Thursday, March 31, 2016

Things we have left undone

My sermon for Maundy Thursday was based on John 13:1-35.

There is a phrase that has been rolling around in my head throughout Lent, and it is a line from our Confession, indicating that we have sinned against God by what we have done and what we have left undone.

As I have mentioned in an earlier blog, sin is not a popular concept in today's church because historically it has been used to beat people over the head, generating the concept of "Catholic guilt", something that is nonetheless shared by many Protestants, and, I imagine, by devotees of any religion that has a concept of right and wrong.

I have also mentioned that I am less concerned with how my sin makes God feel that how it makes me feel.  The fact of the matter is that when I do something wrong to myself or someone else, I feel bad.  No God is required to heap guilt upon my soul, I am a first-rate heaper of guilt all on my own.

So when I speak of sin, I speak primarily of the things I do that make me angry with myself, not necessarily of the things I have been told make God angry with me.

The reason I say this is that I have been considering the tremendous arc of the Easter Story and all its characters recently, and I realized that in many ways, the Easter Story is a combination of sins, some of which were acts of commission, and others which were acts of omission.  In other words, things done and things left undone.

And how like my own life that is!

There are things that I have left undone, literally for years in some cases: apologies that need to be made, relationships that need to be mended, words of love that need to be shared, confessions of wrongdoing that need to be made.

Oftentimes, I avoid doing these things by saying the timing wasn't right or I will do it the next time I see them or they already know how I feel so I don't need to say it out loud.

In the Gospel passage for Maundy Thursday, probably my favourite service of the Christian year, Jesus had something that he did not want to leave undone, and it has become the basis for one of the most awkward and touching things that a human being can to another or have done to them: the washing of feet.

Foot-washing was fairly common in Jesus' time.  In a dry, hot climate, guests to your home would have walked long distances in sandals, and their feet would be dry and dusty.  It was therefore customary for a host to have his guests' feet washed.  But the key point to retain is it was the job of the lowliest servant in a household to wash visitor's feet.  It was a menial task, one which was likely quite humiliating for the person who had to do it.

But on this night which we now know as Maundy Thursday (from the Latin mandatum, meaning commandment), the night of the Last Supper where Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment, that they love one another as he loved them, Jesus quite literally debases himself to demonstrate to his disciples how they were to love one another.

Obviously, what he is trying to teach them in washing their feet is not that their ministry should consist solely (no pun intended) of washing people's feet, but that it is in acts of service and humility that we should love one another.

When I was younger, I had difficulty making the distinction between humility and humiliation.  There was probably a time when I would have thought washing the feet of others was beneath me, and certainly the disciples felt that way about what Jesus was doing.  They protested loudly that their master should not be stooping so low as wash their feet, but the other way around.

But acts of service are not humiliating.  They are acts of humility.  It is not a question of who is more important than whom.  It is that we are all important, that we are all worthy of love, respect and compassion.  It is not that Jesus had to do what he did.  It is that he wanted to do what he did.

I like to think that Jesus did this out of a certain sense of urgency.  He was anything but naive, and he must have know that by being in Jerusalem he was risking his own life.  He must have know that he had incited the anger of some very important people and they were not going to let him get away with it in their city.

So rather than hold off on this gesture, rather that wait and hope for the best, rather than do it tomorrow, Jesus took the time to spend with his disciples, to talk and eat with them, to teach them and to serve them by washing their feet, thereby setting an example for them.

Where would we be if he had waited till the next day to let them know how he felt about them?  What would have been left undone?

We all have things left undone, and maybe we should take a page from Jesus' example, and get them done.

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