April 13, 2017
The Rev. Austin Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
The commandment, or mandatum, from which we get the name Maundy Thursday, was to love one another, as they had been loved.
Love can take so many forms, but tonight, Jesus focused upon one form in particular—namely love expressed through servanthood.
Every year as we stand on the threshold of these three mysterious Holy week days that define our faith, our fears and our hopes, we once more are invited to receive the fullest grace of God, so that we may understand how important it is to give such grace to others.
And yet as human beings, we struggle with both receiving and giving.
We know all too well the parts of ourselves we would rather keep private and hidden, and we rarely risk letting another into the inner most sanctum of our being.
In part, this is because we have scars from where loved ones have abused our trust, and we don’t want to expose ourselves to being hurt once again.
Or perhaps, at times, it is because we are unable to accept ourselves as worthy of God’s attention and grace—we have too long wandered in a foreign land that is waste and forgotten the truth that undergirds all creation.
Maundy Thursday is a time to let go of our walls, to lay aside our deepest fears, and to open ourselves, like the little children God has called us to be, to the ultimate care and keeping of our Creator.
Jesus, the Lord of all Creation, the King of Kings and the Son of God, offered grace and love beyond measure to those first disciples gathered in the upper room, and offers the same to all of us who will accept the gift, let it transform us, and then pass it on freely.
We are not required to understand it all—those earliest and closest disciples certainly did not—but we ARE called to receive it and share it.
No disciple exemplifies this dynamic more than St. Peter.
Simon the fisherman, who left a family and nets in Galilee to learn how to fish for people and follow the man named Jesus, receives the name Rock, or Petros once he becomes a disciple.
And though we associate that “Rock” status with his foundational role in the establishment of the church, so often it is his hard-headed and misunderstanding nature that seems to earn him the name.
Peter is the ultimate “hey I understand this Jesus movement and I’m all about it” disciple, who then so quickly gets it all wrong and seems furthest away from salvation.
You may remember that he correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah, and then just a few moments later, Jesus tells him to “Get behind me Satan , because you’re setting your mind on human things, not divine things.”
He tells Jesus at the last supper that he will never deny him, and would gladly die for him, and the next day tells the maid by the fire that he doesn’t know the man.
Peter is literally so close to Jesus, part of his innermost circle, and yet at times seems the furthest away from him.
If I am honest, the similarities between Peter and the rest of us are too close for comfort sometimes.
John’s Jesus knows what is coming, he knows what the next three days will bring—all the betrayal, all the denial, all the abandonment.
And where others might be attempted to use this foresight to call out those closest to him, to expose their sins and shortcomings, Jesus instead leaves his disciples with nothing but servant love.
No more words, just actions—the washing of feet, the breaking of bread, the sharing of a cup.
Peter cannot believe that the Messiah would deign debase himself by doing a slave’s work.
So he protests.
He retreats to his walls, to the safety of his prior experience and understanding, and tries all sorts of arguments to avoid receiving what Jesus is offering him.
I, too, have rejected the gift of God.
I, too, have made excuses to avoid accepting the countercultural “way” things work in the kingdom of God.
I, too, have felt more comfortable with giving rather than receiving.
“Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.
I often wander into Santa Maria del Popolo, where Caravaggio’s two famous paintings of St. Paul and St. Peter dwell.
In the past five years, I’ve probably gazed upon these works dozens of times, more often focused on the dramatic painting of Paul rather than the Crucifixion of Peter that resides across from it.
And yet this week, when I walked into the dark chapel, it was the figure of Peter that gripped me.
There the former Simon, now Rock, laid—nailed to a cross and about to be hoisted up head down-feet up— to be crucified for proclaiming his faith in the servant Messiah of this evening.
An old man now, Caravaggio’s Peter is rendered as stronger than his years—sinewy and muscled… in pain, but accepting his fate with grim resolve.
The other figures in the painting are executing the crucifixion.
They are doing the lifting, the pulling, and the back-breaking labor of the Empire.
The kneeling figure on whose back the cross is laid has feet that are discernably dirty—symbols of his ignorance…he does not know what he is doing in putting this old man to death upside down.
But perhaps he will understand later.
For this week, after so many views of this painting, I noticed something striking about St. Peter.
His feet are clean.
His feet have been washed, and his share with Jesus is secure.
After all the missteps of his life, at the end, he understands what Jesus was doing to him and all the others in the upper room.
Jesus, the most powerful man Peter ever knew, taught him that love is the only truth that cannot be stopped, and that authentic actions of sacrifice reveal love more clearly than any words can.
We have one last opportunity to be with Jesus this night, before the darkness moves in and obscures the light with its many faces and devices.
Come and join with Peter, with me, with your fellow sisters and brothers, in receiving and sharing the grace of our Lord—by washing each other’s feet, by breaking bread together, and by moving together toward the contradiction of the Cross.
Come accept your share in the kingdom, founded upon counter-cultural means and methods rooted in love.
We, like Peter, may not understand now what is being done to us, nor what it is we are doing for others.
But someday, later, with God’s help and grace, perhaps we will.