Some initial thoughts on what Holy Week during the coronavirus pandemic might challenge us to reflect on for the future mission and ministry of God’s people.
Reflecting on my first year of ministry, Maundy Thursday was one of the stand out moments where I made new discoveries about myself, my calling and how I inhabit the role of Presbyter within the Methodist Church and the churches in which I serve.
That year, for the first time in my life I washed feet. Washing the feet of worshippers that day and then sharing the Lord’s Supper together was a time in which, through my own experience and practice, I discovered new insights into what it means to be a minister of word and sacrament, to lead and serve.
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 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 13:3-5, NRSV
Jesus’ radical act subverts the cultural expectations of the day as he kneels to wash his disciples feet. I noted in my journal at the time how moving and humbling the act of foot washing had been for me. How it had helped me to understand more deeply and feel more fully what I already knew in my head to be true, the importance of servanthood to ministry. Ministry that inhabits an attitude of kindness and compassion, love and humility.
Within the Methodist Ordination service, the President says to ordinands:
“In [God’s] name you areMethodist Worship Book p302
to lead God’s people in worship, prayer and service;
to minister Christ’s love and compassion;
to serve others in whom you serve the Lord himself.”
Looking back on 2 years of ministry, I don’t think there’s been a moment where I have felt both my being and my doing have inhabited that calling as fully and intensely as I felt on my first Maundy Thursday in ministry.
But 2020 is different. It could hardly be more different. As I woke yesterday morning, I was feeling bereft that I would not be washing feet, presiding over the Lord’s Supper, gathering together as God’s people as Jesus did with his disciples the night before his crucifixion.
Holy Week, unsurprisingly feels different this year. In some ways it doesn’t feel like Holy Week – partly for the simple reason that the rituals and habits that are meaning making for me, and contribute towards what Easter normally ‘feels’ like have been removed as we cease gathering for fellowship and worship as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
A friend and colleague shared similar feelings on Twitter. His asking echoed with my feeling bereft and made me think even more of those feelings on Maundy Thursday 2019, reminding me afresh of what I had experienced and how I had felt last year.
But what was helpful, was that it also stimulated me to look forwards, to what I was about to do, and begin to see that the qualities of ministry I recognised so strongly last Maundy Thursday might still be encountered in new places, under our current new landscape.
Instead of all that had been scheduled in the diary for Maundy Thursday, I spent the morning working with Bognor Foodbank, who are distributing food parcels from the church hall at Bognor Regis Methodist during the pandemic.
What I realised in the course of the day is that those qualities of kindness and compassion, love and humility, were there again in this different opportunity for serve God’s people. New places, same ministry.
They were not in a towel and basin but in carrier bags of staple foods.
They were not in bread and wine but tins of tomatoes and custard.
They were not experienced in gathered people for worship, but in a queue of socially distanced people in need.
They were not found through serving the people of the church itself, but through serving God’s world.
John’s Gospel account of Jesus washing his disciples feet goes on:
For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.’John 13:15; 20. NRSV
If the act of washing feet last year was a symbol and signpost for me to Jesus the servant-hearted leader, and my being and doing was a signpost to others too, then I’ve come to realise my work with the Foodbank was an act of servant-heartedness itself. With that realisation, I’ve felt encouraged and less bereft, but also challenged as I reflect on that experience and how it may shape future ministry.
Henri Nouwen writes:
“For the minister is called to recognize the sufferings of his [sic] time in his own heart and make that recognition the starting point of his [sic] service.”The Wounded Healer, Darton Longman and Todd, p.xxii
There is importance for our spirituality in what have been the ‘normal’ rhythms and ritual of worship and ministry. We are creatures of habit and the rhythm feeds our faith, reminding us of that which has gone before us. Building us up, brick by brick, act by act.
Yet, while recognising that, as we turn to the suffering and sacrifice of Good Friday, as we refrain from gathering together at the cross, and all those other things we ‘normally’ do on Good Friday, I’ve felt challenged to ask of myself whether I’ve placed too heavy a meaning into the ritual and the rhythm. For those same qualities I felt so intensely as I washed feet, I also found through serving carrier bags of food to those in need. Is there ‘stuff’ that has become ‘normal’ in my life that needs sacrificing for the sake of serving a suffering world?
Does Jesus look on me and say Father, forgive; for they do not know what they are doing? (Luke 23:34)
As I stand, alone, at the cross today,
As I stand distanced from my sisters and brothers,
As I stand before my Saviour who suffered and died at the hands of cruelty,
As I call to mind how society, political power and religious leaders rejected Jesus,
I’m left asking myself what sacrifice might I need to make?
As I watch Jesus die, I ask what needs to die to make space for resurrection to new life?
As I wrestle at the cross today, I’m convicted that this wrestling is not only for me, but God’s church as a whole.
How will coronavirus – the isolation, the distance the suffering, the sacrifice – change our experience of Holy Week and Easter? Change the very ways that we are church? What sacrifices will our experience challenge us to make, for the sake of serving a suffering world?
I am convinced these questions are imperative for the future mission and ministry of God’s people. For in standing at the cross, gazing upon our suffering Christ, holding ourselves open to be challenged and changed by the God who loves us, we allow ourselves to enter into the unknown mysteries of Christ’s suffering and sacrifice, and allow ourselves space to journey towards the discovery of what resurrection to new life after lockdown will look like.