Let us pause for a moment in prayer:
God of all times and places,
we give thanks and praise to you.
You hold us with love and patience
as we struggle to find our way as people of faith.
In Jesus, you gave us an example to follow –
a way of seeing the world with eyes fixed on justice
and hearts filled with love.
Help us to have the courage to live Christ’s example
in our relationships within our church family,
our community and the wider world.
With gratitude for your loving presence,
and the patient prompting of your Spirit in our lives,
we offer our heartfelt prayer.
This week as I was preparing for our worship service, the theme, “We are called to be the Church…To love and serve others”, was very much on my mind and I kept remembering a story that exemplifies the power of love in the service of others. It is a true story that happened in the United States a number of years ago. There was a college professor who gave his sociology class an assignment that took them to the slums of Baltimore to record case histories of 200 young boys. Along with the case studies the students were asked to write an evaluation of each boy’s future. Without exception the students said of each boy, ‘He hasn’t got a chance.’ Twenty-five years later another sociology professor came across the earlier study. He had his students follow up on the project to see what had happened to these boys. With the exception of 20 boys who had moved away or died, the students learned that 176 of the remaining 180 had achieved more than ordinary success as lawyers, doctors, and businessmen. The professor was astounded and decided to pursue the matter further. Fortunately, all the men were in the area and he was able to ask each one, ‘How do you account for your success?’ In each case the reply came with great emotion, ‘There was a teacher.’ The teacher was still alive, so the professor found her and asked the now elderly woman what magic formula she had used to pull these boys out of the slums into successful achievement. The teacher’s eyes sparkled and her lips broke into a gentle smile. ‘It’s really very simple’, she said. ‘I loved those boys.’ (Chicken Soup for the Soul, Love the Creative Force, p.3-4)
Jesus knew the power and efficacy of love. Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus embodied God’s love for the world. He treated everyone, regardless of their status in the society and culture of his time, with great love and respect. He exemplified a life of loving service and he wanted to make sure his followers understood this as a necessary foundation for the continuation of the ministry that they shared. Near the end of his life Jesus gathered with his disciples and shared what was to be their last meal together. Each of the four gospel accounts recalls this event. (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23; John 13:1-20) Matthew, Mark and Luke detail the ritual of the sharing of the bread and wine as the central feature of this gathering. John, on the other hand, does not mention this ritual presumably because it was a common Jewish custom that Jesus often shared with his disciples. Instead, John’s Gospel highlights the fact that Jesus interrupts the meal to wash his disciples’ feet and to give them a new commandment that was central to their ministry together.
Jesus did things in unusual, often shocking ways, to make a point. It appears that as time was running out he wanted to get his disciples’ attention and to impress upon them the importance of love and service. In the case of today’s story from the Gospel of John, Jesus abruptly got up from the supper table, interrupting the meal, took off his outer robe and tied a towel around himself, poured some water in a basin and washed his disciples’ feet.
The washing of feet was the first act of hospitality offered to guests upon their arrival to a home. In a hot and dusty land where people mostly travelled by foot it would be a welcome ritual to have one’s feet bathed and soothed from the labour of travelling. But, this ritual welcome was not done by the host but rather a servant, if there was one, or the lowliest occupant of the household if no servant was available. Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet would have been surprising to those gathered firstly because it was done within the context of the evening meal. They had not just arrived at the house but were already eating their meal when Jesus got up from the table and began to wash their feet. Secondly, Jesus was acting in the role of servant when he washed his disciples’ feet. This is not the way a teacher and leader would normally have acted in Jesus’ day. But this was exactly Jesus’ point, he was setting an example of a way of service which he wanted his disciples to emulate.
After Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and 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 and 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)
This is a very powerful statement about equality and an egalitarian model of living and serving in community. The Gospel of Mark reinforces this image of servant-leadership when it states, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…” (Mark 10:45) and Luke notes that Jesus said, “I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:24-27)
When I think of people in my lifetime who have exemplified this model of Christian love enacted in servant-ministry, the first person who comes to mind is the late Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa frequently said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love”. And yet, while most people were wrestling with feelings of frustration at the inability of the individual to make a difference in the world, day by day she made a difference in the slums of Calcutta where she lived and worked. While others wished for more power and resources so they could change the world, she utilized the power of God’s great love and the resources at hand to do what she could for people in the moment, one person at a time. She always said that if she looked at the immensity of the situation she would have been rendered powerless by the overwhelming need but she focussed on one person at a time and had faith that God was guiding and empowering her. And, bit by bit, the people around her were transformed by God’s love and her dedication to Christ’s ministry. She inspired others to join in this ministry of service which she had embraced.
Mother Teresa also said,
“Jesus went about doing good and we are trying to imitate him now because I believe that God loves the world through us. Just as God sent Jesus to be God’s love, God’s presence in the world, so today God is sending us. …Love cannot remain by itself – it has no meaning. Love has to be put into action, and that action is service.”
Mother Teresa took seriously Jesus’ mandate to love and serve others. She also took seriously Jesus’ words as recalled in today’s reading from Matthew that whatever acts of hospitality, generosity and justice offered to another person is like offering it to Christ himself. Mother Teresa used to say that whenever she looked into the face of another person she would remind herself that was looking into the face of Christ and serving him.
Jesus words reinforce this belief, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)
At the Bible Study gathering this past week at Garden View, we talked about what Jesus meant by “the least of these”. We agreed that Jesus didn’t mean that some people were of more value or status but rather that everyone, especially those who were marginalized and vulnerable in society, were equal members of the same human family. His intention, I believe, was to remove judgment about the worthiness of an individual and to recognize that everyone, no matter their circumstance, is a beloved child of God.
The biblical commentary, Feasting on the Word, gives the suggestion that what we are called to remember is what Jesus said:
“ ‘When you did it to one of the least of these, my family, you did it to me’ – not, please notice, just the certifiably hungry and truly deserving. The only criterion he set was ‘least of these’, which means those who are weak and vulnerable, the little ones…So what you and I can do and are called to do is not ignore or overlook, but to look into a human face and to see the face of Jesus Christ, because that is what he said.”
(Feasting on the Word,Year A, Volume 4, pg. 332, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
With this in mind, I offer in closing a traditional Celtic blessing:
May the Christ who walks on wounded feet
walk with you on the road.
May the Christ who serves with wounded hands
stretch out your hands to serve.
May the Christ who loves with a wounded heart
open your hearts to love.
May you see the face of Christ in everyone you meet,
and may everyone you meet
see the face of Christ in you.
(Voices United 349)