WASHING HANDS OR WASHING FEET?

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John 13:1-5

“He poured water into a basic and began to wash his disciples feet.”

The big news last week was, of course, the controversy in Britain about Easter Eggs.  Cadburys, the chocolate maker together with the National Trust had decided to drop the word Easter from their Easter Egg hunts. The decision incensed Theresa May the Prime Minister who attacked the decision as ridiculous.  It was as though the foundations of the Christian faith were threatened.  But the last time I searched the Scriptures I did not find any reference to Easter Eggs.  So I yawned, turned off my light, and went to sleep.  Lent, Holy Week and the mystery of the Passion of Jesus had been trivialised in the search for chocolate eggs and Easter, sorry, chocolate bunnies. 

But today, on this Maundy Thursday, which begins the final countdown to the Passion and the Darkness that precedes Easter, our thoughts turn to more serious things happening in the world.  There are no Easter Eggs in Aleppo, and no children able to search for them in the rubble if there were. There is only devastation as darkness covers the land, while the leaders of the nations whose, bombers and chemical weapons have wreaked the havoc, seek a solution that serves their interests best, and some are tempted to wash their hands of the whole sordid affair.

Holy Week began with a massive protest march against such ineptitude and evil, an event far more newsworthy than any debate about Easter Eggs.  After all, when a large crowd marches on the capital waving banners, the media gets excited, and those in power take notice and tremble in their boots.  On such occasions the police ensure that violence is prevented, for who knows what might happen on protest marches.  But on this occasion the crowd was peaceful, lining the streets with their banners.  Some of these read “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and others “Hosanna to the Son of David.”  There were also some that said “Long live Jesus of Nazareth, long live!”  Or “Pilate and the Pharisees must go!

But it was a non-violent protest march because its central figure was riding on a donkey.  Even so, this was a direct challenge to those in power: the Sanhedrin, Herod and his lackeys, and the Roman procurator Pilate.  Insurrection had long been in the air.  At that very moment, languishing in Jerusalem’s gaol was a revolutionary Zealot named Jesus Barabbas, who had made inflammatory speeches and tried to overthrow the authorities by violence.  Jerusalem was uneasy, under lock-down we would say today.  The problem was that people were calling this Jesus the Messiah, the one anointed by God to liberate them from oppression.  But where was his army?  All he had was a motley crew of disciples, and popular support from the lower classes.  What threat could this Jesus and his followers present to power?  But the people were enthusiastic.  Their hour had come: “Love live the Son of David! Long live.” 

We know the story well.  The crowd turned against the Man on a donkey, and even his disciples betrayed and denied him.  So he stood before Pilate and the baying mob silently and alone.  Pilate could find no fault in Jesus, but thought he had found a way out of his dilemma.  Let them have Jesus the Messiah and he would crucify the revolutionary Jesus Barabbas.  “Whom do you want me to release to you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” But Pilate had not counted on the fickleness of the people who had decided that this Jesus neither would nor could liberate them.  That required an army led by a man wielding a sword and riding on a horse.  Give us Barabbas, they cried.  So Pilate washed his hands of the whole affair. This was not his responsibility.  He turned his back and went to lunch with his wife.

The dramatic week of Jesus’ passion, from Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday, keeps on playing out in world history.  False Messiahs arise to woo the crowds, only to disappoint them with failed promises and creating havoc in the process.  But the story of the man on a donkey presents us with an alternative, a Messiah whose way to the cross and promise of life through death, offers hope to the world.  Yet too often as we follow him on along that path, and as the cost becomes apparent and darkness covers the land in protest every crime against humanity, we are tempted to betray or deny him, wash our hands and search for Easter Eggs. But we know that our task is to stay the journey, to continue protesting against injustice and corruption, and as followers of Jesus to stand with him in solidarity with the suffering people of the world and in our own country. 

The choice Pilate presented to the crowd that day is thus a perennial choice.  What kind of leaders do we want, or better, do we need?  Or best of all, what kind of leaders does God anoint in order to establish peace and justice?  Those who come riding on a donkey or those in command of a fleet of tanks?  Those whose power is that of sacrificial service on behalf of the people, or those whose power is corrupt and maintained by force?  When the chips are down, do we choose the power of the sword or the power of humility, justice and peace?

But this choice is not just about the leaders we choose, it is also about us, we who make the choice.  For it is easy to blame leaders for what is wrong with the world, and wash our hands of their corruption and folly; it is relatively easy to go on protest marches waving banners.  It is much more difficult to follow Jesus to the cross and stand by him in his hour of need.  So it was that on the night in which he was betrayed and denied by his disciples, Jesus not only broke bread with them, he also washed their feet.  He then commanded them that they should do likewise as a commitment to service and love.  Jesus could have simply washed his hands of the world that was about to crucify him, but he chose instead to wash the feet of his followers.  After he had done so he returned to the table and 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 should do as I have done to you.  Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.  If you know these things you are blessed if you do them. (John 13:12-17) 

 John de Gruchy

Volmoed, Maundy Thursday 2017

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