The Scandal of Service – Br. James Koester

Exodus 12: 1-4 (5-10) 11-14; Psalm 116 1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

As you can imagine, incorporation into a monastic community is no easy thing. When a man comes into our community, suddenly everything, and I mean everything, is new and strange. The place is new and strange. The ways things are done are new and strange. And the people … well enough said about the people. One thing that is quickly evident is that every household and community has its quirks and monastic communities no less so than others. Sometimes those quirks are on full display for everyone to see, but on occasion those quirks are evident only to those “in the know” and are revealed to others only over time. Few of those sorts of quirks can be explained. Most of them must be intuited. And that is where the monastic rubber hits the road. Over time, a man either “gets it” and begins to fit in, and feels as if he fits in, or he doesn’t “get it” and never quite fits.

Tonight we have one of those community quirks on full display for everyone to see, and we either “get it” or we don’t. But there is a twist tonight, for unusually all the disciples “get it” this time, and most of us, even with hindsight don’t. We miss the enormous significance of what is taking place before our very eyes.

Peter, perhaps for the first time didn’t miss it. Peter “got it” and was shocked, even scandalized. It wasn’t that he was embarrassed, or feeling prudish. He wasn’t being shy or withdrawn or afraid that he might be ticklish. Peter was out and out shocked and scandalized by what was taking place and he couldn’t hide it, or contain it or withhold it. It was shock and scandal that made him cry out in absolute horror “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”1

It was not a question Peter was asking Jesus as someone might ask another if they were about to do some routine errand. It was a statement of shock, horror and even revulsion. Peter didn’t care that his feet smelt, that he was ticklish or even that his feet were cracked, dirty and covered in filth. What appalled him was that Jesus would stoop so low as to do such a humiliating thing as wash his feet.

We need to remember that foot washing was a common, routine, every day event but that the person who carried the bowl, poured the water, rubbed healing balm into the dry cracked skin and then dried them was not the head of the household, or a respected teacher, but the household slave or some servant girl. Peter probably wanted, if not needed his feet to be washed after a day walking the filthy streets of Jerusalem, but wasn’t there a servant or a woman available to do it?

What shocked Peter was not the sense of humility or service that Jesus displayed as he stooped to wash his feet, but the act of humiliation and servitude. And that’s what Peter “got”. He “got it” that this was an act of humiliation and servitude. We can catch a tiny glimpse of what this meant for Peter when we remember the horror the world experienced when Princess Diana took the hand of a man living with AIDS into her bare, un-gloved hand and shook it. In that instant, in the guise of an ordinary, human act, The Princess of Wales began to change the face of AIDS. In the same way, in the guise of an ordinary human act Jesus changed the face of humiliation into humility and servitude into service and in so doing, changed the world. And it all began when he got down on his knees.

Tonight you and I have the opportunity to change the world once again in acts of humility and service. So remember, this is not about you. It doesn’t matter if you are embarrassed or shy or ticklish or prudish. It is not about you. In the same way, The Princess of Wales knew instinctively that her handshake was not about her, but it was about the person before her upon who she bestowed the grace of human dignity.

So if you are feeling prudish, or embarrassed or afraid you are ticklish, I have three words for you: “get over it”. This is not about you. But also, as you kneel before the feet of the other, don’t think you are getting off so lightly either. Remember that for Jesus humility and service led to bloodied knees and nail pierced hands and feet. In the end, the same must be true for us if our service to bear the marks of Christ.

Tonight, Peter for a change “got it” because he was shocked and horrified by the act of humiliation and servitude. But what he only began to understand afterwards is that in washing his feet, Jesus changed humiliation into humility and servitude into service. In that way Jesus changed the world and brought the reign of God one step closer.

When you and I are prepared to fall on our knees before another in acts of humility and service we too have the opportunity to change the world. But I warn you, our knees will become sore and our hands will become wounded. So remember, this isn’t about you. It’s about bringing in the realm of God through acts of humility and service, and if that doesn’t shock us and cause us to fall on our knees as well, maybe we still haven’t “got it”.

1 John 13: 6b

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  1. Richard on April 27, 2011 at 06:02

    Great sermon – thanks, Br. James, SSJE. I wish more people to know how important Maundy Thursday service is.

  2. Alan Broadhead on April 23, 2011 at 13:12

    Thank you.


  3. Kalita Blessing on April 23, 2011 at 07:38

    So very well said! I wish this was preached at every Maundy Thursday service so everyone could understand why it is important to participate!
    With gratitude, Kalita

  4. Jose on April 22, 2011 at 12:13

    Thank you, I just “got it” –

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