by Eric Holloway
I have this personal rule that I’ve set for myself: never read the comments section below online articles. If you’ve ever done so yourself, you know that they will invariably contain the most vitriolic, unfair, and often frustratingly under-developed arguments that one can possibly imagine, on both sides of whatever it is that the article is about. Not too long ago, as is my custom, I was ignoring this personal rule that I had set for myself, and reading through the entire comments section below the recent pastoral letter that our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori wrote to the Diocese of South Carolina. (If you didn’t know already, the (former?) Bishop of South Carolina and its standing committee, as well as a presumably sizable portion of the laity have decided to leave the Episcopal Church, wanting to take with them the property and money of the Diocese, which our Presiding Bishop asserts that they cannot do.) ((pause))
I was looking for the fight, and I was not disappointed. The comments section was rife with accusations: “You don’t preach the Gospel!” “You don’t own that property!” “You’re schism is a far greater sin than anything that might provoke it!” And not just accusations, but also personal attacks against both Bishop Lawrence, the “self-serving egoist” and Bishop Katharine, the “ultra-liberal heretic.” Even those on the same side of the larger issue could not agree on how to handle the break, with every commenter knowing just what to do about this situation and spending heated and excited exchanges declaring the superiority of their positions and undermining the views and arguments of others.
In our Gospel reading this morning, there are 3 main characters: Jesus, Judas, and Peter. Peter is raised up as the obvious hero, contrasted with Judas who is in no uncertain terms the villain. And the author of John doesn’t use a comments section below the story to remind us of it, but sprinkles in the case against Judas all through this beautiful story about the faithfulness of Peter to follow Jesus even when it means turning his accepted cultural norms on their head, and letting his beloved teacher wash his feet like a common servant. The good one, and the bad one, set side by side as an example. So, who are we in this story? We future loyal and faithful leaders of the Episcopal Church? We are Peter of course! When called to break out of our comfort zone, to serve and be served, we say, “Not just our feet, but our heads, and arms, our hands and legs, our whole bodies and selves!” It’s the leavers, the jump shippers, the schismatics who are playing Judas in this passage, no doubt. The connections are all right there, before this dinner party is even over Judas runs away from the table and out of the room, taking the common money purse with him! It is so easy to see.
And it is so easy to forget. So easy to forget the irony of this passage, that the knight in shining armor, our faithful Peter, betrays and abandons Jesus just as surely as Judas does. For all his enthusiasm, Peter denies Christ not just once but three times. John’s Gospel is famously the gospel of setting boundaries for communities: who is in, and who is out; who is us, and who is them. And rightly so, a good community needs good boundaries. But despite this focus on who is in and who is out, there is no pass given to those that stay. Jesus did not wash the feet of one betrayer and abandoner that night, but several. Let us never forget that any faithfulness we might have is a gift, a blessing that does not come merely from being in that inner circle that ‘knows’ the lesson of humility and servant-leadership, but from actually doing it, from submitting ourselves to washing the feet of each other, even the heels that will be lifted against us. The unity of our Church, and of The Church, has always been and always will be a tenuous thing, breaks and tensions and stresses push and pull us from all sides. But we don’t need to be afraid of this, our gospel assures us, and we certainly should not let it distract or keep us from humbling ourselves always to one another and to those that we serve.
Eric Holloway is a Middler seminarian at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas and a Postulant for Holy Orders from the Diocese of Texas.