A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 9, 2009 (Maundy Thursday)
“Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Total immersion. That’s the goal of discipleship. To leap right into unabashed and unfettered relationship with Jesus Christ. But so often we approach faith the way I approach a swimming pool. Especially early in the season when the water hasn’t yet warmed up. I’ll dip in a toe, cringe, and go sit back down on my chaise lounge. After awhile I’ll return to the water’s edge, put in another toe, perhaps even an entire foot, realize it hasn’t gotten any warmer in the past ten minutes, and head back to my spot under the umbrella.
Contrast this with the way most children approach a pool. I’m lucky if I can finish slathering on the sunscreen before my boys tear off and jump gleefully into the water. They’re always complaining about how long it takes me to get into the water. And my arguments about the greater surface area of the adult body fall on deaf ears.
Many of us spend a good portion of our lives approaching God hesitantly, tentatively, fearfully. Precisely the same way I get into an unheated swimming pool. And in so doing we miss much of the potential joy of relationship with God.
But not Peter. He brings a childlike enthusiasm to his faith and it’s on full display in that Upper Room as the disciples gather for what would become known as the Last Supper. He’s always bringing his over-exuberance to bear on his relationship with Jesus. You get the sense he’d jump right into a swimming pool without even testing the water. Whether it’s offering to build three booths as Jesus is transfigured up on the mountain or trying to walk to Jesus on the water, Peter is all too eager to please. He makes mistakes, he makes a fool of himself, but he jumps right in. And it is upon the rock of Peter that Jesus will build his church.
And we can learn something from this because Jesus wants us to be, not perfect, but perfectly committed. And that demands the total immersion of discipleship. Our own conservative nature can limit a potentially dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ. We dip in a toe when Jesus wants us to jump boldly in. We go in up to our ankles when Jesus wants us to let loose with a cannon ball. “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
But first Peter and the rest of the disciples have to understand that their relationship with Jesus is changing. That’s what this meal is about, after all. Their Lord will physically leave them the next day when he is hung on a cross to die. He will no longer be physically but spiritually present. Unbeknownst to them, they will know him in a new way, an unconceivable way as their resurrected Savior. But all in good time. Jesus is preparing them by strengthening the community of believers – and it all comes down to the “New Commandment” – the mandatum – ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ And once Peter glimpses the new dynamic he seeks total immersion. “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
It’s no wonder that Jesus’ act of washing the disciples’ feet also evokes strong baptismal imagery. If we think about our own baptism as the total immersion of being marked as Christ’s own forever, as the total immersion into the Christian faith, as the total immersion into the ministry of the baptized, we are brought right into the heart of the Last Supper. Right into that Upper Room. For no matter in what manner we were baptized, we can’t live our lives as if we’ve been sprinkled with a few drops from a silver baptismal shell. We must live our lives with the abandon of total immersion. This is what Jesus means when he urges us to enter the kingdom as a child: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Think of kids leaping into a pool in the middle of August and you have a sense of what Jesus wants us all to do spiritually. To participate fully, to be immersed totally. It’s not about “sink or swim” or “leap before you look.” It’s a matter of jumping in with the full assurance that Jesus is swimming right alongside you, guiding you, helping you navigate the currents of life.
In a few moments we will wash one another’s feet in a tangible sign of the mandatum. And whether you choose to participate or simply observe, the message is the same: we serve one another as Christ himself serves us; we love one another as Christ himself loves us. The foot washing is Jesus’ gift to his disciples just as the giving of his life will be a gift to the entire world. Unless we allow Jesus to serve us and we reciprocate by following him fully, we will never move beyond more than a shallow relationship with him.
Relationship with God is a balance between serving Christ and allowing yourself to be served by him. Hopefully it’s a creative tension. But many of us are a lot better at serving others than allowing others to serve us. We don’t like being dependent upon others; we don’t like feeling needy; we’d much rather metaphorically wash someone else’s feet than have our own washed. So perhaps a spiritual goal for you should be to allow Christ’s hospitality into your heart and soul and marrow. Try saying to him, right along with Peter, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
At the town pool, my excuses eventually run out. Maybe it’s my own pride; maybe it’s the boys’ constant nagging to get in the water and play. But eventually I just jump in and immerse myself in the watery depths and, after a few moments, the cold water shock to the system subsides. I realize it’s not so bad after all and I wonder what took me so long. It’s the same way with total immersion in the spiritual life. And that’s what Holy Week really is for those with the courage and commitment to experience the fullness of the journey. Total immersion leads to total transformation. Come on in; the water’s fine.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2009