This past week, I heard a gripping story on NPR. You see, an Episcopal Church in Davidson, North Carolina commissioned an artist to create a statue of Jesus close to their downtown, fairly affluent church. This would not be newsworthy except the statue they created was of a homeless Jesus lying on a park bench. The only indicators that this man was indeed Jesus were the wounds on his hands and his feet. The reaction to this statue has been very mixed--one passerby even called the cops on Jesus before they realized this man was hewn of bronze rather than flesh. While some may say that such a portrayal of Jesus is inaccurate, I would posit that it is indeed a matter of how we perceive Jesus. Jesus was indeed a homeless baby as he was born in manger and later was a refugee in Egypt. Scripture makes reference to Jesus having no place to lay his head. Jesus' mission took him all around Israel as he became an itinerant teacher, preacher, and healer. Maybe the idea of a homeless Jesus is not too much of a hyperbole at all.
On the night Jesus gathered with his disciples, he gathered for the Passover. Remember that the Passover meal was celebrated every year. This meal marked the night Israel was set free from Egypt. It was the night the people of Israel found a new identity--a new purpose. They were quite literally no longer slaves. They were now free people. The Passover was the meal that solidified the identity of the Israelites as people who had been set free by God. In that meal, Jesus changed how his disciples perceived him. He went from King to servant in the span of a few hours. By candlelight, Jesus stooped over, bending down on one knee, and washed his disciples' feet.
I have always had vivid images in my mind of this night. I picture Jesus and his disciples reclining around a long table. I see shadows splashing across the terracotta walls. I see the flickering of the candlelight revealing bits and pieces of the look on Jesus' face. And I see the hard, mud floor from which their feet are raised as they prepare to eat and recline. And I remember that from this point of the story of the Gospel of John all that is revealed is called the Book of Glory. And just before this amazing story is enacted, lived, and then told, Jesus says to his disciples, “So what I say, I say as the Father told me.”
Yes, Jesus is clearly about the task of revealing his identity as the One who has come. In fact, he says, “From now on, I am telling you before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe that I AM.” If we can glean anything from Johannine theology it is that John wants us to know that Jesus is the Messiah and that Jesus knows that he is the Messiah. Jesus is not only preparing himself for what is to come, but he is preparing us by revealing as much as he can about his true identity before his Hour comes.
John notes that Jesus removes his outer robe. The word remove in Greek is the same word used to describe Jesus laying down his life. Jesus then wipes the disciples feet, dries them off, gets them clean. The same word for wiping is used when Jesus’ body is anointed. And, of course, ultimately as Jesus washes and wipes, we who know the end of the story know that the body of Jesus will be taken down off a cross. That same body will be washed, wiped, and anointed. Jesus is brilliantly drawing the disciples to him, and into him, by washing their feet.
Peter protests Jesus’ request. There is no way that he wants his Lord to scrub under his toenails and to rub down his calluses. His Lord is not his slave—and washing feet was usually the work of slaves and servants. But, Peter doesn’t get it. And why should he? This is strange behavior. Having your Lord and leader pushing a basin around a crowded table in the middle of a special meal. Squatting at Peter’s feet. It just doesn’t seem right. But, Jesus tells him, “Peter, unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Jesus tells Peter that he must become Peter’s footwasher so that they can share fellowship together. The master must become the servant so that a true relationship, a true intimacy will follow. Jesus does not symbolically wash Peter’s feet. He gets down between the speckles of dust and the bruised toenails and he washes. He develops an intimate relationship with Peter in his self-giving bath.
While none of this would make sense in the midst of the Passover Seder and supper, it is another piece of the true identity of our Lord, Jesus. Tonight as our Eucharistic supper comes to a close, we will begin to see this place begin to fall apart. The altar will be deconstructed piece by piece. Chaos ensues as kneelers and candlesticks are removed from the place where we expect to see them. Another identity of Jesus becomes clear. Jesus soon will be going to the cross. His hour has come. And while John says it is his hour to be glorified by God the Father, the rest of us mostly see betrayal, tragedy, and pain. We may see the victim. We have come to that hard spot in our Holy Week where we look over the abyss and the only thing we see is the cross. All these scattered garments and stolen coins lead us to the cross of Good Friday.
There we gaze at Jesus. Another image of Jesus. Another identity. Homeless as homeless can be hanging there in the desert sun with his hands nailed to splintery wood. Feet nailed together as the blood rushes out of his body. Cruciform without a place to lay his head. This time, however, he is real flesh and real bones, not bronze lying on a park bench.