Taking on Godness
And so, on this holiest of nights, we complete the
readings of our salvation history as we remember the creation, the passover of
the Hebrews from the bondage of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promise
Land, and the promises of new life made to our forebears. Promises which we see
fulfilled in the Passover of Jesus Christ from death to life and our own Passover
from the clutches of the sin matrix into new life in Christ.
This ancient service comes to us from the second
century. It is first described in the Apostolic Tradition of Hipplytus, a
document which was probably written in Rome about 215CE. So Christians have
been observing the first eucharist of Easter in this way for at least 1800 years.
Some of the elements that we enjoy, such as the lighting of the new fire and
the chanting of the Exsultet were added later, perhaps in the fifth century,
with at least the new fire coming from the Celtic tradition.
On Good Friday we extinguish all candles and consume
any reserved sacrament. So in this service we light the new fire of Christ’s
love and then the Paschal Candle which is carried at the front of the
procession representing the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by
night which led the Hebrews during the Exodus. We also celebrate the first
eucharist of the Resurrection together.
It is a time of new beginnings.
Because of that, it is the principle time of the
year for baptisms. In ancient days candidates for baptism would be prepared for
many weeks if not months, as much as two years before this service and would
sit up all night hearing readings and being given instruction before being
baptized at cockcrow.
I’m telling you all this because there is something
about this service that bothers me. If I were constructing it from scratch I would
do it differently. Because it seems that there is something missing.
We have heard the story of the people of God in the
Old Testament, and in a few minutes we will hear the story of the resurrection.
But we completely miss the incarnation. Nowhere in tonight’s liturgy of the
word does God take flesh and come among us.
Instead, at the pivotal point of the service, just
when you might expect John’s gospel, echoing the creation story to tell us “In the beginning was the Word, and the
Word was with God, and the Word was God…” we move to baptism and the renewal of
our baptismal covenant. We again make our commitments as the people of God, as the
Body of Christ in the world.
So, instead of Jesus’
incarnation, we find an emphasis on our vocation to be God incarnate – God with
flesh on. Instead of remembering God taking flesh, we celebrate our calling to
take on Godness. Instead of remembering God taking flesh, we celebrate our
calling to take on Godness.
The same Hippolytus
who recorded the early Vigil services talks about baptism in this way:
Do you see, beloved…
the purifying power of baptism? For he who comes down in faith to the laver of
regeneration [that is to baptism] and renounces the devil, and joins himself to
Christ; who denies the enemy, and makes the confession that Christ is God; who
puts off the bondage, and puts on the adoption,— he comes up from the baptism
brilliant as the sun, flashing forth the beams of righteousness, and, which is
indeed the chief thing, he returns a son of God and joint-heir with Christ.
That’s us. We came up from baptism “brilliant as the
sun, flashing forth the beams of righteousness, and, which is the chief thing”….
Returning as sons and daughters of God and joint-heirs with God.
God’s incarnation in Jesus continues in us. We are
the baptized, we are the resurrection people, we are the incarnation of God in
Los Osos in the 21st century.
Just as God incarnated in Jesus, becoming one with
humanity so through our baptism are we become one with God.
This does not mean, however much my ego wants to
make it so, that I am God. That would be idolatry. I am not God but I am part
of God while still very much human. And so are you. We are individually
dwelling places of the Holy Spirit and how much more we are together the temple
of the Holy Spirit, the mystical Body of Christ - which is why it is so
important that I let go of my judgments and all the things in my mind that keep
me separate from you. Only when we come to God together do we get to be that which we were created to be. As we
heard Jesus say in the gospel on Thursday, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just
as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will
know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
Just as the Trinity is
joined together by love and mutual service and surrender, so are we joined to
one another and to the Godhead.
It is really quite astonishing -that we, the very fallible
and idiosyncratic people that we are, are called to be a manifestation of God
in our world. It is beyond our comprehension, and so we get to take it on
faith. We are no longer just human – as the twice born, we participate in
Christ’s death and resurrection. However messed up we may be, in a very real
sense we are part of God through God’s gift – not as a result of anything we
have done. But through God’s grace we get to participate in the creation of God’s
reign. Now that we have been raised with Christ into the Godhead, we get to
actively participate not only in our own sanctification but in the redemption
of the whole planet.
The incarnation is not missing from the account of salvation history in this Great
Vigil, but comes in a different form. It comes in you and in me. It comes in
you and me and him and her. Through our
baptism we are the incarnation of
God. In Christ we have passed over from the clutches of the matrix of sin into
the reign of God, into new life as God’s adopted children, and joint heirs with
What a privilege. What a responsibility.
You also ought to wash one another's feet
I have never yet had a pedicure. I considered having
one this year in honor of my advancing years but still haven’t made the plunge.
There’s something very odd, I think, about having someone else touch your feet,
especially when it means them kneeling or sitting below you. I think it’s the
combination of having someone else handling my feet which are no longer as pretty
as they once were, and are nearly always demurely covered, with the discomfort
of being served by someone who’s not on an equal level. That may also be why quite
a few of us don’t want to take part in the Maundy Thursday foot-washing. Of
course there’s always the concern that your feet might be dirty or your socks
might have holes in or possibly even smell a little sweaty, but I think it mainly
comes from a basic social embarrassment – we just don’t do that.
The disciples seem to have had a similar response to
Jesus putting on a towel and washing their feet. Outspoken Peter puts in into
words, "Lord, are you going to
wash my feet?" and then when he realizes Jesus is deadly serious,
"You will never wash my feet." Washing
feet wasn’t so unusual in a dusty land where people wore sandals, but it
certainly wasn’t done for a master to wash his disciples’ feet. But Jesus is
insistent. Jesus does it anyway, despite their discomfort and their protestations.
This was so important that the writer of John’s gospel
doesn’t even mention the bread and wine of the last supper. He just describes
Jesus getting down and washing his disciples’ feet. And then he says, “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.”
We should also do as he
has done. As we heard in the reading from Philippians this last Sunday, Christ
Jesus “ emptied himself, taking
the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human
form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death
on a cross.” That is our example – that is our pattern.
We are called to empty ourselves of our own
egos, those parts of us that worry about social convention, that feel
embarrassed because our feet are just like every other humans’ feet –
functional, worn, tired, sweaty; we are called to empty ourselves in surrender
to God. Just as Jesus became obedient even unto death, so we too are called to
be obedient – to take our part in the plan for the redemption of the world.
Surrender is not a comfortable word. But this is
not a comfortable gospel. It’s awkward and prickly and a bit embarrassing. It’s
not about feeling good and having a nice time but about serving God and serving
The story of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest is one
of surrender. Jesus could have evaded the soldiers. He did not. Jesus could
have resisted arrest. He did not. Jesus could have prevented Judas from going
to the authorities. He did not. Why not? Because he knew that it was inevitable
and in a way necessary. He knew that the forces of this world could not and
would not rest until he was dead. And he also knew that somehow in the divine
wisdom of God which is so very different from the wisdom of this world, that out
of that apparent defeat, out of that apparent disaster would come an amazing
manifestation of God’s love.
And that is what comes out of our surrender. As
we surrender to the Spirit of God, allowing ourselves to be made holy - even
though it means letting go of things that we have valued - something new,
something that we can’t predict happens and God’s love is manifest in our world
in an important way.
Washing each other’s feet is not glamorous. It’s
a little weird and a little uncomfortable. But it is a powerful symbol of the
mission we have been given. Like Jesus, we are called to a life of surrender
and service. An in this symbol we have both. The surrender that allows another
to serve us in a curiously intimate way; and the humble service that the very
same act symbolizes.
How would it have been different, I wonder, if
we only had John’s gospel? If instead of bread and in the Eucharist being the sacrament of Christ’s love and our
participation in the Body of Christ, it had been this act of washing and being
washed that had become the central rite and rhythm of our life together?
I suggest that this evening we each take the
opportunity to notice how it makes us feel. Do we resist having our feet
washed? Do we want to be the washer as quickly as possible? Or is it rather
icky touching another’s feet, or perhaps it’s the kneeling down or not being
sure that we’ll do it quite right? Are we challenged by the act of surrender or
the act of service? What excuses do we
use to keep us sitting in our pews?
As we act out this metaphor of Christ’s
obedience and self-giving love, and our own call to join him in his ministry,
what is the Holy Spirit saying to us? What is there in us that needs to die
with Jesus on the cross and be transformed in his resurrection life?
May the Holy Spirit speak loudly and clearly to
each one of us tonight and may we have the humility to empty ourselves enough
to hear and, like Christ, to be