Saturday, 22 July 2017

Pure souls and smelly feet

Jesus said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” John 13:14

Basil of Caesarea lived about three hundred years after Jesus. He was a great theologian and a champion of monastic living, but he also had a strong concern for practical Christianity - his monastery, for example, offered accommodation to the homeless and also housed a hospital.

The story goes that an earnest young Christian told him about his intention to withdraw from the world and devote himself to growing his personal spiritual life. (I wonder if perhaps he was wanting to impress Basil?) Basil replied with a devastating question: “But whose feet will you wash?”

A great reply! Whose feet indeed? 

Yes, of course it’s vital that we should all take time to build our own relationship with God; but not if that means no longer serving others in meeting their needs. This is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples that they should wash one another’s feet: today, not many of us do that in a literal sense, but hopefully we are willing to help others lovingly even in the most humbling and demeaning tasks. (The washing of guests’ feet after they had come in from walking the dirty roads fell to the lowest slave in the household.)

Christians have sometimes driven a wedge between the “spiritual” and “practical” aspects of the Christian life.

And certainly there are Bible passages which might seem to justify this. A favourite is the story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42), whose home in Bethany Jesus visited. Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he said”, while Martha “was distracted by all the preparations” needed for a meal - and got cross with her sister for not helping. But Jesus gently rebuked her, telling her that “Mary has chosen what is better”.

For some Bible teachers, Mary stands for the “contemplative” life - the life of prayer, study and devotion - while Martha stands for the “practical” life; and the implication is that the contemplative life is superior to the practical.

Personally, I don’t think that interpretation is right. I prefer to think that Jesus wasn’t laying down some kind of principle for all time, but simply saying that in that particular place and on that particular occasion Mary had chosen a better use of the time than Martha.

The same applies to Acts 6:1-7. The apostles asked to be released from responsibility for the practical affairs of the infant church in order to concentrate on “the ministry of the word of God”. Were they too “spiritual” to get their hands dirty serving the practical needs of the rapidly growing church? 

No: but the plain fact was that they were the only people who could offer leadership and exercise pastoral care for all the new converts - so their decision was a purely sensible one.

People sometimes say that what we need to do is “get the balance right” between the spiritual and the practical. (We Christians tend to be very fond of that word “balance”! -  and no doubt it’s often appropriate.) But I’m not sure it’s quite the way we should think about this particular relationship.

I prefer to put it like this: The more we develop our personal relationship with God, the more we will also grow in practical usefulness and service. Putting it another way, we shouldn’t play these two vital aspects of the Christian life off against one another: to grow in one is to grow in both.

Living the Christian life is all of a piece: it can’t - or, at least, it shouldn’t - be put into compartments. Even the most “spiritual” of Christians should, like Jesus himself, be happy to serve others in whatever ways may be necessary. And even the most “practical” Christian should be truly Christlike, prayerful and Spirit-filled.

So (while I have to admit that monasticism is not something I have ever felt remotely enthusiastic about) I do think that Basil of Caesarea had it absolutely right in his conversation with that devout young man.

Walk close with God, yes of course. But never stop asking yourself that vital question: Whose feet can I wash today?

Lord Jesus, please print indelibly on my imagination that amazing, electrifying moment when you took the bowl of water, wrapped a towel around yourself, and knelt to wash the disciples’ dirty, smelly feet. Help me never to begrudge such service, but to see it for what truly is: my spiritual worship. Amen.

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