In Monty Python’s very funny and entirely theological movie, The Life of Brian, we get a very accurate image of at least some aspects of life in an ancient city. In one memorable scene, young Brian Cohen (who despite his mum’s best efforts keeps getting mistaken for Jesus) is running helter skelter through the back lanes of Jerusalem dodging household garbage and buckets of everything that St Paul in his letter to the Philippian church less than delicately refers to as skubalon. Suffice it to say, ancient housewives had to empty theirs out into the street every morning. And so, if you were fortunate enough to get a dinner invitation you’d likely as not get to your host’s home generously anointed with skubalon. So before you could join the other dinner guests reclining around the table you would be offered the services of the lowliest or the youngest person of the household to wash it all off.
So tonight we’ve come here to get in touch with our own skubalon, to see clearly some of what’s stuck to us and what we carry around with us. And because we need someone to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves – to make us clean.
The Gospel traditions aren’t too clear on what night this actually is. For Matthew, Mark and Luke, the meal that Jesus eats with his disciples tonight is definitely a Passover meal. John, whose Gospel we read from tonight, assumes tonight’s meal is happening on the eve of the Passover, the night before the Passover lambs are killed to make ready for the meal in which Jewish folk remember their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Our lectionary writers have a two-way bet, and so John’s description of Jesus’ final night with his disciples is paired with the solemn and even frightening passage from the Book of Exodus in which God gives travelling blessings and instructions for a quick getaway. Either way the message is clear: tonight is a night of confusion and haste, a nightmare journey into uncertainty and violence undertaken on the vague promise of freedom and new beginnings.
The Passover is also our own tradition, as Christians, because the roots of our own faith are planted deep in the soil of Judaism. So we begin the Great Three Days of the central story of our own faith by reciting the ancient institution of the Jewish Passover, knowing how far we have to travel before we can stand here again in the darkness on Sunday morning, recalling the promises of scripture as we wait for sunrise.
But it’s a dreadful and powerful story. The living waters of the Nile turn to blood. Human beings and animals die in plagues and famine. The unspeakable horror of the angel of death who travels throughout the land of Egypt in a single night, taking the firstborn son of every household. And the strange inoculation that has to be performed by the head of every Jewish household, the smearing of the blood of a lamb on the doorposts of the home so that God’s angel would pass over their house in peace.
The ambiguity and violence of this story makes it impossible to celebrate God’s saving power in liberating the people of Israel from slavery, forming them through long years in the desert as the people of the Torah commissioned to be a light to all the nations – without also remembering the cost of liberation, the grief of those who loved a son touched by death's angel or swallowed up in the Sea of Reeds. Some Passover haggadot even interpret the bitter herbs dipped in salt water as a call to grieve on behalf of the Egyptians lost, a call to pray for oppressors and enemies.
A story in The Australian newspaper this week tells how a group of young Palestinian musicians living in the Jenin refugee camp read recently about the catastrophe of the Holocaust and decided to play for survivors in a Jewish nursing home. After they sang prayers in Arabic and the elderly Jewish residents sang back to them in Hebrew, one of the Palestinian teenagers recited a prayer for peace and one of the old Jewish women said, ‘Inshallah’, the Arabic word that means, ‘if Allah wills it’.
And so Passover becomes a key for us to understand, not just the sort of meal Jesus and his friends may have eaten together the night before he died, but the meaning and the cost of the act of divine love that is unfolding in front of us. Jesus, according to John’s timing of events, is nailed to the cross at the exact same time the priests begin slaughtering the Passover lambs in the Temple, inoculating us against our own violence by accepting it with words of forgiveness for his torturers.
Jesus really wouldn’t have needed any miraculous powers to know that his life was about to come to an end. He had just entered Jerusalem in the most provocative way possible, thumbing his nose at the authorities through the street theatre of riding into the city on a donkey from one direction proclaiming peace at the very same time as, according to Bible scholars like Dominic Crossan, the Roman governor Pilate entered the city with a cohort of mounted cavalry from the opposite direction to intimidate the population and impose order over the Passover weekend. He had caused a public disturbance in the Temple in the middle of massive crowds of pilgrims and in full view of the Roman troops stationed at the Antonia fortress which had been deliberately built so it could overlook the Temple. Roman governors didn’t stand for that sort of nonsense at the best of times, and especially not this weekend, when the city was jam-packed with pilgrims for the once every ten years or so event of the Great Passover, those rare occasions when the annual Passover celebration coincided with the Sabbath. Jesus at this point had two options – get out of town or face the consequences.
We know, because the Gospels tell us, that Jesus had access to an underground network of sympathisers who were capable of spiriting him away. But he does no such thing, instead sending his disciples to a rendezvous complete with coded signals and passwords in order to arrange nothing more elaborate than dinner with his friends. He has made his choice, and he knows what lies ahead. And what he does then is remarkable, perhaps even shocking, to those who gathered to eat this meal that may or may not have been Passover. Because as they come into the borrowed room, with the dust and skubalon of the streets on their feet, the one who kneels at the feet and washes them clean for dinner is not a child or a servant, but their teacher.
In the culture of the ancient world, where every part of your body had a meaning, your hands and your feet represented your actions, where you went and what you did. When Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus feet with perfume, she is making holy everywhere he has been and all that he has done When Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, he is not just showing them that they should serve one another. He is cleansing and making holy what they have done. It is a tactile, unforgettable action of forgiveness that he performs even for the one who he knows has determined to betray him. He washes their feet, and then in the bit that our lectionary reading tonight misses out, he breaks bread with them, even, perhaps especially, with the one whose heart has turned away from him. In other words, he sanctifies them, he makes holy who they are and he gives them the means to accept and forgive one another.
Of course it’s good, honest, all-too-human Peter who objects on behalf of all of us – ‘Not on your nellie, mate. I’ll keep my skubalon to myself, thanks all the same’. Peter’s reasons are different from ours, of course. In the ancient world where personal services were more easily accepted, were people, instead of machines, performed the menial and embarrassing tasks of everyday life, Peter wouldn’t have objected to an anonymous serving girl cleaning his feet – just not his teacher. For us, in our more finicky age, we’d rather keep the skubalon of our ingrown toenails and our bunions and plantar warts hidden from sight altogether. But essentially it’s the same thing. To reveal our imperfections is shaming. To reveal our venality, our moral compromises and our divided hearts to one another and to God is shaming, but it is a shame that heals. And so Jesus says to Peter, and to all of us, ‘it’s this blessing that makes you belong to me, and me to you’. And so he offers us the intimacy of his touch that makes us, together, into his body, to the extent that we are prepared to do for one another what he has done for us.