Homily for Maundy Thursday || April 17, 2014 || John 13
Imagine with me the Apostle Peter at night in his prison cell in Rome near the end of his life.
It all happened so long ago. Thirty years or more now. And yet sometimes – like tonight – I wake up in the cold wee hours of the morning gasping for air because my dreams drag me back to that week. One moment, I’m being suffocated by the crowds pressing in on me, buffeting me, shouting for blood. The next I awake in my prison cell, take in great swallows of stale air.
My cellmate – another follower rounded up here in Rome like I was – he says, “You were shouting in your sleep again.”
“What was I shouting?” I ask, though I already know the answer.
“Something like, ‘I don’t know who you’re talking about,’ ” he says.
Yes, of course. The same old dream. I always wake up when the rooster crows.
Why can’t I dream of the happier times? Lugging the huge catch of fish onto the beach. Talking with Jesus around the campfire. Sharing a meal with him in our hideout in Jerusalem.
“Perhaps you still feel guilty,” my cellmate says. “We’ve all heard the story: how you denied you knew Jesus when he needed you most.”
“But Jesus forgave me,” I say. “I told him I loved him. He gave me a mission to feed his sheep. He knew I couldn’t live with myself, so he told me to live for him instead…And I have…”
My voice trails off. I used to give this defense with more fire.
“He might have forgiven you.” My cellmate again. “But have you truly accepted his forgiveness? Have you ever forgiven yourself?”
I want to say, “yes.” I want this fellow in my cell to know that I am one of Jesus’ most fervent followers, that I remember everything he ever taught, that I apply it constantly to my life. But it’s all a lie. A front I put on so others will be encouraged. If they knew the doubts that assail my hearts, they’d be less eager to follow, I tell myself. I do follow, but…fervently?
His question lingers in the stale air: “Have you ever forgiven yourself?” I want to say, “yes,” but something about the dank prison cell drags the truth out of me instead. Must be the hardness of the floor, the right angles of the walls, the smoothness of the stones. In Rome, even the prison cells are plumb. “No,” I say. The word rebounds off the wall. The echo indicts me.
Silence replaces the echo, and we listen to each other breathing in the dark. “I’d always heard you were stubborn, Peter,” says my cellmate. “But that forgiveness. That love of his. It was a free gift. You didn’t need to earn it. Your denial didn’t make you unworthy of it. Do you not see that?”
A recent convert, this one. I can always tell by their zeal. This one is mouthier than most.
He presses on. “It’s the footwashing all over again.”
“The night before Jesus went to his death on the cross. We’ve all heard that story, too. Jesus knew he was going to God and so he wanted to show you all the importance of service. Of love. The fact that service and love are really the same thing. So he took off his robe, got down on his knees, and washed the feet of his friends.”
“I remember. I was there.”
“But…but when he got to your feet, you didn’t want them washed. You didn’t feel worthy of that either.”
This I have to answer. “He just looked so small,” I say. “Crawling on his knees, pushing the wash basin before him. It felt so wrong for him to humble himself like that for my sake. His humility made me feel even more unworthy.”
More silence. Again, the truth tumbles out.
“It still does.”
And what does my cellmate do? He starts to sing:
“Being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.
“I heard that the day I was arrested,” he says. “We sang it at a gathering.”
“It says Jesus humbled himself and became obedient. Don’t you see, Peter? How can I, who is so new to the Way, be the one to teach you this, you who have the keys to the kingdom? Humility and obedience go together.”
I shift on my cot. I don’t want to hear this, but his voice has taken on a new tone, one I remember Jesus using: excitement and insight mixing together to form revelation. I sit up and feel the hairs raise on the back of my neck.
“When he washed your feet he demonstrated humble service. And what did he do next?”
“He told us to love each other.”
“No. He commanded you to love each other. It wasn’t a request. Jesus gave you a direct order, a new commandment. To obey you had to love. To show love you had to serve humbly. To serve humbly you had to obey – to listen deeply for his call and act on it. I found my church – my new family – because I watched them loving each other, serving each other, and I knew I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to follow Jesus’ commandment.”
“And yet here you are, in prison with me.”
“I believe I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing exactly what I’m supposed to do.”
“And what exactly is that?”
He takes a deep breath. “Helping Peter find a new dream.”
I grunt my derision, but the memory of the rooster crowing still hovers behind my eyes. I’m listening, in spite of myself.
“Look,” he presses. “You can dismiss everything I say as the ravings of convert’s zeal. But just because I’m new doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Those words you said in fear that night still haunt you. Let them go. Tell me now. Say it aloud. Say you know him.”
His words awaken the same ones in me. I open my mouth. My voice catches in my throat. But I force them out. “I do know the man.”
“Say it again.”
“I do know him.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s here in this cell. I hear him speaking through you.”
“What is he commanding?”
“He wants me to let go, to let his forgiveness wash me clean, to release my stubbornness and pride, to hear and obey.”
“ To hear and obey. To love and serve in humility?”
“That is his command. Loving and serving. The command and the gift, both at the same time.”
He reaches across the divide between our cots and grasps my hand. I can feel his blood pulsing. And for the first time in God knows how long, I feel the fire blaze in me again. He squeezes my hand and holds it fast. “Peter, my friend, there’s your new dream.”
*Art: detail from “Columbus in Prison” by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)