“I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”
This is one of those stories that could easily begin with the end. Three days from now this sanctuary will be packed full with our entire family, and just like a family reunion it will be full of people whom we do not immediately recognize. There may even be someone whom you do not know sitting in your pew. After brushing off the initial indignation which comes from having one’s familiarity upturned by an influx of strangers, you may find yourself indulging in a bit of congratulatory self-righteousness for being so much more than a Christmas and Easter Christian. Knowing you, you will also be kind. You will say hi to someone whom you do not know and squeeze more closely together for the family of five who rushes in ten minutes late. They will know that we are Christians by our love, and indeed our love and hospitality will be one of the many reasons why they will come here and not go somewhere else. But it won’t be the main reason. The main reason they will come here is because three days from now we will tell the story of ours which the world is most curious to hear. Three days from now we will speak and sing of a man who came from God and conquered death for us. In three days, the one who gathered the disciples around a table for a final meal will begin appearing as someone whom they do not immediately recognize. In three days their own familiarity will be upturned by an influx of the strange: a body which is more and also less than a body, a body which can pass through walls, one that does not always look or feel the way that they remembered. In three days this story will begin again with equal parts wonder and fear. But only because in two days we will have waded through the dark waters of death with God, waiting with the promise of new light and life. Because by tomorrow night we will have witnessed the power of God to be powerless, to endure suffering for the sake of love. Because tonight, God hands himself freely over to our suffering and our death.
On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ tried to impress something of himself upon his closest friends. He tried to distill his life with them into a few memorable words, a few concrete gestures. Perhaps he knew how unrecognizable death would render him. Perhaps he knew how much the events which would follow his death had the potential to confound and confuse. He wanted to leave something with his friends by which they could still recognize him in the world, breadcrumbs that would lead them again and again back to his abiding presence. He knew it would not be easy. He knew they would be scattered, each one to their own homes again, some to new corners of the world. He knew they would face ridicule and violence in the world if they tried to proclaim his life. He wanted to leave them with a way of remembering the body which they shared together. He wanted to leave them with a way of recognizing one another when they met in far off places. He wanted to leave them with something which could sustain them through the trials they would inevitably endure. “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”
It is hard to imagine Jesus sitting at that table looking like any kind of conqueror. In fact, it seems to be precisely his lack of conquering which has brought them to the brink of this terrifying night. In a matter of hours they will be stormed by men with torches and clubs. Peter will be ready to fight. He will draw his sword. He will draw blood. But this is not the kind of conquering that Jesus has in mind. Jesus will step out from among his protective friends and say with clarity and composure, “I am the one you are looking for,” and even his enemies will bow down to the ground. From that moment, Jesus enters death with an unworldly serenity. At least by John’s account. The synoptic Gospellers show something of Christ’s agony on the cross, but for John, all that trouble comes before. By the time John shows Jesus entering captivity, it is with austere equanimity. In the face of mocking soldiers, he is at peace. In the face of taunting crowds, he is at peace. In the face of Pilate’s questions, he is at peace, so much so that Pilate rails against him for not being more engaged in the face of death. This peace of Jesus seems to be unconcerned with pain, or fear, or death, or self. It is the peace of knowing himself as arising from and returning to God. It is the peace he wants to leave with his disciples. “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”
For Jesus, conquering looks like giving himself away. It looks like holding his own life out with open hands, not clinging tight to something which he’s too afraid to loose. For Jesus, conquering the world looks like stooping down to clean and hold the feet of folks who do a lot of walking. These are the ways he gave us to remember him, concrete gestures and odd words which shock us into recognizing the fact that we are a part of him still. One of them is quite familiar. Every time we break bread together we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again. Every time we share the cup of blessing we celebrate our union with him. But what about feet? Who is the Christ we recognize when we hunch over a basin with our neighbor’s foot in hand? Who is the Christ we see kneeling before us trying very hard to pour the water with attentive care and towel off our toes with all due reverence? This gesture is one of great tenderness and vulnerability. It is incredibly difficult to cradle someone’s foot in your hands without also cherishing them. It is also nearly impossible to let someone scrub your own feet without feeling slightly exposed. Did I say slightly? It is almost excruciating, actually, to be served with such humility, a kind of unbearable spiritual ticklishness. The good news is that such reverent cherishing and awkward vulnerability are sure signs of the presence of Christ. They are chief among the Christian arsenal for conquering a vain and isolating world.
These gestures are tools for imitating the peace of Christ, but they are relatively easy to perform in the safety we create here. Soon we will be scattered to the world. Soon the world will seep in and the familiar will grow strange again. The peace of Christ may be unsettled from us, and we may find ourselves alone, cowering amid the world’s dark night. When that hour comes, look for a basin you can hunch above, find some feet to wash. Recall the postures you’ve been trained in here and remember what it is to tend and cherish and revere the person nearest by. Look for the signs he has left behind, you will find your way back home.