Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Thoughts for Maundy Thursday

The Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, who taught at my seminary (Union in New York), entered into glory last Wednesday. His way of being Christian while engaging with other religions was more faithful to the essence of the gospel than that of most other interfaith enthusiasts.

The New York Times obituary gave this account of his conversion:

Dr. Koyama was born on Dec. 10, 1929, in Tokyo. In 1945, as American bombs rained down on Tokyo, he was baptized as a Christian at the age of 15. He was struck by the courageous words of the presiding pastor, who told him that God called on him to love everybody, “even the Americans.”

This coming Holy Week is a time for reflection on the love of Jesus not only for victims but also for perpetrators, and his prayer for his enemies (us).

Another welcome passage in the obituary is one that reminds me of Prof. Koyama's "water buffalo theology":

Dr. Koyama [used] poetic, not academic, language. As a missionary in northern Thailand, he said, he was inspired to write it as he listened to the “fugue of the bullfrogs” while watching farmers working with buffaloes in the rice fields.
“The water buffaloes tell me that I must preach to these farmers in the simplest sentence structure,” he wrote. “They remind me to discard all the abstract ideas and to use exclusively objects that are immediately tangible. ‘Sticky rice,’ ‘banana,’ ‘pepper,’ ‘dog,’ ‘cat,’ ‘bicycle,’ ‘rainy season,’ ‘leaking house,’ ‘fishing,’ ‘cockfighting,’ ‘lottery,’ ‘stomachache’ — these are meaningful words for them.”

But most meaningful of all from my point of view was the last paragraph in the obituary. Maundy Thursday is not far away, with its now-obligatory footwashing. I am among those not-so-few who dislike the ceremony of footwashing. It takes a lot of time that would be better used in preaching a careful expository sermon about the Christological meaning of the footwashing. Many interpreters have stressed that the primary meaning of Christ's action at the Last Supper is Christological, that is to say, it reveals who he is. The instruction to go and do likewise is the secondary meaning. Since the Gospel of John is so conspicuously Christological, with its primary motive clearly stated (in 20:31) "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God," it is always a good idea to look for the epiphany in each passage. The chief message is not "You should wash each other's feet" (it is difficult--not impossible, but difficult--to transpose this meaningfully into a culture unfamiliar with footwashing). The chief message is, "Look what I and the Father are doing for you on the night before my death."

Dr. Koyama, in his simple, gentle way, interprets the story from this angle. He does not interpret it as an exhortation to go and do likewise (which is definitely present in the story but is secondary to the revelatory aspect). He is thinking of how it will be when we meet the Lord:

Once, in discussing death, Dr. Koyama recalled the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. He said Jesus would be with others the same way:
“Looking into our eyes and heart, Jesus will say: ‘You’ve had a difficult journey. You must be tired, and dirty. Let me wash your feet. The banquet’s ready.’ ”