John 13:1-17, 31b-35
I was reading a book recently and the author (Richard Rohr) said that he prays to God for one humiliation every day. I enjoyed most of the book and it was not an easy book to enjoy. It was about suffering and what we can learn from suffering. When I got to the part about humiliation, I started to struggle with the book a little more. I understand that humility is a wonderful trait to have and it is certainly one that is important to have as Christians, but humiliation? The author’s perspective was that humiliation is an opportunity to learn something about who we are, deep down underneath it all—underneath the veneer that we hope other people will see. The way that we respond to humiliation can say a lot about who we are. We can respond by getting angry and lashing out at people. We can shut down and give up. Or we can take a step back and ask ourselves why that thing humiliated us and what it means for us as followers of Christ.
On my first Christmas as a deacon, I read the Gospel for the first time. I had practiced…a lot. I said the word Quirinius (Governor of Syria) about 100 times. I was ready. But for some reason I could not get my microphone to work. I spoke as loud as I could but I was convinced that no one heard me, which meant no one heard the Gospel. I was sure I had ruined Christmas and the rector would hold this against me forever. I know it does not sound humiliating, but it was for me. That was all I could think of for the rest of the service. As you can imagine, it turned out fine. I was loud enough and Christmas was not ruined.
In some ways, knowing that it was not a big deal hurt my pride more. My big moment and it did not make a difference to anyone whether the mic was on or not. In the end, it was an important lesson for me as an ordained person. It reminded me that it is not about the person speaking; it is about the words and who those words come from. I could give you any number of examples of little humiliations that I have learned from…but definitely not one a day. That seems extreme.
When we talk about Jesus, especially in the washing of the feet, we talk about humility. We don’t normally talk about humiliation, perhaps because that word has such negative connotations. He was and is the most powerful entity in the world and he constantly had to defend himself and explain his motivation and his actions. He had to let other people tell him what to do. He let his own disciples deny, betray and abandon him. For most important and powerful people, any one of those things would be a huge blow to their ego. It did not seem to faze Jesus, at least not in terms of his pride. In fact, it was as if he welcomed these opportunities for humiliation. For him, they were not humiliations. They were opportunities to display love, a love that was sacrificial, a love that was not about what he would receive in return.
I have often pondered what the difference between humility and humiliation is. Even when you look it up, you get different interpretations from different sources. Most people would say that humility is a good thing while humiliation is almost entirely bad. What I find interesting, is that they have the same Latin root. The meanings are not really that different.
The Gospel of John is unique in many ways. In the scene describing the Last Supper, Jesus does not take bread and tell the disciples that this is his body. He does not take the wine and tell them that this is his blood. Instead, he used an entirely different representation of love. He took off his outer robe and tied a towel around his waist. Then he washed his disciple’s feet. This in and of itself, is humiliating enough. Servants were the ones who were supposed to wash feet. But here he was, God in human form, washing the feet of his disciples. What made it worse was that he was washing the feet of Peter who he knew would deny him. He was washing the feet of Judas who would betray him in a matter of minutes. He knew exactly what was going to happen. He knew that all of these people would turn their backs on him. He chose to wash their feet. Was that humility or humiliation? In retrospect it was an act of humility. Yet most people, had they been in that time and place and known the circumstances, would have perceived it as humiliation. What kind of God kneels before peasants and washes their grimy feet? It was also humiliating for the disciples. This was a man who they respected and admired and now he was touching their feet. In doing so, it was as if he was seeing through the veneer. He saw the unclean parts of their soul. I know this discomfort can’t be that hard to imagine for those of you here tonight. Very few people come up to have their feet washed. It’s embarrassing. It’s uncomfortable. I get it.
Yet for Jesus, this was such an important act, that he asked his disciples to wash one another’s feet. “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” This is what Jesus told his disciples. He did not ask them to drink wine and eat bread. He asked them to wash one another’s feet. It was not enough to understand the idea of love or humility. “…you are blessed if you do them.”
What liturgy allows us to do is to experience parts of our faith in a more tangible way. We don’t just say things. We do them. So you can ponder humility, humiliation and love, or you can wash someone’s feet or have your own feet washed. And if you are just not going to do it, think of another way you can humiliate yourself in the next 24 hours. Don’t just think about it. Do it. Then learn from that humiliation and remember that our Lord Jesus Christ died in one of the most humiliating ways a person could die. Most other things seem pretty small in comparison.