It was on the evening Jesus and the disciples gathered for one last meal, when he took off his robe and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin, washed the disciples feet, and wiped them with the towel. He spoke for a long time that evening, but what we remember, without even opening the pages of the gospel, is that act of hospitality and service; what we remember is Jesus the Lord kneeling on the floor.
I was reminded of that beautiful scene when Hope and I were standing in the little courtyard of the Campus for Human Development on Thursday morning. Several hundred friends of Room in the Inn had gathered under the smiling sky to participate in breaking ground for a new facility where Nashville’s homeless would find shelter, food, medical care, counseling and education. The Governor couldn’t be there, but he sent a representative with the gold-embossed certificate declaring May 21, 2009 Room in the Inn Day in Tennessee. The Mayor was there, the Chief of Police, the Attorney General and the Public Defender, and many other community leaders, together with representatives of the more than 150 congregations who support the many services provided under the umbrella of the Campus for Human Development.
It was a great day for Nashville, and I already look forward to the day when we will dedicate the new building, including 38 units of affordable housing (I am excited that with our recent grant of $10,000 to Campus for Human Development, Vine Street will help families and individuals transition into permanent housing).
It all began in 1977 when Fr. Charlie Strobel, then the priest at Holy Name Catholic Church on Woodland, gave a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to a homeless man at the door of his rectory. It didn’t stop there – the simple gesture of sharing food with a person in need led to the creation of Loaves and Fishes. Charlie’s simple gesture of opening the doors of the rectory to those sleeping outside in the cold led to the creation of a cooperative ministry by six Nashville congregations known as Room in the Inn. And it didn’t stop there. Last year, 151 congregations in and around Nashville provided 26,737 beds and served 64,779 meals to their homeless guests from November 1 to March 31.
Today the PBJ has iconic status among the people of Room in the Inn; it speaks of God’s unconditional love for all human beings, and especially the poor and dispossessed; it stands for the truth that relationships of trust and respect are healing; and it reminds us that even the most complex problems can be addressed with caring gestures we all know and understand.
Standing in the courtyard, I was reminded of Jesus who taught us how to be the community of his friends by kneeling on the floor with a basin and a towel. That evening, after he had washed the disciples’ feet, he returned to the table and began to teach them, or rather, continued to teach them. He didn’t tell any stories or parables, and only the image of the vine and the branches can anchor the many words of his farewell speech in our imagination. The vine and the branches speak of being the community of Jesus’ friends, of having roots and bearing fruit, even when the full meaning of the many words printed in red eludes us.
At the end of his farewell speech, after Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven. Throughout the evening, his eyes and attention had been on the disciples: he washed their feet and wiped them dry, he spoke to their troubled hearts, he promised them fullness of joy and truth, he taught and encouraged them.
Now he looked up to heaven, and the words he spoke were addressed to the One he called Father. At the end of the evening, before they crossed the Kidron valley to go to the garden, Jesus prayed.
“I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”
This is not the prayer of a man in agony, wrestling in the dark night with God’s will and the knowledge of his impending death; there is not even a hint of struggle. This is the prayer of a man who has complete confidence that the purposes of God will be fulfilled in the events about to unfold. It is the prayer of the Son whose earthly mission is completed in his death and return to the Father.
Most of the prayer, however, is more than merely a reflection of the love and intimacy the two share with each other. The prayer opens up to include the community of Jesus’ friends; his eyes are lifted up to heaven, but his arms are stretched out to embrace all believers.
“Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
Most of Jesus’ prayer is intercession for the future life of his followers, for generation after generation of believers. He prays for us and our work and witness in the world. He prays for us, because we live in the world, but we don’t belong to it.
We belong to the community of Jesus’ friends; we belong to the communion of life, based in the mutuality of love and intimacy between Jesus and God. We don’t belong to the world, but we live in it as those sent to reveal the glory of God by embodying the friendship of Jesus. We live in the world as the living, breathing invitation to life in communion with God and one another.
Twice in this prayer, Jesus speaks of unity. “Protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
In these times of deep division within the church over how to be church, how to respond faithfully to God’s call to ministry, perhaps the first thing to remember is that Jesus is praying for us.
His words are not instructions for us on the subject of unity. We are not to determine the character of the relationship between Jesus and the Father in order to come up with ecclesial principles and organizational flow charts. Jesus entrusts the future of the church not to the church itself and our capacity to understand, agree on, or live that unity. With the same confidence with which he entrusts himself to the love and power of God, he places the church’s future in the hands of God.
We participate in his prayer by overhearing it and remembering that we are a community that not only needs Jesus’ prayer, but can depend on it. Gail O’Day wonders how the Christian community’s self-definition would be changed if it took as its beginning point, “We are a community for whom Jesus prays.” To me, it is profoundly comforting to remember that.
Anthony Healy is a church consultant, and one evening he was sitting in the fellowship hall of a congregation that had been plagued by trouble throughout its existence and wanted to move on.
Part of his work was to trace that painful history, touching gently on the episodes that had befallen that community with a senseless regularity. It was a distressing yet necessary process.
He looked around the room and saw sorrowful faces, eyes close to tears turned toward him. Then he noticed on the opposite wall a picture that had to that point escaped his attention.
It was the picture of the Laughing Jesus, you have probably seen it many times. Healy asked himself, “What in the sorrows of this church is so humorous?” He was convinced there was a reason he noticed the laughing face of Jesus when he did, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
He completed his work with the congregation, and a few weeks later the epiphany emerged from this seeming outbreak of divine levity over a church’s troubled past. The message was: Ease up. Even as they are, these people are my people. Even as it is, this church is my church (see Healy's book, The Postindustrial Promise). Smile, we are a community for whom Jesus prays.
Jesus’ words in the gospel according to John are written for repeated reading, for slow, persistent ruminating – the individual phrases come to life only in the context of the whole. I used to dread reading John, but not anymore. Every time, it seems, I open the pages, I hear echoes and notice patterns I hadn’t seen before. Reading John is like walking through a garden that looks different every time you set foot in it, and as soon as you think you have finally determined the layout of its paths it takes you to a corner where surprises grow. The secret, I believe, is to keep walking. The secret is to live in that garden.
Reading and rereading the chapters of Jesus’ farewell speech I noticed that the tall columns of words in red were flanked by two beautiful and memorable images: At the beginning, Jesus kneeling on the floor, close to the ground, washing the disciples’ feet, and at the end, Jesus looking up to heaven, his arms stretched out to embrace all whom the Father has given him, praying for the disciples.
Jesus calls us to live and abide in the communion of love he shares with the Father and to love one another as he loved us. Jesus sends us into the world to be the living, breathing embodiment of the reconciliation he brings.
Until we discover an even fuller expression of our calling, let us serve as he served, with humility and loving attention, and remember that he prays for us.
And when we pray, let us pray as he prays, with confidence and loving attention.