Faces of Christ

Maundy Thursday
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 116
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31-35

A few weeks ago I opened the mail in my office and found, to my delight, this year’s ELCA World Hunger Lenten study. Even though I don’t always use the Bible study, I’m always excited and intrigued by the study. Sometimes it provides good material for sermons, and sometimes it’s just an edifying study to read through on my own.

Cover of the 2018 ELCA World Hunger Lenten Study Guide. Copyright ELCA World Hunger. Fair Use.

This year’s study, titled Faces of Christ, has a cover that immediately caught my attention. The cover is composed of 30 individual portraits of Christ, and not all of them come from the same culture. It was interesting to see the different interpretations of Jesus, especially the Eastern, Asian interpretations of Jesus. We as white Americans in churches descended from Scandinavian and German ancestors are so used to seeing pale-faced, blond haired, blue eyed Jesus that it can be a little jarring to see a picture of Jesus not in our own image.

 

It reminded me of my visit to Israel and Palestine, the Holy Land of Christianity. In Nazareth there’s a huge cathedral, the Church of the Annunciation, built over the traditional location of Mary’s house. It’s truly a massive basilica, and all around the church and the grounds are artistic representations of the Virgin Mary and the boy Jesus donated by different countries. I remember walking through the church, looking at all of these different depictions of Mary and Jesus, and being in awe. Jesus was Mexican. Jesus was Japanese. Jesus was Ethiopian. Jesus was Thai. Jesus was Mongolian. Jesus was Irish. Jesus was Argentinian. Jesus was Palestinian.

I had never seen Jesus that way before. To put it plainly, even though I “knew” that the image of Swedish Jesus I grew up with wasn’t what Jesus really looked like, that was all I could ever imagine Jesus to be. Seeing Jesus depicted as a member of other ethnic groups was jarring. It didn’t match my expectations.

I imagine Peter felt very much the same way. This is the same Peter who in other Gospels sees Jesus transformed into a glowing super-person on the mountaintop. He listens to Jesus teach and preach. He watches Jesus heal and cast out demons. He sees Jesus walking on water and gets out of a boat to join him. He walks down the streets of Jerusalem as people throw their coats and palm branches on the ground, rolling out the “red carpet” for Jesus, so to speak, treating him like a king. Jesus was everything Peter expected the Messiah to be.

So when Jesus then gets on the floor, strips out of his outer clothing, and starts washing his disciples’ feet, it totally throws Peter for a loop. That was a servant’s job—the job of a menial worker. Think about how many of us like having our feet touched or, God forbid, touching someone else’s feet. It’s humiliating, what Jesus is doing. It doesn’t match Peter’s expectations, which leads him to protest. He just can’t see Jesus in this role, doing this work. He only sees Jesus in glory. He can’t see Jesus in humiliation.

What about us? Can we? Can we see God in humiliation? Can we see God in human brokenness? Can we see God in places, and in people, we would much rather ignore?

Very often I think we’re tempted to see God in “our image”, the way I remember seeing Jesus as I grew up in a Swedish Lutheran church. It’s tempting to see Jesus in the Peter Popoff’s Miracle Waters of the world, or in the smiling, never-sad, always-happy Joel Osteens, or in the military conquests done in Jesus’s name. It’s tempting to see Jesus as supporting the American upper-middle class that lives in the suburbs with sensible white American values. It’s easy to imagine someone we would admire and respect, and then project Jesus onto that, the same way Peter did.

We want Jesus to be strong. We want Jesus to be powerful. We want Jesus to be mighty. We want Jesus to be sensible. We want Jesus to be logical. We want Jesus to be military. We want Jesus to be respectable. We want Jesus to be respectful. We want Jesus to be clean-cut. We want Jesus to be pretty. We want Jesus to be successful. We want Jesus to be rich.

We want Jesus to be everything we wish we could be and more, because how else is he going to save us? How can Jesus save us if he isn’t better than us?

And yet here is Jesus, on his knees, half-naked, scrubbing people’s dirty feet.

Later, he’ll be dragged out of a garden and in front of a court. He’ll be mocked. He’ll be humiliated. He’ll be put on display and tortured, in public. And he’ll be put to death, executed by the state, like a common thug.

Can we see God in that? Can we recognize Jesus, the savior of the world, in all of that? I hope so.

I hope so because if I can recognize Jesus, the savior of the world, in a broken and beaten body on a cross, then I can recognize Jesus in so many more places and people than I thought possible.

Which is a good thing. As Martin Luther himself reminds us,

“God says, ‘I do not choose to come to you in my majesty and in the company of angels but in the guise of a poor beggar asking for bread. … I want you to know that I am the one who is suffering hunger and thirst.’”
(Luther’s Commentary on the Gospel of John)

It means that I can throw out all of those ideas about who Jesus is and where Jesus can be found and instead start recognizing where Jesus has been all along–

In the minimum-wage gas station attendant that sells me donuts and orange juice every Sunday morning for my Confirmation class.

In the members of our community that come to the Three Lakes Christian Food Pantry and are overlooked by the rest of the community.

In the overwhelmingly Native American population of the Vilas County Jail.

In the rising number of opioid users and abusers in our community.

In the homeless who try to survive the winter in trailers, cars, and tents without heat or electricity.

In the LGBTQ+ community, who has no place in too many of our Christian communities.

In the victims of human trafficking that pass through Vilas and Oneida counties under our very noses.

In those who don’t think or vote the same way I do in politics.

In every face, every person lovingly created in the image of God who is ever brushed aside, ridiculed, forgotten, humiliated, or deemed “unworthy” by those around them.

In them, I see the face of Christ. In them, the image of God, the person of Jesus Christ, the savior of the whole world, is given a real and tangible form.

And if I can finally open my eyes to the face of Christ that has been around me the entire time, the face that I have for so long been willfully blind to because it didn’t meet my expectations, then maybe someone else can see Christ in me. And they can see Christ in you.

Jesus getting down on his knees to wash his disciples’ feet in an act of personal humiliation was more than just a gesture of kindness for his closest friends. It was an explicit acknowledgment that Christ isn’t found in power, or might, or wealth; but is instead found in acts of service, acts of love, humiliation, demeaning circumstances, and everywhere else we’d rather not look. The people “out there”. All of you. Me.

When you leave this place tonight, you will be Christ for everyone you meet. Bless them, as you have blessed me.

Featured Image: “Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth, Israel 16” by Hoshvilim is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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