Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Towel and the Sheet

At 9:00 this morning we offered Worship Outside the Box, our experimental frontier in worship that we’ve been doing twice a month, first and third Sundays, since last fall. Through that service, we’re learning how to aim the language and music and movement of worship towards children and youth, and to do it within twenty minutes.

On first Sundays, we celebrate communion. On those days, I design the service, and that includes putting the one scripture reading, usually the Gospel, into language that works. Here’s what I did with today’s Gospel. I don’t offer it as an improvement upon the inspired word of blessed John, our Patron. Receive it as an echo of what you heard moments ago, and just hear what you hear.

At the last supper, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, doing for them what a servant would normally do, not what you would expect a leader to do. This action shocks Simon Peter, who thinks it’s beneath Jesus’s dignity to do this. It was the last straw for Judas Iscariot. He has expected Jesus to lead a revolt against the imperial Roman army, to free the Jewish people. He watches Jesus getting his hands dirty, bathing the dusty feet of his friends, and thinks to himself, “This man is not the leader we need,” and angrily storms out into the night to find a way to get Jesus arrested by the Roman army. “Maybe this will spark the revolution,” Judas thinks, desperately—like a suicide bomber thinks.

Seeing him leave, Jesus says to the others, “Now the Son of Man shows what true power is, power from God, power that gives God the glory. I’m going to have to leave you, and where I’m going none of you can come. Only the Son of Man can walk the path I’m about to walk. I do it for the whole human race, once for all. Judas wants me to free one group of people from injustice and tyranny. God our Father wants to free all peoples from every evil, and needs me to use his power to break the hold of sin and death. I will do this as servant leader, as I have shown you.

“Your part is to keep a new commandment, to keep it every day and every moment of your lives. By keeping this you will fulfill the will of God on earth as it is in heaven. This will be your power. This will be within your power because my Spirit dwells within you and among you.

“My commandment is that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, that you also love one another. This is how all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another and so love God with all your heart and mind and strength.”

That exercise in paraphrasing taught me that John had an economy of words that I do not have (my version is three times the length of his). But I think John would understand my desire to put this little passage in its wider setting. It’s a good thing I didn’t try that approach with our reading from the Book of Acts! Worship Outside the Box might still be going on…

And yes, I do want to go to that story with you now.

In John’s Gospel, there’s a towel in the background, the one Jesus used to wipe his disciples’ feet. In the Book of Acts, there’s something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners and in Peter’s vision it comes close to him. I like to think of it as just a bigger version of our Lord’s towel, because it serves the same purpose: it holds the glory of God. In the first case, that was the glory of servant leadership, what the power of God looks like at its best in human form. In this second story, the glory is God’s ecumenism.

Oikoumene is a wonderful Greek word meaning, more or less, “one world”. Today at Worship Outside the Box we sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”.
The wider setting of our story in Acts is that some of the apostles have had great success preaching to the Greeks. Remember that their message was shaped by Hebrew scripture, their Messiah was born and died a Jew, their ranks, before the Day of Pentecost, were entirely Jewish, and, in its earliest generations, followers of Jesus were a movement within the religion of Israel.

The success of some apostles in the conversion of Gentiles was a hard pill for other apostles to swallow. Shouldn’t these Greek Christians be circumcised? And keep kosher households?

In Peter’s vision God answers, “You’re asking the wrong questions. These old distinctions must end. See, I am making all things new—starting with the Church. There must not be Jewish Christians and Greek Christians, but one body, a new creation, my oikoumene. Now get it together!”

This message opens every rite of holy baptism: "There is one Body and one Spirit; there is one hope in God’s call to us; One Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all."

The message of the lowered sheet is the message of the towel: "By this you will be known as my disciples, if you have love for one another."

The whole greening groaning world needs to be wrapped in that sheet and freed by those words, What God has made clean, you must not make profane.

The fracturing Anglican Communion needs to be wrapped in that sheet, and cleaned by that towel that shows what the power of God looks like at its best in human form.

Each of us needs to feel the rush of that flapping sheet that contains all the experiences we could find unacceptable but, contained by God, are never beyond his providence, and so hear a voice that says, “Dare to welcome all that life brings. I stand within it, towel in hand. And here is your towel: wield its power.”