“You’re not lyin’ to me are you? If I find out you’re lyin’ to me – that someone sent you to make sure I’m doin’ things right, I’ll shut this whole damn thing down.”
Frank is a steely man my father’s age who still carries the marks of a hard life. The thing he threatened to end was the ministry he leads. I knew he exaggerated, but that thought was partially eclipsed by his unnerving tone and disposition.
He feared I was sent by the powers-that-be to keep him in line and undercut his authority. He had long felt, for reasons both actual and perceived, the “official” clergy disapproved of the way he, a layman, led this ministry.
Before I approached him to ask if I could lead alongside him that night, it occurred to me that Frank probably assumed, at any given moment, that the world was against him and he was alone. His tone and disposition probably had more to do with managing that insecurity than it was directed at me. Responding to his defensiveness with defensiveness (a common response to Frank) probably only amplified his assumption and reinforced others’ negative perception of his attitude.
“No, Frank. I’m not lying. Do you feel like you’re doing things right?”
“Of course I do,” he retorted.
“I trust you, Frank,” I replied – trying my best to meet his fierce gaze with approving eyes. Although my body’s autopilot told me to pull back, I reached out and laid my hand on his shoulder, still looking directly at him. “I believe in what you’re doing and am excited to serve alongside you tonight.”
Beneath the prickly, fear-generated veneer I saw a soft heart and a man who, in his deep, longed to be loved. He smiled back at me, and we repeated that exchange, as if the first didn’t quite stick, with different words two more times.
Once a year, on Thursday of Holy Week (traditionally named “Maundy Thursday”), our congregation reenacts the scene depicted in John 13 where Jesus washes his disciples feet and gives the “new commandment” (Just as I have loved you – you are to love one another) by washing one another’s feet.
Becoming the type of person who loves well is part of living the truly human life. Yet the church is notoriously bad at loving one another. It’s not for lack of knowledge. We know well that good Christians ought to love and serve one another. But the ability to give love well is directly related to the ability to receive love well, and both require vulnerability.The ability to give love well is directly related to the ability to receive love well, and both require vulnerability. Click To Tweet
Washing feet and (especially) allowing someone to wash your feet requires a lot of vulnerability. Church folks are also not known for vulnerability. We are better known for hiding, covering, blaming and fixing.
Vulnerability is usually hamstrung by shame. Shame leads to the hiding, covering, blaming, and fixing because shame tells us that if we were truly known as we are – if our true self was uncovered – we would not be accepted and loved.
When our fundamental identity is unworthy or unloved, it comes out everywhere, becoming manifest in our actions through worthiness tactics. Worthiness tactics are all those ways we try to manage our shame – either by avoidance, or blame, or desperately grasping for feelings of worthiness through the things we do.
Interpreting the “new commandment” and Jesus’ actions before the meal only as an ethical charge to imitate him by loving one another – inattentive to what makes that type of loving possible – inattentive to how we truly see ourselves – might lead us to get Jesus’ point exactly backward. We might settle for a type of loving that is not truly, fully human.
Much of what we call humble, sacrificial acts of love in the church might just be a worthiness tactic in disguise, compensation for shame, emerging from a deep belief that I need to do this in order to be loved and worthy.
The good news is that Jesus isn’t giving tips about how to be a better Christian before he goes to the cross; rather, Jesus is saying, “this is what my love looks like; I’m inviting you to receive my love – to know that you are loved, so that you can live in it and do likewise.”
On Maundy Thursday, Jesus announces that he loves us by vulnerably, humbly submitting to death. This means truly human love is the kind that must come through the cross. Learning to embrace the self-giving descent of Jesus is the way to move beyond hostility, compensation, and avoidance and into truly human love.
The kind of love that Jesus invites us to receive in the midst of our shame is that kind that, if we let it, will take us down – down to the dark depths of our unworthiness. Jesus went there. He humbled himself into the depths of our unworthiness and loved us to death. He is saying, “Will you let me wash you? Will you let me love you here?”
When Jesus stoops to wash his disciples feet, he turns all semblance of appropriate Jewish conduct on its head by doing the stuff reserved for those on the bottom of the social scale, the servants. He wraps the towel around his wais, strips down to his underwear, strips himself of his glory – his dignity – his rights – taking on the lowliness.
And then he gets to Peter. With the same indignation he expressed at Caesarea Philippi when Jesus said that he would suffer and die, Peter declares, rather incredulously, “this is not what the Messiah does. You will NEVER wash my feet.”
After Jesus qualifies what he’s up to, Peter suddenly reverses course and demands more body parts be washed. Peter is probably thinking in terms of ritual cleansing – the purification process that is a necessary feature of the temple-sacrificial system.
Peter’s logic is this: “I need to get clean to be worthy for this stuff, so maybe if I offer more body parts, then I’ll be extra worthy.”
But Jesus’ logic is, “You are clean – have I not already made clear that I am the locus of God’s very presence? There’s no extra washing necessary. If I say you are clean, you are clean!”
Jesus is inviting Peter to take part in his self-giving love, but Peter is hung up on false assumptions about what following the messiah entails.
Jesus is saying to Peter, “You’re going to have to change the way you see this stuff, Peter … you’re going to need to let go of control here … I’m flipping the world upside down, and if you’re going to join me you need to be flipped with it. Look at what I’m doing, Peter. Can you receive this? Can you hit bottom with me?”
You’re going to need a complete reorientation. I don’t know what you think my love is like, Peter, but this is it.
Jesus is telling Peter and his disciples that truly human love looks like the loss of all things – a complete descent. So in order to receive this kind of love, we have to make the descent – there has to be death.
Peter needs to let Jesus wash his feet because he has no idea what love looks like on his own. He must learn to receive it.
There is a tendency to break apart the fundamental link between receiving and giving love, but we cannot participate in truly human love of one another apart from the vulnerable, self-giving love of Jesus on the cross. The new commandment to “love as I have loved you” is grounded in the new covenant ratified through his death on the cross.
Truly human love is not warm, fuzzy sentimentality. No, it’s the kind of love that scandalizes our expectations and well-devised plans about how our life should be, by striping itself of all its dignity and doing the work we think we’re too good for. The kind of love that is vulnerable and naked and enters into the dirt and junk it didn’t cause.
Receiving Jesus’ vulnerable, self-giving love looks like the death of all our attempts to justify or establish our worthiness – all the hiding, the blaming, the posturing, the fixing. Receiving looks like hitting bottom and realizing that Jesus is there with us and isn’t freaked out by how screwed up we are. In fact, he’s saying, “I see you exactly as you are, and I love you so much I took on your junk for you. Will you let me wash your feet?”
—[Photo by Gagilas, CC via Flickr]