The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
April 18, 2019
Blessed be the name of the Lord, from henceforth, and forevermore. Amen.
In January, the newest edition of the International Journal of Systematic Theology was published. What made this issue unique was its sole dedication to the theological work of John Webster.
Before his death in 2016, Webster, a priest of the Church, served as the Chair of Divinity at St. Mary's College, University of St Andrews, Scotland, prior to that he served as the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford, a prestigious chair in which he was immediately preceded by Archbishop Rowan Williams.
In one of the journal’s essays, entitled The God-Intoxicated Theology of a Modern Theologian, written by a mentor and former professor, Katherine Sonderregger, Webster’s lifelong work is described as the labor of a man focused on who God is, not what Deity is.
Who God is, not what Deity is.
Webster’s work was concerned with knowing more deeply the greatness and vastness of God. A God who cannot be grasped by human understanding or wisdom, but by divine revelation. Out of his own sovereignty God reveals himself to us as the great I Am. And this great mystery, the boundless unknown, freely takes flesh, our flesh, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The very Jesus who on this night took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. The very Jesus who on this night tied a towel around his waist and washed the feet of his disciples. The very Jesus who on this night gave us a new commandment – “Love one another just as I have loved you.”
A being so infinite, luminous, and powerful, comes to us in the person of Jesus. And so the question who God is, in its full revelation and perfection, is answered in the life, ministry, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Through which we come to know God more fully not by some great personal insight or technical achievement, but by God’s own revelation, God’s very actions and words.
On this night we find Jesus at dinner with his friends. With his betrayal looming, Jesus pours water into a basin and washes the feet of his disciples. An act which Saint Peter first rejects. The great disciple of the Church, the one whom God’s church will be built upon, rejects our Lord’s gesture. We are not told why, but we are told Jesus’ response to Saint Peter - "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Unless I am able to make you clean, you will not share with me.
Saint Peter’s understanding of who God is? Or better yet, what deity is? would not permit him to have Jesus, God made man, wash his feet. How could God, the great I Am, the creator of heaven and earth, the maker of all things seen and unseen, stoop down to the ground and wash the feet of a mortal man. But this is who God is.
In the act of lowering himself to wash the feet of his disciples, our mortal eyes are given an image of the radical nature of God in Christ. Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is but an archetype of who God is, it is but a reflection of his Incarnation, God’s ultimate revelation. In the act of washing the feet of his disciples, we are witnessing mutually a revelation and a commandment of Who God is… and who God wants us to be.
Jesus says “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet... Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples”
This commandment of love comes to us in the words and actions of Jesus. And Jesus comes to us by God’s outpouring of himself in the Incarnation. An act of divine kenosis, that is God’s self-emptying of himself into the world. In this act of self-emptying through which God becomes man, God also reveals to us a new radical notion of love. God doesn’t give what he has… he gives what he is, his very being.
Therefore, the Christian notion of divine love is formed by the fact that God does not give us what he possesses or owns, but his very self. This ultimate revelation of divine love, God giving his full and unconditional self in the life, ministry, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, needs to guide our participation in the Triduum, our celebration on Easter Day, and our Christian life.
How do we live out Christ’s command, how do we proclaim, and more importantly, embody the Christian notion of love?
The most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review features an interview with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. In it, he is asked, “How do you encourage people to bring love into their workplaces?” A true capitalist question about love if I’ve ever heard one.
The Presiding Bishop responds with these words:
“In the past couple years I’ve started thinking of love less as a sentiment and more as a commitment to a way of being with others. As a sentiment, love is more about what I’m getting out of it than what you’re getting out of it. But as a commitment, love means I’m seeking your self-interest as well as my own—and maybe above and beyond mine.”
Believing and living out love not as a sentiment, but as a commitment, is how we’ll be able to follow Jesus’ commandment. It is how we can show the world God’s ultimate revelation in the person of Jesus. It is what God in Christ came to show us about himself, inviting us to follow and lower ourselves to serve those in need. And by that same token, allowing us to admit to ourselves and God, without shame or fear, that we are in need of the service and love of others. Allowing us to be ones whose feet are washed by Jesus himself.
This can be difficult. Our ego, pride, and even fear can get in the way. After all, the love that God offers for the world is showcased on the cross. The love that God reveals, his very being, will be rejected.
And yet Jesus never gives into the world’s desire to undermine his way of love. He is betrayed, he stumbles and falls, but never gives in to the world’s hunger and lust for power. True power belongs to God and therefore it belongs to Christ, and Christ belongs to us whom Christ is willing to serve and wash us again, and again, and again… but only if we let him. If we allow ourselves to be made new by the love of God in Jesus Christ there is nothing to actually fear. Love is no longer an idea to attain, but a reality.
Will you accept who God is?
 Zizek, S., & Milbank, J. (2009). The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? (C. Davis, Ed.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.