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Maundy Thursday, April 18, 2019 | 8:00 a.m.
The Servant Christ
Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
John 13:1–17, 31b–35
There is an unusual bronze sculpture of Jesus Christ in the city of Washington, D.C., in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood. It is in front of an inner-city medical clinic called Christ House, where homeless persons experiencing illness live and receive comprehensive health care and support to break the cycle of homelessness.
The sculpture of Jesus is called “The Servant Christ” and is in the middle of a small patio where several patients often sit nearby and soak up the sun. The Servant Christ is a life-size figure of a man who is barefoot, wearing jeans and a work shirt with sleeves rolled up. He kneels on his left knee. One hand is holding a shallow basin, while the other is raised in a gesture that beckons those sitting on benches nearby to have their feet washed. The space between his hands is inviting, waiting. His face is turned upwards, looking into the eyes of anyone who stops long enough to ponder him. I have some photos of the sculpture on the Communion Table, which you can look at when you come forward later to have your hands or feet washed. The Servant Christ sculpture was inspired by the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, which we just heard, though really it was inspired by the whole life of Jesus, who modeled and embodied servanthood as the way to love everyone.
The Servant Christ sculpture is situated where anyone can respond to it whatever way they choose as they walk by on the sidewalk or are confronted by it as they approach the building entrance. The artist who created it, Jimilu Mason, said, “Many have questioned me about placing this beautiful work in a place where it will surely be abused. My response has been, there is very little they could do to him that hasn’t already been done” (Imaging the Word, vol. 1, p. 168).
In fact, no one has been indifferent to finding him in their streets. Gordon Cosby, the founder of the Church of the Saviour that runs Christ House, told of a time when a homeless man, standing by the sculpture, said, “He is my friend.” Gordon replied, “And mine, too.”
Another time a young drunk man, wearing only shorts and shoes, carrying a bottle inside a paper bag, saw the sculpture of Jesus. He stopped and gazed at him for a long, long time. He must have thought he was looking at someone not very different from himself. The power of the figure grasped something deep in himself. He may have thought that the kneeling person was a beggar, pleading for sustenance. In any case, after a long time he held his bottle to the mouth of Jesus so that he could drink from it. When Jesus was unresponsive he poured some of its contents on his head. After that he stood back and gave the immovable one a bewildered look. He finally took the bottle from its brown paper bag and placed it carefully in the hand of Jesus (Elizabeth O’Connor, Servant Leaders, Servant Structures, pp. 83–84). He gave the only thing he had, reminiscent of the poor widow who gave her single mite in the offering.
We have all seen statues of Jesus in which he is standing upright and commanding, with arms raised either to give a blessing or to signify his triumphant resurrection. Such a statue, looking off into the distance, would probably have gone unnoticed on this inner-city street. But a kneeling, vulnerable, inviting Jesus, who expectantly looks up to us while extending his hands, calls forth something deep in us. Even the most down and out want to give him something, even if all they have to offer is a drink.
This day is called Maundy Thursday, which, as your bulletin cover says, receives its name from the Latin mandatum novum do vobis: “A new commandment I give you.” After Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he gave them a new commandment: to love one another, just as he loved us. This is how others will know we are disciples of Jesus, if we have love for one another.
This comes in the form of a commandment. But when we truly encounter Christ loving us, we don’t need to be commanded. We want to love him back. Therein lies the mystery of Jesus’ love for us.
If we let ourselves truly encounter the Christ kneeling at our feet, untying our shoes and removing our socks, massaging and washing our tired feet, we don’t need to be commanded to love. We desire to love him back, and the way to love Jesus back is by loving one another. By receiving Jesus’ love, we are filled to overflowing with love for others.
Most of us are like Peter, who, when Jesus knelt to wash his feet, said, “Lord, you will never wash my feet”—“or forgive my sins, or be stripped and humiliated for my sake, or give your body to be broken and your blood to be spilled on a cross so that I might live. Lord, you will never do this for me, not without me at least doing something back.”
Allow Jesus to love you. Humble yourself to be a recipient of Christ’s love. Before doing anything out of obligation, sink into that place where you are simply sitting and receiving as Jesus loves you. Receive forgiveness without confessing; receive love without merit. Let Jesus so fill you with his love that you cannot help but love others in the same way. Amen.