Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Stooping to Greatness

No servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.

                        John 13.16

A Motley Crew

Sometimes when reading the Gospels and straining for a realistic picture of their scenes and players, I have to chuckle, if only because the disciples were a genuinely motley crew—a mismatched assortment of rejects and rebels pretty much up for anything. They’re made up of a couple fishermen, a few with unrecorded occupations, a tax collector, and two activists. Although their backgrounds vary, they don’t seem too worried with where they sleep, what they eat, where they’ve been, or where they’re going. We know cash is a rare commodity, because at one point they’re too broke to pay the temple tax. (Matthew 17.24-27) One assumes their wardrobes are limited to what’s on their backs and take quite a beating from non-stop travel. They’re also not the most mannerly of men. Peter is hot-tempered and impulsive. James and John are so rowdy Jesus nicknames them “Sons of Thunder.” (Mark 3.17) And in Matthew 15, the scribes and Pharisees are appalled they don’t clean up before dinner, a breach of religious custom no doubt made twice as alarming by their bathing only when facilities became available. It’s fair to think the haloed, holy apostles of Christian iconography bear little resemblance the grungy guys in Jesus’s “posse.” Beautiful and brilliant though Leonardo's Last Supper is, the diners at his table look a lot cleaner and better dressed than the unkempt, shaggy crowd that very likely assembled for Jesus's final Passover celebration.

A Lowly Task

As the Passover meal is served, Jesus does something rather surprising. He strips down and washes each disciple’s feet. Foot washing is a common practice on entering a home, a basic essential to keeping out the dust and grime off the streets. But it’s also a lowly task left to servants or hostesses. Men don’t wash other men’s feet. Yet here’s Christ, on His knees, tending to His disciples’ filthy, calloused, sweaty feet. When Jesus gets to Peter, he balks. “Are you going to wash my feet?” he asks. The idea of his Master lowering Himself to that level shocks and disturbs Peter. Jesus tells him he doesn’t understand it now, but he’ll get it later. That’s not good enough for Peter. He absolutely refuses. “You’ll never wash my feet!” He tries Jesus’s patience. “Unless I wash you,” He answers, “you’ll have no part of me.” (John 13.18) That makes all the difference. Peter replies, “Don’t stop with my feet, then. Wash my hands and my head, too—clean me up top to bottom!”

Setting an Example

Jesus finishes with everyone, including Judas, a fact we shouldn’t overlook. He redresses and asks if they understand what He’s just done. Allowing how utterly unusual it is—bizarre, really, since His washing their feet shatters several deeply ingrained taboos—it’s a good guess the disciples are too aghast to think about what it means. “You call me your Teacher and Lord, and I’ve humbled Myself to wash your feet. Now that I’ve done it, you should do wash each other’s feet. I’m setting an example.” The motley crew glances down the line, probably thinking, “Him, yes; him, maybe; him, not a chance. And that one? Are you kidding?” The very idea must freak them out. Men don’t wash other men’s feet! Like many times before, Jesus’s example falls so far beyond the pale He’s obliged to connect the dots. “A servant is no greater than his master,” He explains, “and a messenger no higher than who sent him.” In essence, He says, “I’ve lowered myself as low as any man can for another as a precedent. From here on, no act of service or kindness is beneath you.” He ends the lesson with this: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13.17)

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” There’s wisdom in that. Submitting to degradation of any sort for any reason not only dishonors us; it dishonors our Creator. Numerous times, Jesus instructs not to give credence to insults or hostility. Paul writes in Romans 14.16: “Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.” The example Christ sets here doesn’t suggest we grovel at our critics’ feet. It’s about acting, not reacting. And, like every other principle Jesus taught, it’s a classic reversal—the inversion of natural logic to obey unnatural ideals. We don’t seek occasions for rising to prominence. We search out opportunities for stooping to greatness.

Nothing and no one is beneath us. We attend to the person others write off as a waste of time. We wrap our arms around those no one else will touch. We ignore social etiquette, cultural taboos, and other “boundaries” intended to isolate undesirables and unfit members from the community. Our Master did it; doing less exposes a dangerously over-inflated opinion of ourselves. As His messengers, we’re no better than He Who sends us. In His after-dinner conversation with the disciples, Jesus says, “Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things.” (John 14.12) If we intend to do greater things, we must stoop lower. Stooping is how we rise.

By lowering Himself to wash His disciples feet, Jesus set a precedent for humility. Nothing and no one is beneath us.

(Tomorrow: Broken)

Postscript: A Blessing in Disguise

I'm grateful to all who left comments and sent emails responding to yesterday’s post about Lee Davenport’s passing. His departure left us who knew him in an unanticipated state of despair. Yet very quickly after posting my reflections on his life and troubles, a blessing in disguise arrived in a comment and email from Lisa Fox of My Manner of Life. Though it’s hard to believe, our paths never crossed before now. But in this very—very—short time, we’ve become friends and fellow travelers on Christ’s path. Lisa describes herself thusly:

I'm a progressive Episcopalian raised in the South and now (thanks to a job change) living in the conservative Midwest. I worship at Grace Episcopal Church in Jefferson City. I love the Episcopal Church, which rescued me from a life of wandering meaningless and gave me a way to explore my faith and belief in God.

Lisa’s passion for her church is only equaled by her devotion to her Savior. Even for those of us outside the Anglican tradition, her posts concerning Episcopalians ring true with the love and knowledge of Christ. The humanity and conviction in her general posts likewise attest to her witness. I enthusiastically recommend My Manner of Life to anyone not familiar with it. It’s another place, and a vital one, where God’s Spirit is gathering so many who once felt unloved and unwelcome.


Lisa Fox said...

Oh, pshaw. You're making me blush, Tim. Thanks for the kind comments, which I fear capture my aspiration more than my accomplishment.

Your "Stooping to Greatness" meditation is very fine. Gave me new insights into that puzzling episode in Jesus' ministry.

Tim said...

No need to blush, Lisa--aspiration is an accomplishment in itself, and your blog accomplishes a great deal beyond that. I also appreciate your kind words about S-F over at your place, but refrained from commenting there as the post primarily focused on Lee. So, thank you!

The past few days, I've just been focused on keeping things here going. But as this lifts, I look forward to popping up in the My Manner comments when I think I can add to the terrific conversations going on over there.

Thanks for the compliment on "Stooping". The episode also has puzzled me for quite some time. I don't know if you're aware of this (though as a Southerner, you probably are), but we Fundies literally DO wash one another's feet from time to time.

I never quite got it--it always looked awkward and inappropriate. And the one time I participated as an adult, it was very uncomfortable. The more I delved into it, I realized that's the point of the whole exercise. It is awkward and inappropriate and uncomfortable. There's also a mysterious, rare beauty beneath the strangeness of it all. I'm still not sure I get the whole of it, nor am I advocating we should all start washing feet. But stooping for uncomfortable, even unseemly acts of service is something I think we all need to do more of.

Joy and peace always to you, dear friend!