It was the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber who once suggested that we have a moratorium on the use of the word “God”, because it has suffered a kind of inflation, or devaluation, not worth the paper it is written on. And Buber wasn’t talking about profane usage - “O my God!”, or “For God’s sake!”, and the like; let alone was he talking about “blasphemy” (which, by the way, has more to do with hypocrisy than swearing). No, Buber was talking about theological usage, the use of the word “God” among believers themselves, because it’s become “thin”, light, easy. We think that if we say “God” loud enough (like some tub-thumping evangelists), or piously enough (like some unctuous preachers), or repeat it often enough (like some modern “worship songs”), that somehow it will reflect or even guarantee God’s presence. But rightly of this God the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said: “From this God I pray God deliver me.”
And if a moratorium on the word “God”, then also a moratorium on the word “love”, as in the “love of God”. Of course Buber knew, and I know, that this is not possible. But here is the point: if we want our love-of-God-talk to be more than merely human love-talk, then instead of defining God’s love by love as we know it, we must let love as we do not know it be defined by God’s love. New Testament Christians knew that our human words need, as it were, to be baptised, crucified, and raised anew to have any chance of speaking truthfully about God. And that is why they took a word little used, and indeed disparagingly used, in ordinary language - agape - and let it be filled with new content determined by what they had seen and heard God say and do in Jesus Christ.
What does agape mean? Only a demonstration will do. And that demonstration Jesus himself gave on the first Maundy Thursday. Of course “He had always loved his own,” but only “now he was to show the full extent of his love.” And how does he do that? Does he exclaim, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways?” Does he send flowers, or sing a romantic song? Does he get all emotional and choked up? None of the above. Instead he performs a prophetic action - as he had done a few days earlier when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and then cleansed the Temple - actions always speak louder than words - and which he then goes on to interpret to his gob-smacked friends, who (you may remember) had just been squabbling about who’s the greatest.
So Jesus interrupts his last meal, leaves his place as table host and head, takes off his clothes, and wraps a towel around his waste, the towel a slave wears when he does that most menial and degrading of tasks - wash the master’s feet. Peter is understandably appalled at this role-reversal. This sort of thing is just not done. It is the height of impropriety. It is lords and servants - upstairs-downstairs - and never the twain shall meet, for that would be to disturb the natural order of things. What management structure could survive such a dismissive treatment of the chain of command? It would be a destabilising threat to every social order we know. It would turn the world upside-down.
So understand that when Jesus washes his followers’ feet, he is not just giving an illustration of humility. Peter and the others could have lived with that. No, here is a sign and anticipation of that ultimate subversion of all human power and authority which will take place the next day when Jesus is crucified by the powers and authorities that be. Not just humility but humility to the point of humiliation - this is how we are to understand the nature and full extent of the love of God in Jesus Christ.
So, yes, Peter’s reaction is understandable - it is the reaction of everyman and everywoman. But to understand we too must be appalled. And, further - and note well - as William Temple observed in his classic commentary on John’s gospel: “It is not any vice, but the very virtue in him [Peter], that is horrified by the Lord’s demeanour.” “Not my feet!” - this is an exclamation of Peter’s admiration, loyalty, protection, and humbleness. Again, how radical are the actions of Jesus: not only human vice but also human virtue must be subverted and reordered if we are to have any share in Christ. “I do not want to be beholden to anybody,” we say, “I don’t want to make a fuss,” as if we were being selfless, when, on the contrary, we are actually being full of self, our insistence on autonomy the ultimate sign of pride. We prize our independence when it is precisely our independence that must go if we want to enter the kingdom of God, like the totally dependent child that Jesus once put among the disciples - and, outraged, they didn’t get it then either. Perhaps we wake up in the morning and ask ourselves, “What can I do for God today?” when the first question must be, “What can God do for me today?” To give, first of all we must receive; to serve, we must first be served.
And then from one extreme to the other, like your stereotypical over-eager convert, Peter then exclaims, “Then not just my feet but my hands and my head! Give me a proper bath then!” Which only goes to show that Peter still doesn’t get it. As if Jesus had miscalculated, underestimated, as if something further needed to be added, as if, in Lesslie Newbigin’s memorable image, “one could increase the efficacy of a U-turn by turning 360 degrees instead of 180 degrees. One would not have enhanced but negated the usefulness of the action. It is enough to have made the U-turn, to have accepted the subversion.”
But then, as the presence of Judas reminds us, misunderstanding, error, sin, and ultimately betrayal, are, and always have been, at the very heart of the church. “Is it he?” But of course the question is : “Is it I?” But did Jesus stop loving Peter? Did he stop loving even Judas? Will he stop loving us? Will he ever stop loving anybody? We are talking not only a most unconventional love, but also a totally unconditional love.
Do we get it? The test is simple: “I have set you an example,” Jesus says: “you are to do as I have done for you.” You too are to love unconventionally, subversively, unconditionally. Shocking!
A colleague of mine has recently stopped the Maundy Thursday practice of foot-washing. Why? Because his church members find it embarrassing. To my mind, however, that is precisley the reason for continuing it. For if we are not embarrassed by the actions of Jesus, and don’t react as Peter reacted, then we will not understand the love of God in Christ. And if we have not understood it, then perhaps, with Martin Buber, we should not speak it.
Another chance: time for the Liturgy of Embarrassment.