I am really intrigued by the new pope, Pope Francis. First, it’s hard to believe that no previous pope has used the name Francis. Saint Francis of Assisi is one of the most beloved and recognizable religious figures. But then he chose to not be ordained into the Catholic priesthood, brought the message of Jesus to ordinary people although not licensed to do so, and devoted himself to a life of poverty. Even when he was still a Cardinal in Argentina, Jorge Bergoglio lived in a simple apartment, cooked his own meals, and paid his own way when in Rome. He has not moved into the papal suite, worships with regular people, and doesn’t wear red shoes. It makes me wonder how off-balancing this must be to those rooted in the rigid structures and power circles of the Vatican.
This day is the beginning of the Big Three Days (Triduum, for those who like Latin) before Easter: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. They mark the climactic events of Jesus’ life central to the Christian faith. In the midst of the religious and political drama, it’s ironic that our biblical guide John tells of Jesus doing something not religious at all. In fact, it is ordinary, secular, and scandalous. In the honor shame culture of first century Palestine, no self-respecting rabbi would ever consider performing a task reserved for the lowest servant.
Jesus washes the feet of his friends. This non-religious, humble service, and act of love by Jesus for his friends offered an alternate encounter with God. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another (John 13:34). Jesus’ entire purpose was about demonstrated God’s love and offering a new way to access God.
As its very best, religious practice is a means to encounter God. Worship, prayer, scripture, music, art are all opportunities to experience God in and through one another. Religion breaks down when the practices and systems become a means to an end and we substitute a real relationship with God with religiosity.
Jesus demonstrated an intimacy that made even his friends uncomfortable when he knelt to wash their feet. His time left with them was drawing to a close. And then what?
Jesus came to be with us, among us, and for us. He showed us how to make space for those we might otherwise overlook – the last, the lost, the little, the least, and the lifeless. And he invites us to a new journey. You can be certain that it will be full of the ordinary and often messy stuff of life and relationships. Be sure to watch for the exposed religious roots that you don’t get tripped up on the real journey.
In case you’re not familiar with the story, here is John’s account:
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him.
And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he 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 also 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 13:1-17).