They were familiar with slavery, although none of them had likely ever been called “slaves” before. They were familiar with it because it was part of their story. In fact, that is what this whole night was about: the fact that they used to be slaves, but now they weren’t anymore. At one point they had been Pharaoh’s slaves, down there in Egypt—down there in the brickyards of Egypt—but miraculously and magnificently they had been freed. Moses had stood up to Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s top-down regime of power and brutality and eventually won their release. It was an utterly implausible situation: that the slaves on the lowest rung of society had been set free from one of the most ruthless systems of dominance.
|"Agnus Dei" Francisco de Zurbaran c. 1640|
But they had managed it. Actually, God had managed it for them, and that, specifically, is what this night was about. It was about remembering that they had not won that release themselves. Passover was all about recalling that they had been slaves. Year after year it was about gathering for this solemn meal and remembering how God had heard their cries of despair and stooped to answer them. The sacrificed lamb, the blood on the doorposts which indicated slaves lived inside, the bread made without leaven so that it didn’t need to rise—it was a meal that in every way indicated God was on the move and their captivity was over. Participation in the Passover was a reminder that they lived a new life of freedom, a freedom marked not by doing whatever they pleased, but a freedom marked by praise and thanksgiving faithfulness to God’s commandments.
Yet now, in the midst of this meal, in the midst of this retelling of the story that meant freedom these disciples hear their rabbi call them slaves again. It must have been a little jarring, especially when he then gets up from the table and begins washing their feet, a task reserved for slaves, the lowest, the people on the bottom rung, where they once had been. “Very truly, I tell you,” he says, “slaves (or servants) are not greater than their master.” They knew they had been slaves, that it was once part of their identity, but they thought they had gotten beyond it, past it. Now he gives them an example to live by, but it smacks of being on the bottom rung again.
If it hasn’t sunk in already, here in the final hour we get a very clear demonstration: following Christ, being a friend of Christ, as it turns out, is about being received into new kind of slavery, a new kind of servanthood. Just as the journey from Egypt had freed the ancient Israelites for one type of life in the world—that is, a life of praise and thanksgiving in devotion to God their Father—the journey as a disciple gives people a new kind of freedom, a freedom only found in love of neighbor, in humble devotion to each other. For just as God had once heard the Israelites’ cries in Egypt and stooped to their rescue, their master this night had heard their cries of selfishness, their questions of doubt and confusion, and yes, their whispers of betrayal and had stooped once more.
This time, however, he stoops with towel and washbasin and becomes a model for service. Rescued the first time through the mighty waters of the Red Sea, now they are rescued through the waters of humility and servitude. It is a new way of being God’s people, freed into the world for service and love to neighbor. “By this,” he says, “everyone will know that you are my disciples.” To paraphrase one of the great theologians of the early Church, Maximus the Confessor, we don’t assign one form of love to God and another to our neighbor. “The activity and clear proof of perfect love towards God is a genuine disposition of voluntary goodwill towards one’s neighbor.” Here the Master embodies that.
And don’t forget the eating of that meal. In fact, it would be his last one. Although firmly rooted in the Passover tradition and recalling the actions of that old covenant, this meal will embrace them with a new covenant. The bread they share will actually be his own body, again hastily offered up and broken and dispensed with: offered up through betrayal, broken by nails and whips, and dispensed in a tomb. The cup they share will actually be his own blood, shed for the lintel of their hearts.
Here’s what it comes to: at some point we recognize ourselves as slaves, too. At some point we realize this is not just those people back then. This is also about us. This is about all people who are slaves to sin, people who are slaves to the habits of egotism and selfishness and mistrust and hatred. This meal, this moment, is about those living in 2013 who need to be washed clean from the dust of a dirty life, who need to be called children of God again, who, like Peter, may not always know it but who desperately need to be released.
Several years ago I was attending a Tenebrae service on Good Friday. Like all Tenebrae services, over the course of the worship we listened to readings of Jesus’ crucifixion and then, one-by-one, extinguished seven candles on the altar. It was already very dark outside that evening, and as we put out the candles, the lights were also dimmed in the sanctuary so that the whole place got progressively darker. It got down to the final candle, and it was so dark we could no longer read our bulletin or the hymnal. The acolyte eventually went up to the altar to snuff out that last little bit of light, and when she did, the place went black…except for one thing. There, over the door beside the altar, glowing brighter than ever, the big red emergency EXIT sign.
There was no way to turn it off, too, so that we could reflect in complete darkness, but perhaps it unwittingly proclaimed the gospel…like a brush of neon blood over the door frame.
This meal, this moment, this sacrifice, this death, these holy Three Days—this is our exit, our release, our passage from all that enslaves us, too. And here, again, is a God who stoops down not only to wash our feet, but who stoops even farther down—to the cross—and gives himself away. It is a God whose rescue will be so complete that we will even be saved from that which eventually soils all of us, death.
So, we share this meal again. As children of this new covenant, we celebrate our miraculous release into a new way of living: stooping, ourselves, to the needs of each other. Forgiven and released from all that has held us captive, we rise to a new freedom that transforms the world and proclaims God is on the move. Starting at the bottom rung.
Yes, we may call ourselves slaves…or servants, if you must. But not servants who are bound by force that pulls us inward, or bound by guilt or powers of domination. We are now servants who are bound by love. This (+) love.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.