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Those of you who have ever done any bible study with me will know that I often say as a first question – what jumps out at you, what makes you go hmm?
For me, in this passage, it is the interesting verb in verse 24, how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, or as an alternative translation suggests, love and beautiful work. The response to the sacrifice that Jesus has made for us, the ridding us of the shame and guilt of sin, the faithful promise that we are considered holy and clean in his sight, the response to that gift is a life of love and good works, meeting together and encouraging each other.
But provoke, it seems a hard word to be associated with gentle actions such as love and good deeds. Normally we might see provoke as something negative – eg don’t provoke your brother. Indeed, the word, paroxusmos, appears in Acts 15:39 to describe exactly that – a disagreement between Paul and Barnabas so sharp, cut so deeply, that it made them go their separate ways.
We might translate paroxusmus as provoke, cut sharply, stir up, stimulate, agitate. And I wonder why the author of Hebrews chooses it in relation to good works and love? Perhaps to emphasise how important these actions are to us as Christians. They aren’t an optional extra, but they are the things that should be stirred up, provoked, agitated in us as a response to the sacrifice Jesus has made for us. V 12 “But when Christ has offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God and since then has been waiting until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” Our action in a response to Christ’s loving action for us is to love others. What a perfect way to defeat enemies, with love and good deeds.
As we watch our country’s’ leadership dissolve into confusion and as we hear of the UN envoy reporting on the dire poverty he found in our country, it should provoke us to action. We are confident that the work of salvation has been achieved once for all in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Our response is the work of the Kingdom now. We must love our neighbours and love God and be provoked to action that is transformative, provoked to love and beautiful deeds.
It is our response to the saving power of Christ that provokes us to staff the food bank, collect food and distribute it to those who are hungry. Even in a town like Beaminster people are hungry now, today?
It is our response to Jesus’ sacrifice that provokes us to donate money to Broadwindsor school to buy new books for the library because there is no money in the school budget, cut repeatedly, year after year, to buy books?
It is Jesus’ love that provokes us to take a deep breath before responding to an email from a church treasurer who declares that the focus on prayer during our year of sabbatical is just an excuse for doing nothing?
It is Jesus’ love that provokes us to teach and pray about stewardship when members of a PCC refuse to agree to give any church money away to support other charities?
It is just as well that Christ has offered the sacrifice for my sin because this week I have sinned many times because I am angry at a government that punishes the poorest in society, I am angry at repeated funding cuts to local services, I am angry that I am accused of doing nothing in my work, I am angry that fellow brothers and sisters in Christ are so selfish that they will not share resources to help others. I have not thought good things about any of those people. Yet despite my sinful thoughts and sinful conversations I will pick up again, I will make my confession, I will approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with my heart sprinkled clean from an evil conscience. I will hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.
We are saved from our sin because of what Jesus has done for us. The curtain of the temple has been torn in two, we have confidence to enter into the holiest place. We are set free from the burden of sin, shame and guilt. We don’t need to constantly make sacrifices for our sin, we instead respond to the one sacrifice made on our behalf. Our response is to be provoked to love and good deeds, to encouraging one another and meeting together. We must do this not because we have always done it, or because we want to preserve the Church of England, or because if we don’t do it we are afraid no one else will, or because it makes us look good. We do it because our hearts and lives are transformed by the saving love and action of Jesus Christ. He is patiently waiting for his enemies to be made a footstool under his feet. We must get to work, provoked to love and good deeds, revealing God’s Kingdom: a place of love, forgiveness, beauty, peace, justice, equality and joy.
Hebrews 10: 11-25 – read the text at The Bible Gateway.
We are here, the morning of very unexpected discoveries.
After Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, his denial by Peter, the deserting of the disciples, the mocking by the Romans and his painful suffering and death we reach the end.
This should have been the low point. The moment when the women continued the burial preparations begun 24 hours before. But the power of God transforms this moment of grief into an enormous surprise. It turns out this isn’t the end, but instead a new beginning.
Early in the morning, on the first day of the week. A new beginning, a new revelation, a new understanding. And how can the women and the disciples even begin to take it in?
It is so unexpected.
They expected to find his body there. Instead neatly rolled graveclothes.
They were worried he had been stolen or removed, instead he was present.
They ran, desperate towards the tomb, trying to make sense of yet more sorrow. And then leave again, not realising or quite fully comprehending what has taken place.
It is Mary who waits and then experiences the encounter first with the angel and then with the gardener, who turns out to be more than she expected.
I always love the fact that it is when Jesus speaks her name that she recognises him. It is through her relationship with Jesus, through their intimacy and familiarity with each other and the knowledge of his voice that she knows it his him. Reminding me of God’s promise in Isaiah 43:1, ‘Do not fear, I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine.’
And then a new instruction for Mary. She isn’t to stay here clinging on to Jesus, although surely that is what she wants to do. She must go and share what she has seen with others. Reveal what amazing things have taken place. Tell everyone that she has seen the Lord.
We have the same commission as Mary. And we have the same experience too.
Jesus knows us as his friends, we are in relationship with him. He has called us by name, we are his. He died for us and rose again for us. We meet him here in worship, through prayer, through story, through bread and wine. But we can’t stay here. We can’t cling on to him in this sacred space, if the grave can’t contain Jesus then certainly he won’t stay trapped inside a slightly cold church. Instead we are invited to leave and tell others that we have seen the Lord. We share, with Mary, with the disciples, with Christians all around the world in Christ’s risen life. We share in the forgiveness of sins, we share in worship with God and with one another today, we share bread and wine, we share the life of the church, we share a common faith.
And our response must be to take that new life, that love, that forgiveness, that hope, that joy out into the world and transform the world through love. We meet and see Christ in the lives of others, we share his love with everyone we meet.
Christ did not stay dead. He was not in the tomb. Death could not defeat him; the grave could not contain him.
He is risen, He is alive, He is present with us. I have seen the Lord. Now we must go and share that good news.
This week, this holy week, has been full of difficult and tense relationships. Our pastoral care has served broken relationships, abusive relationships, manipulative relationships and failed relationships. There have been lies and gossip, accusations and half-truths. There have been tears and unkind words. Yet there has also been listening, learning, forgiveness, honesty, reconciliation and glimpses of new life. Because through the love that we receive from God and the freedom we receive from God and the power we receive from God we have been able to offer new life, new chances, forgiveness, grace and acceptance. We can love powerfully and in transforming ways because God loves us and is in relationship with us. We love because Jesus loves us. As Jesus says at the end of John 17:25, just before the account of his death that we will hear read later, ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and those that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have love me may be in them, and I in them.’
We need to hear and know that we are loved. We are accepted. We are adored and cherished and valued. Not for what we do but for who we are, a child of God. God loves you.
The essence of faith for me is knowing that we are loved by God and are in relationship with him. That love is not earned or necessarily deserved. It is freely given. We are made in the image of God and we are cherished by him. He has known us from before we were conceived in our mother’s womb and he will know us into eternity.
The whole of scripture is about relationships. God with us, us with God and us with each other. And time and time again we read or hear about broken relationships, forgotten promises, fractured lines of communication. We strive and fail and fail again to live the way God wants us to. And sometimes we feel that God fails to be the God we want him to be. We feel let down, abandoned, disconnected. Yet at the heart of the failures and new starts there is love. A bond, a connection of love, that draws us deeper into the heart of God.
Jesus lived out relationships with his friends, his disciples, with the crowds, the passers-by and those who sought him out. Some of those relationships were deep, loving, lifegiving. Some of those relationships were fleeting yet life transforming, some were strained and difficult. Some needed forgiveness to flourish. But all whose accounts we read and hear were changed by being in relationship with Jesus, God’s son.
Jesus himself was in relationship with God his Father. He prayed to him. He did his will, he was obedient. He heard him speak, his knew his love and affirmation. And at times he felt abandoned by God, isolated, forsaken. Yet he was prepared to offer himself as the ultimate sacrifice, in the ultimate act of love, to restore us into that intimate and eternal relationship with our creator. To die to bring us life, life in all its fullness. To die to remove the sin that might drives us to hide from God or deny the love of God, to restore all things, to make God’s love known.
There are many ways to view the action of Jesus dying on the cross. We see Jesus as the Passover lamb, the sacrifice, the payment for our sins, the restoration of broken promises, a new and final covenant. But at the heart of the death of Jesus is love and relationship and the promise of new life. The cross is place of suffering but also restoration. It is a place of obedience but also of freedom. It is a place of hate but also a place of love.
At our Experience Easter last week, I gathered with a group of 8 year olds around the cross. We talked about the symbols displayed there, the crown of thorns, the dice, the nails, the suffering, the pain. We talked about the terrible place the cross was and we explored the suffering. And we prayed for those who suffer now. One child prayed passionately about God transforming the life of the lonely. And one of the adults with him, who was lonely herself, heard his prayer and was touched and transformed. Touched that God would hear her prayer, articulated by a little boy and transformed because she suddenly realised that God understood and knew her loneliness because he was in relationship with her and because Jesus suffered as she suffered. The simple act of hearing that someone loved her enough to pray for her, that God would hear that prayer and standing there beneath the symbol of the cross and knowing the Jesus suffered the same loneliness and abandonment that she felt, brought her comfort and hope. It was a moment of restoration. And a moment of love.
The cross breaks down barriers between us and God. It shows us that God knows our suffering. The cross demonstrates love, freedom and forgiveness. It gives us a place to bring our hurt and suffering and resentment and to know that God understands it and will transform it. The cross shows the relationship God has with his creation and demonstrates that it is a relationship of love. We dwell at the cross today, but we know that we are healed and restored though the painful action of sacrifice and suffering. The gift of love, forgiveness, freedom and transformation is ours to receive.
Talking among clergy friends there are some who don’t do foot washing as part of Maundy Thursday acts of worship because they had no volunteers prepared to have their feet washed. We wondered what put people off? Perhaps because of the intimacy of the act. In the 21st century our feet are usually hidden away in socks or shoes. We rarely walk barefoot. We are often embarrassed by our feet, perhaps for how they look or how they smell. Some people actively dislike seeing or touching feet. And the act of removing our socks and allowing someone else to wash and touch them might feel too difficult, too embarrassing, too revealing.
In the first century feet were regarded differently. If you had shoes, they would have been sandals. The roads and streets were dusty and dirty and to preserve the cleanliness of inside spaces you would normally have washed your feet or had them washed by the foot washing slave on arrival in a house. At the Last Supper, Jesus is the host, the disciples the guests. For the host to wash the feet of the guests was unheard of. Shocking even.
Why does Jesus do it?
John 13:3-4 starts us off ‘And during the supper, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the take, took of his outer robe and tied a towel around himself.’ The fact that it takes place during supper makes me think that this is a symbolic act. If it was an act of necessity it would have taken place earlier. The act takes place because of the certainty and security that Jesus has about what is to unfold. He washes feet because he knows that he will die on the cross and return to the Father. Washing feet exemplifies the servanthood of Jesus’ incarnation; his willingness to come from God the Father, to do the work he was sent to do, and to complete the work with the ultimate selfless act of dying for us. Washing the disciples’ feet foreshadows what is to come, the self-sacrificing humility of Jesus Christ.
And we presume the disciples found it profoundly shocking and disturbing too. It disturbs the hierarchy, the proper order of things. Imagine if the Queen instead of handing out Maundy money in Windsor took off her coat and hat, put on an apron and washed feet instead.
Imagine if Donald Trump walked out of the White House, downtown a few blocks and into a local homeless shelter and got on his knees to bathe the feet of a street sleeper. Or if the CEO of Tesco went down onto the shop floor and bathed the tired feet of those who had spent an 8-hour shift stacking shelves? The moments when the hierarchy is reversed and the powerful serve the meek are shocking to imagine, let alone witness. True, Jesus didn’t hold power in the same way that Pilate or Herod or the Chief priests or scribes did. Yet he was and is even more powerful. The creator of the world kneeling at the feet of the ones who would deny and betray him. Washing their feet, reminding them that this is what they must do for one another. Overwhelming.
Which is why Peter responds as he does, as ever showing us the human way of reacting to the love and grace of God. First he refuses – ‘you will never wash my feet’, how can Peter accept that the Messiah would do such a humiliating act for him. He can’t bear it. Yet once Jesus reveals that accepting this act of humility is essential for Peter to stay with Jesus then he tips the other way, saying that he needs washing from head to toe. Such extremes of response.
As people of faith we must accept the self-sacrifice of Jesus for us, that he died for us, to cleanse us, to forgive us. We don’t deserve it, it feels uncomfortable. Yet that is what he has done so that we can forever have a share with him, be included in his Kingdom. We are not called to die for each other, the sacrifice has been made once for all. But we are called to live in self-sacrificing relationships with one another, as Jesus teaches in John 13 v14 ‘So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, your also ought to wash one another’s feet.’
The symbolic act of feet washing is a reminder and a challenge to us. In it we see the self-sacrifice of Jesus. He gives away power, becomes human like us, suffers with us and then gives his life for us. Jesus asks us to enter the same relationship with one another that he has with us. Loving, forgiving, self-sacrificing, humble relationships with one another. Relationships that puts others first, that considers the needs of all, that do not expect us to think we are better than others or more important than others. The son of God, the creator of the world, the Light of the world, the Saviour of the world can kneel and wash the dirty feet of 12 everyday blokes. He does it to show his love and his servanthood and his selflessness. And then he asks us to do the same.
What does foot washing look like in the lives of 21st century disciples? It might involve being prepared to strip off our socks tonight to put ourselves in the same place as the disciples and to feel and to reflect on how uncomfortable it might make us.
It involves thinking about our own power in relationships and at work and within our communities and reflecting on how we hold that power and use it and how we treat others.
It involves exploring how our communities of faith should be serving the wider community in practical action: foodbank, Fairtrade, litter picking, Eco church, offering hospitality, teaching faith, walking alongside others, challenging power, speaking truth, demonstrating compassion.
And it involves reminding ourselves how we treat one another, our friends, families, brothers and sisters in Christ and the lost, the least and the stranger.
Finally, it draws us back to the closeness of our relationship with Jesus. That he would wash our feet. That he would die for us. That he loves us.
Here is the source of every sacrament,
The all-transforming presence of the Lord,
Replenishing our every element
Remaking us in his creative Word.
For here the earth herself gives bread and wine,
The air delights to bear his Spirit’s speech,
The fire dances where the candles shine,
The waters cleanse us with His gentle touch.
And here He shows the full extent of love
To us whose love is always incomplete,
In vain we search the heavens high above,
The God of love is kneeling at our feet.
Though we betray Him, though it is the night.
He meets us here and loves us into light.