March 13, 2022; 2nd Sunday of Lent
When I was in college, I participated in a fund raiser called “Homeless for a Night.” The idea was that people would “sponsor” us and we would sleep in cardboard boxes for a night, raising money for the local homeless shelter. It was pretty cold, and I remember our college chaplain obsessing about how we had to wear hats so all the heat didn’t escape from the top of our heads. Ryan reminded me that people came around and woke us up in the middle of the night to make sure we didn’t have hypothermia. I also remember—and this is probably my closest connection to a famous person—that the writer Barbara Kingsolver joined us for this event. Barbara Kingsolver slept outside in a box on my college campus. (Turns out she shared her box with my psychology professor, Dr. Hopp, to whom she has now been married for 28 years.)
I think those of us who participated in this event truly had good intentions; we meant well. But it makes me cringe a little to think about it now. Because of course you can’t really be homeless for a night. That’s just camping—in a box rather than a tent, but still camping. The hardships of homelessness go far beyond having to sleep outside; it’s the stress of not knowing where you will sleep from night to night; the inability to keep items because there’s nowhere to put them—nowhere where they are not likely to be destroyed or stolen; it’s not having an address to write on job applications or where you can receive mail; it’s not having easy access to running water for drinking and bathing. The list goes on. And on. While we managed to raise a little money for the local homeless shelter, none of us came out of that experience knowing what it meant to actually be homeless.
As we move into the climax of John’s Gospel, I invite you to think back with me to the very beginning. Where the Gospels of Luke and Matthew begin with the birth of Jesus, John backs it up even farther: “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God.” And then, astonishingly, “The Word became flesh and lived—literally pitched his tent—among us.”
God was not participating in a “Human for a Night” awareness event. God didn’t climb into some flesh just for the day in order to get a small glimpse into the world of humanity. God committed. God became human—not for night, but for a lifetime. The theological term for this is “incarnation” and, to my mind, it’s the most scandalous claim that Christianity makes: the One really truly God became really truly human. This confounding truth is at the absolute heart of the Gospel of John.
Biblical scholar Karoline Lewis calls the scene of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet “a microcosm of God becoming flesh.” Here we see the Incarnate One wearing a towel, kneeling down, and washing the dirty—likely very dirty—feet of his friends.
And just in case we would be tempted to turn this foot washing into something spiritual, mystical—into something not absolutely physical—John gives us the play by play. Did you notice? John doesn’t say: “Then Jesus washed their feet.” He says: “[Jesus] got up from the table,took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” This is not Mary Poppins singing a song, pointing at things, and watching the messy room clean itself. This is Jesus getting into the mess. He gets up. He takes off his robe. He puts on a towel. He pours water . . .
It’s “a microcosm of the Word becoming flesh.”
The disciples, or at least Peter, find Jesus’ actions here scandalous. “Jesus, you will never ever ever wash my feet!” The teacher, the rabbi, was supposed to have his feet washed, not wash the feet of others. Just as God did not stay in the Divine “station,” but became human, so Jesus does not stay in his proper station as a teacher, but becomes a servant.
There’s a beautiful line in verse 1: “Having loved his own who were in the world, [Jesus] loved them to the end.” The Greek word for “the end” is telos. It can also be translated as “fullness,” “completeness” or even “perfection.” Jesus loves “his own” fully and completely to the very end. And who are “his own”? All of us who, like Jesus, exist as flesh and blood in this world. It is the Incarnation that allows God to love humanity completely, fully.
It is the Incarnation that gives God not just the hands needed to wash the disciples’ feet, but also the love needed to compel such an act of service.
As we see Jesus kneeling over his friend’s dirty feet, we realize that the Incarnation is so awkward it is scandalous. And it strikes me that maybe, just maybe, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, in part, to move them a little bit closer to being able to accept the greater scandal that will come—the scandal of the cross. How can God be murdered? They will not be able to accept that Jesus dies unless they truly understand that he is human.
And so, he washes their feet.
This season of Lent is a time of repentance and reflection as we move toward Good Friday and, ultimately, Easter. Many Christians believe that Jesus saves us on Good Friday, when he dies on the cross. Others look to the Resurrection as the climax of salvation, when Jesus claims victory over death itself. For me, the heart of salvation is the Incarnation; it is the Word become flesh and blood; it is this very journey of Lent. It is the Incarnation that leads to the crucifixion and Resurrection.
Salvation comes through God being human, not for a night, not as a gesture or an experiment, but God becoming human for a lifetime; God becoming so human that the Divine one “got up from the table,took off the outer robe, and tied a towel.” So human that the Eternal one “poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel.”
I would propose that if God can handle the dirty feet of the disciples, if God can remain human through the injustice of Jesus’ trial and the agony of the cross, if God can love the world fully and completely to the end in the midst of the hot mess Jesus had to deal with in this final week of his life . . . if the Word really did become flesh . . .
Then God can handle our messy lives. God will not back away from our arguments, our anger, our grief, our questions, our mistakes.
If the Word really did become flesh, then God is really present and loving the world through all of the terrible injustice, violence, terror, and heartbreak that feels so overwhelming right now.
If the Incarnation is real, then God is really with us in this messy and glorious world–not “fixing” it, but loving it. Loving us. And calling us to live out the fullness of love with and for each other.
Thanks be to God.