Matthew T. Phillips

Faded Dreams on a Brilliant Cross (John 13:1-17)

Maundy Thursday (A)
Providence United Methodist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina

1Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

John 13:1-17 NRSV

A faded cross

The temptation when I find myself before a group here at Providence is to attempt to elicit some laughter about not being able to come home again or perhaps a story about one of you changing my diapers. Jokes don’t feel quite right on Maundy Thursday before the table of the Lord. It is, though, an honor to be in this place that is my home, especially on this sacred night when we remember who we are in our failings and in our best moments.

During previous visits, many of you have complimented the cross I sometimes wear during worship, a ornate gift from a friend traveling in France. As I was gathering my vestments for this trip, I left that bright and beautiful cross in its place and instead went to a shadowbox frame beside my desk and pulled out the cross that this church gave me when I became an acolyte about 15 years ago. Its pewter finish is tarnished: its appearance not nearly so crisp as my memories of staring down at it during worship, losing myself in its intricate, crossing Celtic lines. Such is the mood of this night. We know that a cross is coming. And we know that it isn’t all about the bright and festive refrains of Easter. The chancel tonight resounds not with “Alleluia,” but with haunting words: “view the Lord of life arraigned; O the wormwood and the gall!”

Let us pray:

God, we shun not suffering, shame, or loss, but come together to learn of him who bore the cross. Nourish us, we pray, by his presence, and unite us in his love; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The Methodist Worship Book, The Methodist Church
(Petersborough, England: Methodist Publishing House, 1999), 242 and
Noble, “Go to Dark Gethsemane” (choral octavo).

In the land of faded crosses

Thirty-five hundred miles away stand the ancient high crosses on which mine was modeled. The Celtic crosses of Ireland stand in cemeteries mostly, not marking specific graves, but standing in the midst of the church triumphant, their carvings rich in the symbolism and stories of the Bible. They were teaching tools as much as anything, because after all, what better place to teach someone what the church really believes than among the people who taught you? Our faith is one of tradition and history, and we do not dream up our faith alone in the woods, but among the witness and communion of the saints. Our faith is one of remembering. That’s what we do when we come to the table, but first we linger with another Christian who lived the gospel of our scripture tonight.

Those strong and beautiful, if faded, Celtic crosses that stand in Ireland have their place because of a man who prompted us last week to wear green, kiss Irish people, and, one of my friends bragged to me, eat green bagels. Like his feast day in our modern calendar, St. Patrick has become a cartoon. A couple of interesting legends float around about driving snakes out of Ireland, which he didn’t do, but mostly the spectacle of St. Patrick’s Day causes us Protestants to pat ourselves on the back for avoiding the recognition of historic saints in our worship. Surely such comical and secular days have no place in our calendar, we decide: what, after all, could a cartoon like St. Patrick teach us? In fact, Patrick was about as three-dimensional as people come, and he points quite clearly to much of the truth of this night if we stand with him.

Ireland was the farthest thing from anyone’s mind on the Welsh estate where Patrick grew up. By the time he was sixteen, he had strayed from the religious tradition of his grandfather, a priest, and spurned honest work in favor of carefree mischief with his friends. While “carefree” might not describe the life of most fifth century Welsh families, safety was a reasonable assumption: they lived within the bounds of the Roman Empire under the great Pax Romana. Patrick’s family no doubt tolerated his adolescence because they figured in their calm setting there would be plenty of time for him to hone his Latin skills and develop into a worthy successor for his father’s estate. But the peace of Rome was tattered here at the fringes of the empire, and Patrick was violently seized one afternoon from one of his father’s villas and sailed in chains the short trip across the Irish Sea (Cahill, 101-02, 106).

The Emerald Isle is now one of the most prosperous countries in Europe. Patrick’s Ireland, though, was outside the bounds of the Roman Empire. If he had focused on studies back at home long enough to see a map, over Ireland it would have read “here do be monsters,” for that which lay beyond the Roman Empire was the realm of chaos (Cahill, 108).

Patrick became the shepherd-slave of an Irish king. That might sound like not such a bad gig, but a fifth century Irish king was a chieftain at best, ruling with brute force over a small collection of farmers and shepherds. “Here do be monsters” was not terribly far from the truth. Patrick was stuck in his master’s fields, alone for months at a time. He was hungry and naked in a foreign land, and he could not adopt this land as his own, because he didn’t see other people often enough to learn the language very quickly. The sight of new people left him conflicted: he desperately needed human contact, but he had no words to speak with them (Cahill, 101).

Alone in the field, to pass the time as much as anything else, for he tells us that he didn’t then believe in God, Patrick began to pray. He prayed more and more, as often as two hundred times a day, he wrote later—and he was not prone to exaggerate. “The Spirit within [him] became ardent,” and he had energy to spare as he continued to make it through the six years of solitude and bondage. Patrick would eventually train under theologians in a French seminary, but he came to know God in the middle of Irish fields, and that would make all the difference in his life (St. Patrick).

After a vision in a dream, Patrick ran as a fugitive to a port deep in the South and found a ship that reluctantly agreed to take him. He escaped from slavery through more tribulations, finally to arrive back at home in Britain, where he tells us his family asked that after his dangerous travels, he should not leave them again, but should stay safe within the bounds of the Empire and their home (Cahill, 103-04).

With danger about

The strange contrast between siege and safety is common in scripture. Four hundred years before Patrick, the disciples might have had similar feelings. They found themselves in a room up off the busy street eating a Passover meal with Jesus. Like Patrick, they had faced quite enough adversity to know that their immediate peace was a perilous state and that danger was all too near: close enough even to reach into the room and steal away their precious friend, just as Patrick’s parents had seen him plucked from their villa in Wales.

Patrick came home with a relatively new faith, and the disciples too were still working out what it meant to be followers of Christ. They had hitched their lives to the promise of all that Jesus said and did, following him with enthusiasm, and now they found themselves in a strange place, as if they were foreigners in the midst of their closest friends. They had expected a king. They had expected a great battle. They had expected a revolution. Instead, they got a resigned carpenter; a meager offering of bread and wine; they got a surrender.

We know what comes next, so their sad state makes sense to us. But they were not finishing Lenten fasts. They were not piously thinking that it was good to be a little subdued in the days before Easter. Only Jesus and the one who would betray him could guess about Good Friday, much less Easter. The others should have been on a high. They walked beside their Lord into Jerusalem, showing that even without a mighty army and stallion, their Lord was King. But the strange kingship of Christ left them feeling out of place. Sometimes the destination isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The pain of loss

When Patrick finally made the difficult journey back to Britain, we can only assume that he was excited and relieved to see his family again. Those first hours back in his home must have felt exceedingly strange: for the first time in several years, he experienced safety, a full stomach, the love of family, the rest of sleep under a dry roof. This was the goal and dream in his mind for all those six years. But Patrick had grown up. He was no longer comfortable living by the kindness of his parents on their pastoral farm. He had become a traveler; he was a foreigner in his own home. That moment of realization might have been more painful than the torture of his solitude among flocks in Ireland. He was struck by the pain of one who has lost himself (Cahill, 105).

The disciples knew that pain: they had followed Christ, always thinking that at the next moment he would start to act like the king they knew him to be. And in the upper room, the hope surely must have fallen away. This was not the prelude to a great military victory. They had lost their chance to be part of the revolution of which they’d dreamed, even if they would spend the rest of the night vainly trying to make it happen themselves.

And we talk about all this because we know that pain too. The reason we don’t just skip from the trumpets of Palm Sunday to the trumpets of Easter is that sometimes you need an oboe and a violin. We know that pain too. Patrick looked around like I know you have before and he recognized what he saw, but it didn’t feel right. The shock of being back at home—of finally reaching the goal he thought would make him happy—startled him into looking at himself and seeing that his life did not resemble the hopes and dreams he had once quietly had for himself. We know that pain too. The disciples thought back to that afternoon when Jesus had performed miracles before the crowds and authorities without convincing a soul, they looked at themselves and their odd meal together and realized that this revolution was puttering: their hopes and dreams had died, and they had given up everything to be here: they had lost themselves.

In that moment of pain, Jesus did not apologize for where he had led them, and he certainly didn’t start acting like an earthly king for their benefit. He took a towel, poured water into a basin, and started to wash their feet. If their surroundings felt strange and the shock of Jesus’ humility felt painful before, then it’s understandable that this act left them completely incapacitated. Again, we know what comes next, so this seems sentimental and quaint to us, at least until we sit down and someone we admire and respect comes up, takes off our shoes, and starts washing things. Jesus took them to a strange and scary place—their way of understanding things was completely broken down. And then he finally started to build a calling for them again.

Our friend Patrick had scarcely settled back into his parents’ home—in fact his whole problem was that he couldn’t settle in there—when he began to have visions of the people of Ireland calling him back into their midst to help them in their suffering. Patrick would always feel strange in his homeland: he had missed years of education and he had been changed by life in the wild fields of Ireland (Cahill, 106). In order to find peace, he had to give up everything that the world around him called peace—the peace of Rome—and embrace the peace of the commandment of God. Can it be that the pain of a lost identity is what we need in order to embrace God’s will for us?

Jesus said to the disciples,

12b“Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

John 13:12b-15 NRSV

In the pain of their uncertainty and in the void of their vanished hopes and dreams, the disciples began to feel the rising tide of mission. It was one which required sacrifice, to be sure, but sacrifice of all that they had just found to be unimportant: their stature, their pride. But those things are often more difficult to give up.

When I’ve had that feeling of failure—the loss of hopes and dreams—it has been because I began to fear after some jarring event that I was not going to be successful. Not productive. Not accomplished. We are not called to be those things, says Henri Nouwen, but instead “we are called to be fruitful. …Success comes from strength, stress, and human effort. Fruitfulness comes from vulnerability and the admission of our own weakness” (Nouwen).

The disciples, and Patrick, and all of us, find ourselves staring up at this strange king who picks up children and makes no distinction between the rich and the poor around him. He speaks of the Kingdom and doesn’t point his fingers up the hill to the capital, but straight up toward heaven. We can worship in front of that image as often as we face it, but we can only really get it when we feel vulnerable and weak; when we see that our lives do not resemble the hopes and dreams we had for ourselves.

The Spirit reaches down to Patrick, who finds himself an alien in his home, and to the disciples who find themselves marching behind a king with a white flag, and to us, whenever we feel the pain of failure and of weakness, and brings us to the table. Jesus clarifies this business about foot-washing: “you shall love one another just as I have loved you.” It’s one of those tricky places where it sounds like Jesus is making things easier when he actually is raising the bar higher than we could clear on our own. “Just as I laid aside crowns and kingdoms, so shall you lay aside strength and human effort.” Andrew of Crete hears Jesus through the ages and understands:

It is ourselves that we must spread under Christ’s feet, not coats or lifeless branches or shoots of trees, matter which wastes away and delights the eye only for a few brief hours (Andrew).

Into a new calling

With the world as he understood it lost, Patrick went off to France to attend seminary. His education could only polish the true gift he brought with him as he went back to Ireland: his fruitfulness was the result of God using Patrick and his intimate connection to the language, the land, and the people of Ireland (Cahill, 107). Within his lifetime, Ireland had become a Christian land, not by force as in the Roman Empire, but by the spread of good news from tribe to tribe (Cahill, 109-10). Nobody but the Welsh boy who knew prosperity and slavery and chose to go back to the land of his slavery in order to find freedom could have made that happen.

The disciples had some rocky days yet to come, but even as the crucifixion darkened the earth before their eyes, they had the words of Christ from this night to reassure them that the darkness was but a cloud and the light would return. They had their new commandment, even as their faded dreams of earthly power and glory would hang on a rugged cross.

And finally, we too are left staring up at the king who washes feet, and perhaps tonight we are in a place to hear. He sets before us a table at which we join the communion of the disciples, of Patrick, of the saints of this church. When we’ve mourned our dreams, we come to this table to learn that that the success we thought would fill us is not our calling. Like Patrick, we know this world—we speak its language and know its people intimately—so think of the good we could do. We can look to his example as we try to find the pathway back home from this table. Patrick’s breastplate becomes our prayer:

I arise today:
in the might of heaven….
Eye of God for my foresight,
Ear of God for my hearing;
Word of God for my word… (St. Patrick)

We arise today from the pain of discovering that our lives don’t look the way we had hoped they might and that we have not managed to be exactly the people we hoped we would be, and with the bread of God for our life, we pin our faded dreams to a cross that faith tells us will soon shine with a whole different kind of glory. We listen for the calling that will fill us again. Send us, O God, to that place where only we can bear the fruit of your best dreams.

Works Cited and Resources for Further Reading