical scholar Wes Howard-Brook, the meaning of Jesus' footwashing is deep and layered, but two key implications emerge:
1. Followers of Jesus are exhorted to vulnerability and intimacy within their community. It starts with a personal and communal focus on the dirty work of washing others and the uncomfortable work of being washed by others.

2. The command for priests to wash their feet before they meet God (Exodus 30:19) is extended to all would-be followers of the Way. Everyone has access to the Divine (no longer limited to male professional religionists working in a "sacred" building).
Ultimately, Jesus' scandalous act of footwashing, the day before his torturous murder, infuses his followers with a different kind of mentality altogether. This Christ-consciousness, what biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson calls the "messianic pattern," is the glue that holds together the diversity of the four Gospels, not to mention the rest of the New Testament documents. If Christianity means anything at all, it surely must entail a rugged commitment to a self-donating love of friends & family, even those who betray us.

On the night of his arrest & torture, Jesus stripped down and washed the feet of every one of his followers (even those of his betrayer), providing an example of humility and service for the ages. After all, 1st century Palestinian society was enmeshed in a hierarchical & patriarchal ordering of social, political & economic relationships. Everyone clearly knew their place in society, with Caesar at the very top. Conventional wisdom would have had the disciples (or hired servants) extending the hospitality to Jesus, being the elderly male, the master & teacher in the room. But Jesus flipped the script and set the standard for what ought to be emulated after his death.

Ironically, Jesus' downward mobility is "good news" in an gratuitously unequal North American culture obsessed with status, power & image. The key to faithful appropriation of Jesus' example, though, is an understanding of social power, and who has it in any given context. According to Elaine Enns & Ched Myers, in the second volume of Ambassadors of Reconciliation (2009), it is all about "our willingness & ability to apprehend critically how power is distributed in our own households and communities, in the specific political scenarios we wish to engage, and in the broader society in which we live and work."

As a white heterosexual male, I have been literally born into power & privilege. Jesus' water basin calls me to consistently recognize this and to stand down, so that the voices, talents & gifts of others may be offered towards the beautification & redemption of the world. This critical analysis (known as "social mapping") will take intentionality, time, effort & energy. It doesn't just happen. As always, this discipline requires both personal inventory & prophetic imagination. It calls me to daily examen my own motivation & maneuvering and calls me to downgrade the degrees I've "earned" & the propped-up identities I cherish. But it also challenges me to expose & confront the ways that systems discriminate based on gender, race, class & sexual orientation.

Before Jesus sat down & offered the symbols of his body & blood poured out in love for the sake of the world, he erased the unwritten power rules of his day, becoming the lowly slave. We must not forget that the filthy water came before the wafer & the wine. And we must walk the path of Holy Week in order: Holy Thursday comes before Good Friday & Easter Sunday. Before the triumph of the tomb, our lives must bear witness, in word & deed, to the towel & the torture. As Martin Luther King reminded his fellow Christian brothers & sisters over and over 50 years ago, "The cross we bear precedes the crown we wear."

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