Last summer in Mexico City Bishop Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the ELCA, knelt to wash the feet of two HIV-positive women, one from Africa and the other from Europe. Speaking at the ecumenical pre-conference of the Seventeenth International AIDS Conference Bishop Hanson stated,
“I am absolutely convinced that we as religious leaders and we in the religious community that so shunned and shamed people with HIV and struggling with AIDS, that we must begin first by engaging in public acts of repentance. Because, absent public acts of repentance, I fear our words will not be trusted.”
That image has been in my mind as we have been preparing for this evening’s worship service – and in particular the connection between foot-washing and repentance. In our liturgy tonight we incorporate both acts. We began our worship with an opportunity for absolution; we will be invited to come forward shortly to have our feet washed and to wash others’ feet. The link between the two actions isn’t immediately apparent however.
When Bishop Hanson knelt to wash the women’s feet he was speaking with the language of liturgy. It was a symbolic exchange. From his remarks, Bishop Hanson made it clear that he thinks the church needs to atone for its silence and inaction toward the millions of people living with HIV and AIDS around the world. As the presiding bishop of the ELCA and the current president of the Lutheran World Federation he represented not only American Lutherans, but Lutherans worldwide – perhaps even the global church. He stood in for the church in the same way that the two women whose feet he washed represented people living with HIV and AIDS.
I wonder what we make of this kind of symbolic atonement? Do we think it counts? Can one person stand before a global audience and make apologies for the whole church? Can our sin be understood collectively, even if it is most usually experienced individually?
Tonight is one of the rare occasions when Maundy Thursday and the first night of Passover fall on the same night. As we gathered to share a meal before (and during) this worship service, our Jewish brothers and sisters have gathered in family homes to hear the story of the liberation from slavery in Egypt, the story of God’s deliverance.
We heard a portion of that story in the Exodus text tonight. God speaks to Moses and Aaron and tells them that God is going to do something so radical and amazing that they will mark this event as the beginning of a new era (“This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.”). Then they are given detailed instructions on how to prepare for this reality-altering event. They are to take a lamb for each family, if necessary to share between families so that there will be enough for everyone. They are told to roast the lamb over a fire, to eat it all with no leftovers, and to eat their meal hurriedly – ready for the journey ahead. They are told to mark their doorposts with the blood of the lamb. Most importantly, they are told why they are to do this; “the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.”
God’s salvation comes to the people of Israel as a whole. Not one at a time, but as a nation. They are taught to remember all that God has done for them, not simply as individuals, but as a community.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians the passage we hear tonight, he did not have ears like ours, conditioned by a lifetime of Sunday morning communion. We hear his words and we hear the familiar words of institution, spoken in some form at the Lord’s Supper each time it is observed. Paul did not, however, set out to write a liturgical text. He was speaking words of correction to a community that was ripped apart by divisions between those with wealth and those without, and the humiliation of the poor at the expense of the rich. He was reminding them that the Lord’s Supper was given as a gift from God to the whole family of faith, not to each one on his or her own. It was a call to repentance.
So salvation is a gift from God, given to us as a people, and repentance is the work of the people – a liturgy, in fact. A collective response to God’s grace. And in this liturgy we are reminded of who we are, where we come from, and to what end God is bringing us. We sit here tonight at the beginning of our observance of the Three Days, our final preparations at the end of our long Lenten journey. Tonight we are no longer safely one step removed from the stories we hear on Sunday mornings. Tonight our worship, our liturgy, our ritual, brings us inside the story. Tonight we answer the question Christa and Tim raised with their powerful rendition of “Were You There” last Sunday with an unequivocal “yes.” We are there. We are there at the Last Supper, we are there at the cross, we are there at the tomb.
We begin our worship this evening with a confession and an absolution. We confess that we, all of us – and all of us collectively – have been unfaithful to the will of God, the teachings of Jesus, in thought, word and deed. By what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have lived lives, both individually, as a church, as a nation, whose primary goal has been self-improvement with not enough regard for the needs of those around us. We proclaim Jesus as Lord, but we do not wrap our waists with the towel of loving service.
That is the point where confession and foot-washing meet. When Bishop Hanson knelt to wash the feet of the women living with HIV, it was not penance. It was no symbolic punishment undertaken on behalf of the church. God does not require that, and the women did not need it. The act of foot washing was a symbol of the kind of service to which the church – the collective body of Christ to which you and I belong – is called.
The God of love revealed in Christ Jesus gives everything at God’s disposal, even God’s own divine life, to communicate to us just how deeply we are loved. On his last night in the company of his friends Jesus gives a new commandment, that we should love one another as we have been loved.