Sermon preached on 21 March 2010

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Could I ask you, just for a moment. And I promise you it won’t be for long. Could I ask you to think about something you probably don’t often want to contemplate too much. Could I ask you to think about your feet.

I know that will be tricky for people, for there are not that many people who think that their feet are their best attributes.

I want to simply to imagine your feet into the gospel story this morning. For Mary took her costly nard and anointed Jesus’s feet with it and wiped them with her hair.

Now, I don’t know a great deal about ancient cultures in the middle east. I don’t know how people related to their feet, though clearly, life was dustier than I guess that it is for me. It seems to me that even allowing for cultural differences and the changes in socials mores between there and here and between then and now, there is still something downright strange going on here.

Mary took perfume and anointed his feet with it and wiped them with her hair.

I think it is worth pausing for a moment to think about this act. What’s going on? Is it a symbol for something? Is it a declaration of intimacy? Is it something rather more wanton, a cipher for something rather more erotic? Is it an anointing for death? Or is it an expression of life and love?

Whatever it is, it was odd enough to be recorded in the Gospel of John.

Today is Passion Sunday, the start of Passiontide. Our eyes now turn towards the cross and towards the last days of the life of our Lord. We must gird ourselves and deliberately turn to look at what happened to him in Jerusalem at the end of his short life.

It is worth bearing in mind that this is the last preaching we are going to get for a couple of weeks. In this time, in this church, your preachers fall silent until Good Friday. Next week we will read the Passion instead of listen to a sermon and on Maundy Thursday, instead of a sermon, we get a liturgical action instead. We do something which Jesus himself did at his last supper. We do something that John’s gospel records. And it is in the very next chapter to the one which we are reading today.

For just after John records Jesus having his feet washed with perfume, he records Jesus washing the feet of the disciples at the last supper. And it is that foot washing that we re-enact each year.

The invitation on Maundy Thursday is the same this year as before. Anyone who wants to have their feet washed can have that done as part of the service. Instead of the sermon. Actions sometimes do speak louder than words.

That’s too intimate for some people. Some people say to me each year that I’m getting no-where near their feet.

Its worth remembering that if the only gospel that we had were the Gospel of John, then footwashing might be what we did every week rather than sharing bread and wine. For footwashing is right there in this gospel whereas bread and wine sharing are completely absent.

Imagine what the church would have been like if we had had the sacrament of footwashing rather than a sacramental eating of bread and wine.

Christians could have had a great time arguing over footwashing. Imagine the doctrinal disputes about what the correct colour of towel should be, or whether you needed to wash everyone’s feet or only a representative 12. Or imagine the Great Feminist Schism of the Perfume, where some churches depart from the usual practise of washing feet with water and insist on using nard. Think of the hair controversy. Imagine the liturgical catalogues filled with special liturgical shampoo, the better to allow clergy to get the nard out of the their hair.

Such is the church.

But what of the symbol?

Clearly there is some connection between Mary’s actions and those of Jesus on Maundy Thursday.

I can remember the first time I washed feet in church. All of a sudden I understood the actions of Jesus in a different way. I had thought it was all about laying aside power and re-enacting the humility of Christ. There is nothing wrong with thinking of it like that. But when I’ve done it, I’ve found that it is an act more of intimacy than of playing with power.

It is an act of kindness and closeness and care and love.

And that somehow does re-enact God’s dealings with us. At least, that somehow does re-enact the dealings of the kind of God that I know.

The promise that God makes to us through Jesus is that power games are over. God offers us an encounter that is intimate and which can touch us and heal us in whatever place in our lives feels dusty and sore.

If we take seriously these footwashings that we encounter in John’s gospel, we will perhaps encounter a God who is prepared to step aside from seriousness and become intimate with us. And its difficult to be too po-faced when you are washing someone’s feet.

Are we prepared for a God who might tickle us and make us laugh when we least expect to do so?

Today is Passion Sunday. I invite you all to enter into the Passion of Christ. But I ask you to do so remembering that the basic idea is really that he has entered into your Passion already. For the truth we will tell here in this place, by actions more than by words, is that God has entered the world in Jesus. God has loved the world with passion greater than the world could bear. That God in Christ Jesus was crucified and suffered and died. And, that whatever we may think, death is not the end of any story.

But remember. It’s not just about entering into Christ’s passion. It’s about Christ entering yours. Whenever you hurt, are sore, know crucifixion or pain or passion, there God is already beside you.

Let us pray.

Healing, holy, unguent God, seep into our lives this Passiontide. For we pray with Mary of Bethany and in the name of Jesus your beloved.


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