Lent and Coronavirus
For many of us, the coronavirus now consumes our thoughts, our dreams, our livelihoods, and even our bodies. People feel betrayed or abandoned. Though there are pockets of the world the virus hasn’t touched, chaos is widespread. Though some of us are working round the clock to supply overwhelmed medical systems, and others are struggling to keep grocery stores supplied and stocked, and still others are caring for the sick and vulnerable, millions of us have lost jobs or businesses. Our gig economy has shattered. We are forced inside, left with little but our electronic communities, and those without internet connections don’t have even that.
Ironically, it is also Lent, a time when Christians have traditionally fasted, abstaining from pleasure. It’s a time of self-restraint and sacrifice. Now, a minuscule virus has forced us to give up much of what we hold dear, such as working, eating in restaurants, taking our kids to the park, sharing hugs. If we have no income, we may also be fasting. Though we’re sacrificing, it’s not by choice.
Of course, things aren’t hard for everyone. For some, the pandemic doesn’t seem real, and they can’t understand the fuss. Those who live in hard-hit areas may be fine if they can work from home, or if their “essential” jobs don’t put them at risk, or if they live with loved ones, or if they enjoy being alone. But we don’t know what the future will bring.
Wisdom from Ancient Texts
Even if we’re not at risk, if we’re content enough with our forced minimalism, there is plenty of betrayal and abandonment around. Working in a hospital, for instance, I see it in the patients and families who can’t visit one another and the staff whose nerves are starting to fray. While employees are being professional, there’s fear and frustration, and although patients claim to understand the need for isolation, their hurt is obvious. Fear, anger, blame, shame, emptiness, desperation, and despair all fester beneath the surface.
All these emotions were present during the last week of Jesus’s life. Betrayed by those closest to him, Jesus despaired as he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. Fear overwhelmed him. Though he reached out for help, his disciples fell asleep, abandoning him. Then they failed him when he was arrested. In their remorse, they hid, blamed one another, and despaired of being the loyal followers they knew they should have been.
As the days edge toward Easter, we remember this story. Although in this season of coronavirus, churches around the country will keep their doors shut, many congregations are streaming worship events or posting videos. Television evangelists continue to preach. One way or another, the holiday will be honored. Soon it will be Maundy Thursday, and Christians will tell a poignant story of love, betrayal, abandonment, and sacrifice. Can we find some wisdom in that tale to carry us through the months ahead?
On a Thursday evening some two thousand years ago, Jesus gathered his disciples together for one last teaching. Countless sermons could be preached about that night, for many themes linger there. We will focus on two of them: The commandment to love modeled in John’s gospel and the betrayal Jesus suffered.
Earlier that week, Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey. There he preached, prophesied, cursed a fig tree, offered teachings, cleansed the temple, and confounded the Jewish leaders. On Wednesday, one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, arranged with the assembly of Jewish elders to point Jesus out to them so they could arrest him. The next day, Jesus made it clear he knew what Judas had done, but since was necessary for the scriptures to be fulfilled, he accepted the betrayal as one more event that had to occur so he could live out his mission as Messiah.
The gospels agree that the men gathered for a meal, but only John shows Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. This was a startling act of love, one that can teach us something about how to respond to the kind of threat and betrayal we are experiencing now as the coronavirus sweeps through our communities. Though Jesus’s life was threatened, his only concern was for love. He tried so hard to get the disciples to understand what he meant by love, to feel it in their hearts and in their bones. Unfortunately, he failed. But John tells the story so that, unlike them, we might one day figure it out.
Becoming Like a Servant
After their meal, Jesus “got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then 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” (John 13:4-5). 
Even though we may have heard this story before, and even though we lack some of the cultural references of those first-century listeners, this probably sounds like a surprising thing for a leader to do. For a Palestinian Jew of those days, it would have been shocking. By removing his robe, Jesus left himself clothed only in the short tunic that servants wore. Of course, it would be easier to make his way from man to man without his long outer garment to trip him up, but when he girded himself with a towel, his likeness to a servant could no longer be denied. Only servants and women needed towels to perform their labor. 
That he knelt down and washed the feet of even those he loved would have seemed absurd. Not even a slave was expected to wash the feet of a guest. They might bring water, but the traveler would wash his own feet. In Scripture, the only other times we see someone washing the feet of another, women are doing it. By wearing a towel and tending to his disciples in this way, Jesus stoops to the level of a lowly female.
The Intimacy of Washing Feet
Besides, foot washing is a deeply personal act. Not only does it require that skin touch skin, but our feet are full of nerve endings. The practice would have been quite sensual. It might even have been erotic. In the story of Ruth, Naomi instructs Ruth to seduce the landowner and relative, Boaz. She does so in part by uncovering his “feet,” which some commentators believe refers, in this text, to his penis.
Jews were not shy about being bawdy, and they preferred euphemisms. Using “feet” to represent the male member was not unusual. A fellow named Jamin goes so far as to suggest that Jesus’s act was akin to masturbation, whether of a literal or spiritual sort is not clear. Ultimately, Jamin argues, Jesus passes his wisdom to the disciples in a way that reminds the reader of sexual acts. He impregnates them, as it were, with the Holy Spirit.  As Robert A. Cathey writes, “There are boundary issues when it comes to feet.” 
So when Jesus tenderly washes the feet of his disciples, something more than just physical cleansing is going on.
One in Spirit
Probably what was going on had more to do with equality than sex, unless we mean some kind of metaphorical union. After Jesus finished washing their feet and had donned his robe again, he said, “Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them” (John 13:16). In a way, he was lifting them up, making them like him. On the other hand, if he loved them enough to wash their feet, though he was their teacher, then how could they, who were not so grand as he, do any less? Jesus was showing them that there are ways of the world and ways of the spirit, and in the spirit, there is no master and servant, teacher and student, slave owner and slave. We are all one.
Even Judas and Jesus were one.
Yes, Jesus knew Judas would soon betray him, but still he washed that man’s feet as tenderly as a lover. Mary Louise Bringle suggests this was an act of reconciliation, as if Jesus wanted Judas to know he was already forgiven.  Such an act takes unusual humility.
The Helper and the Helped
Indeed, the humility Jesus modeled is part of the point, and Peter was distinctly nervous about that. When Jesus came to him, Peter said, “You will never wash my feet” (John 13:7).
Was Peter nervous about such intimate touch? Even without the erotic subtext, ministering to another creates bonds that may feel uncomfortable. Especially when a healer tends to the body, he dissolves the barriers between people. When done well, bathing someone is a distinctly loving thing to do. It confers a blessing. So Jesus blessed his students with a love so intense it made Peter nervous.
Maybe he feared the act would demean his beloved teacher. Perhaps he thought it would change the power dynamics between them, that they would edge toward friendship. This might seem like a good thing, but friendship carries with it responsibilities beyond mere discipleship.
Nowadays, we would condemn a teacher who so muddied the boundaries between himself and his students. We understand how easy it is for people in power to manipulate those who have reason to feel grateful to them. These days we may err on the side of distance and restraint, fearful of the worshipful love that can arise in those we serve, but as long as helper relationships continue to be abused by those whose insecurities make them cruel, we must be careful. This doesn’t mean the student can never be friends with the teacher or the minister with the congregant, but when such relationships evolve, one must be as self-aware as a prophet to navigate the change well.
This may be part of what John is telling us. Jesus was a prophet, if not the son of a deity. Throughout his ministry, his actions upset the status quo, threatened propriety, demanded love when we would prefer simple kindness. He was a dangerous man. When we forgo the pride of our station, when we preach a love that heals in spite and because of its enormity, we may become dangerous, as well.
Indeed, this was what Jesus is telling Peter, that love is more than kindness. When Peter squirmed, rejecting his ministrations, Jesus told him, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8).
He was not just teaching the disciples something about intimacy, nor even about humility. Jesus was emptying himself into them. He was trying to get them to experience the essence of his ministry. Jamin was not totally wrong. By this incredibly intimate, yet respectful, act, Jesus passed his power on to his students. He tried to get them to understand that through loving service, by being touched and touching others, the disciples would enter into all that Jesus was.
Peter Makes Promises
Yet Peter had no inkling what his teacher as telling him. In his typically impulsive way, “Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’” (John 13:9). Peter figured that if he had to accept this uncomfortable tending from his unfathomable master, he might as well get all he could. He never did understand when enough was enough.
Nor did he understand how to love, at least not with the sacrificial love of a prophet or messiah. Not only did Peter ask for more than his share, but in spite of all Jesus did for his students, in spite of how he emptied himself into them, in spite of how he passed the bread and wine around the table to show them that he was offering of his entire self for their sake, still Peter and the others betrayed him.
When Jesus warned them they would “become deserters because of me this night,” Peter bristled.
“I will never desert you,” he said.
Jesus told him that “before the cock crows,” Peter would deny him three times.
But Peter would not believe him. “I will not deny you,” he insisted. The other disciples said the same thing (John 13:31-35). Of course, as we know, they were wrong.
Jesus Is Betrayed
After the meal, the men went outside to a place called Gethsemane. Most of them, Jesus instructed to wait for him by the house. As he went to pray, he:
“began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, 'I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.' And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, 'My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.' Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, 'So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.' Again he went away for the second time and prayed, 'My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.' Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, 'Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners'” (John 13:37-46).
Then Judas greeted Jesus with a kiss, the sign that the soldiers should arrest Jesus. They did so, but the disciples started to fight back. Restraining them, Jesus told them this was the fulfillment of scripture. They must let it come to pass.
At that, the disciples fled, deserting him as he had prophesied.
Peter Denies His Teacher
Yet that was not the last betrayal.
After Jesus was taken away, Peter sat by himself in the courtyard, where a servant-girl recognized him as one of the men who had been with Jesus.
Peter denied it, leaving her to go out to the porch. There another servant-girl called told the bystanders that Peter had been with Jesus, but Peter denied her, too.
The third time, one of the bystanders told him, “your accent betrays you,” yet Peter still insisted he did not know Jesus.
John writes, “At that moment, the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: ‘Before the cock crows, you will deny me three time.’ And he went out and wept bitterly” (John 13:69-75).
The night of Maundy Thursday had come to a close.
Did Jesus know what Peter was going to do because he was a god, or was he just a clever student of human behavior? Maybe he understood because of that moment when he felt within his bones the paralyzing fear that fills one when faced with a torturous death. Whatever the reason, he was not wrong. The disciples could not bear to share his fate. They abandoned him to his private pain.
So often, we fall short. Worse, we cannot admit our faults.
How will this play out as the virus spreads throughout our country, throughout the world? Will we betray one another, abandon one another? Will we find a way to love one another?
Love and Professional Boundaries
Recently, I spent time with a patient who had dementia. Unable to take care of herself, she could no longer go home, but it can take months to get approved for Medicaid, and until that happens, she cannot be moved anywhere else. She must remain hospitalized.
Whenever I work, I stop in to see her. One day, as I was taking my leave, she reached out to hug me. Normally, I would hug her back, but this time I stopped her. I reminded her of the virus, telling her some of it could be on my clothes. By hugging her, I might pass the virus onto her. I didn’t dare take that chance.
As I told her this, I could see that she understood the meaning of my words, but the darkness in her eyes told me she also felt abandoned by the distance I had created between us.
“I love you,” she told me.
“I love you, too,” I said, for I do. She is vulnerable and wise and great in her capacity to care and take care.
Yet I betrayed her. Not only would I not hug her, but though she considers me to be, I am not her friend. Because of the professional distance I maintain, I will always be the one who serves. Friendship requires equality, and though she does share her experience with me, we are not equal. Lost in her dementia, she is becoming like a child. In my way, I have abandoned her.
Yet the abandonment Jesus felt the night before he was arrested was of a different kind. He subverted himself, offered an intimate service he hoped his students could sustain. Perhaps he longed for them to become his friends, his partners in ministry. Ultimately, they could not. They lacked his strength and wisdom. Nor could they manage his kind of commitment. They could never be his equals.
Jesus may have emptied himself for them, but when he finished bathing their feet, he put his outer garment back on. He again became the master and the teacher.
After the meal, when they had gone outside, Jesus said to them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).
This was what he asked them to do, to take his example and live it into the world. But they could not be so counter-cultural. Throughout his ministry, Jesus was dangerous. He upset the status quo and threatened propriety. He demanded love when kindness should have sufficed. On his last evening with his disciples, he tried to get them to understand what it meant to reveal to the world an intimate, unyielding, tender, and frightening love. They didn’t understand him any more than we do.
One More Opportunity to Learn
Over and over, life gives us opportunities to love one another, to stand beside one another, to gently tend one another’s wounds, to gather as partners rather than enemies, to care for the needy, to embrace the vulnerable.
There is a pandemic raging through our world. Lives have been lost. More people will die. Because we refuse to create a safety net for all the citizens of our country, we will see more people go hungry, lose homes, resort to violence. Because we worship money and power more than we do spiritual truths, because we have never appreciated the gentle, fierce love of the prophet, we manufacture guns, rape and pillage, trample the poor, reject the stranger, pollute the air, build walls around our country, horde our possessions. We think this will keep us safe. Even in the face of the coronavirus, we seem to believe this will keep us safe. But safe from what? What will keep us safe from our own fear?
Safety is an illusion. Money and power are false gods. When will we live as if we understand this? When will we start to care for one another?
This disease that is ravaging our citizens and our economy has revealed the limitations of our policies and procedures. As this crisis builds, we have an opportunity. We can choose love instead of fear, friendship instead of hatred. We have an opportunity. Let us not waste it.
In faith and fondness,
- All translations from the NRSV.
- “Verse-by-Verse Bible Commentary: John 13:4,” Studylight.org, https://www.studylight.org/commentary/john/13-4.html, accessed 4/4/20.
- Jamin, “The Hidden Meaning of Jesus Washing the Disciples’ Feet,” Church of Jaminology, May 8, 2012, https://jaminism.wordpress.com/2012/05/08/the-hidden-meaning-of-jesus-washing-the-disciples-feet/, accessed 4/4/20.
- Cathey, Robert A., “Theological Perspective,” Bartlett, David L., et al. Feasting on the Word Lenten Companion: A Thematic Resource for Preaching and Worship, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 138-140, 138.
- Bringle, Mary Louise, “Homiletic Perspective,” Bartlett, David L., et al. Feasting on the Word Lenten Companion: A Thematic Resource for Preaching and Worship, Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 144-146.
Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved