Tag: kevin vollrath

Lent 2022: Maundy Thursday

The Washing of Feet and the Gospel of Peace
Kevin Vollrath

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted
Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 
John 13:1-17 (NIV)

Why feet?

Why not hands? A perfectly kind way and appropriate place to touch a friend. Pragmatic, too.

Why not faces? A gentle and intimate way to observe another’s visage. 

The thought of few body parts other than feet evokes such vivid sensory memories for me. When I think of feet, I think of smells. Smells I’ve never smelt outside of locker rooms, shoe drives, and shoe stores. Nowadays many cover their feet with two layers of clothing– it may be that makes them smell worse than in Jesus’ time. Keeps the dirt off, and the smell in. 

I know there’s something practical about washing feet that walk dirt roads. As Jesus put it, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” I would hate to be the one who skipped a bath that day. 

Why does Jesus choose something so banal to teach his disciples as one of his final teachings before being taken away? Weren’t they all gathering regularly before this, and wouldn’t he have had many opportunities to wash his disciples’ feet? Was he in the habit already and the other gospel writers just forgot to mention it? 

I wonder if when Jesus washed those feet, he wasn’t thinking about the dirt or the potential smell. I wonder if he was thinking about more than the cultural role he performed. I wonder what feet meant to Jesus. 

Today’s feet often symbolize dirtiness. Muslims often remove shoes before entering a home or mosque as a sign of respect and to preserve the space’s cleanliness. Footwashing is part of the pre-prayer ablutions/ ritual cleaning. The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) reportedly said that cleanliness/ purity is half of faith. Throughout much of the Middle East, showing the soles of one’s feet can be offensive.

One foot connotation in the Hebrew scriptures is authority. The psalmist praises the Lord for making humans “rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet” (Ps 8:6); John also notes that “Jesus knew the Father had put all things under his power” (John 13:2). In illustrating the authority of the Messiah, Jesus quoted Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.” (Matthew 22:44). The author of Ephesians echoes this connotation when describing Jesus’ authority: “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church.” (Eph 1:22). 

Jesus and his followers supplement another connotation for feet: peace. In sending out his disciples, Jesus instructs: “But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: The Kingdom of God is near.’” (Luke 10:10-11). The letter to the Ephesians encourages believers to “stand firm… with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.” (Eph 6:15). 

In this foot-washing, Jesus showed his disciples the full extent of his love (John 13:1), and the scene appears to conclude with the words, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:17). Jesus sent his disciples with his authority to bring peace to the world. 

At CMEP we try to walk in this authority, speaking out against injustices to people in positions of power. We believe peace can be achieved if it becomes the world’s top priority (that’s why we advocate). We believe local churches and their denominations are uniquely obliged to seek peace because of the vision of God’s Kingdom the Hebrew Scriptures declared and which Jesus continued teaching (that’s why we educate our partners and elevate the voices of those working towards peace). 

In washing, Jesus fitted his disciples’ feet with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace, so they could continue to make level paths and bring peace wherever they went– wherever Jesus was to go next. He loved his disciples by commissioning them, letting them partake in the Kingdom of God, inviting them to join his lasting work. In this spirit, we pray these words from the Scriptures:

 “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7)

May you also “burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (Isaiah 52:9). May the peace that surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus as you declare Jerusalem’s redemption, even as we wait for its peace and redemption, “for the Lord will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard” (Isaiah 52:12). Amen.

____

Kevin Vollrath is CMEP’s Manager of Middle East Partnerships. Kevin is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion and Society at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he also earned an M.Div. His research focuses on the relationship between the Israeli occupation of Palestine and Palestinians with disabilities, and how the occupation produces disability. In joining CMEP, he is excited to complement his research with advocacy work.

Lent 2022: 5th Sunday of Lent

Establishing Justice on the Earth?
Kevin Vollrath

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching, the islands will put their hope.”
Isaiah 42:1-4

This is the first of four passages in Isaiah commonly understood as describing the “suffering servant.” Many Christians understand these prophecies to be fulfilled in Jesus’ ministry, and others consider the Biblical nation of Israel as a whole to be the suffering servant. 

The passage strikes me for its repetition of justice. This servant will bring justice to not just one, but the nations. The servant will bring forth justice – as if it’s hiding somewhere waiting to be revealed. He will not falter or be discouraged until he establishes, or puts, justice on the earth.

If this passage does indeed refer to Jesus the Messiah, either justice has been established, the prophecy is false, or Jesus is still working on it. Though bewildering, the last seems most likely to me. 

So how might Jesus be still bringing forth justice? Has he really not faltered or grown discouraged?

I sometimes wish Jesus was more vocal about the injustices of his day. He didn’t seem to shout or cry out or raise his voice in the streets. He raised his voice in the Temple, out of zeal for this Father’s house. Was he more passionate about teaching right worship, keeping the Temple from becoming a den of thieves, than about condemning the oppression surrounding him? 

How will he bring justice to the nations? How will he bring forth justice in faithfulness? Has he still not faltered or grown discouraged? For surely justice is yet to be established on earth. Jesus’ Kingdom theology isn’t the intuitive kind of restorative justice most of us would reasonably hope for. Instead, he offered healing and prophetic words and invited others to do the same. 

Yet his teaching is the hope of even the islands, the most marginal, those most distant from centers of power and influence. The next suffering servant passage also addresses the islands: “Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations” (Isaiah 49:1)– this hopeful teaching is for every nation everywhere. Yet even the suffering servant can come to doubt the purpose and value of his labor: “But I said, ‘I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain, and for nothing. Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God’” (Isaiah 49:4). 

If both of these passages are true and both refer to the same suffering servant, it is possible to doubt the purpose of one’s labor even while one is not faltering or growing discouraged on the way to establishing justice on the earth. 

May all of us working for justice take heart – our efforts are not for naught.

CMEP has the privilege of working alongside Jewish and Muslim, as well as secular, peacemakers. Perhaps many of us feel like bruised reeds or smoldering wicks, struggling to persevere. Despite theological differences, may we be unified by the fear of God which keeps us all seeking justice and hoping for redemption, especially for the most vulnerable among us.

May those of us who seek to follow Jesus’ teachings seek also to see his presence and work through our colleagues of different faiths. May all of us working for justice not falter as you put your hope in the coming of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is still near. Justice is coming.

Lord Jesus, draw our eyes to you, the author and perfecter of our faith.
May we be inspired by your persistence. Give us eyes to see where you are continuing your work when it’s easy to only see war, destruction, and evil. We ask you to continue establishing justice around the world, particularly in Ukraine, Yemen, Syria, Israel, and Palestine. May your Kingdom come, on Earth as it is in Heaven.
Amen.

____

Kevin Vollrath is CMEP’s Manager of Middle East Partnerships. Kevin is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion and Society at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he also earned an M.Div. His research focuses on the relationship between the Israeli occupation of Palestine and Palestinians with disabilities, and how the occupation produces disability. In joining CMEP, he is excited to complement his research with advocacy work.

Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).

Welcoming the millions of “other” Christians around the world as they prepare for Great Lent

This devotion, written by CMEP’s Manager of Middle East Partnerships, Kevin Vollrath, is in preparation for our upcoming Lent Devotional series. The first Lent Devotional will be available on March 1, 2022, and our theme for Lent is “Hope Grows: Seeds planted, future promise”. You can find our Lent Devotional series here.
Father Elias Khoury with some of the children and parents from his Greek Orthodox parish in Jadeidi, Israel.

LEARNING ABOUT ANCIENT CHRISTIAN COMMUNITIES

‘Why are we ‘celebrating’ the fast of Great Lent this month?’

EDITOR’S NOTE: Right now in America, there’s not a hotter question than: What does it mean to be “Christian”? Of course, that question is freighted with our own “local” political meaning in the United States today. Here at ReadTheSpirit magazine, our goal week after week is to cover global religious and cultural diversity—because we believe that learning about diversity leads to healthier communities.

Around the world, Christians make up nearly a third of our population, according to Pew Research. However, North America is home to only about 12 percent of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians. That means our American battles over who can be called a “Christian” can sound like a local family feud among the nearly 2 billion Christians who live in South America, Africa, Europe and Asia.

This week’s cover story reminds us, as Americans, about another vast swath of Christianity—nearly 300 million Christians who most Americans tend to forget: the Orthodox. Thanks to researcher Kevin Vollrath and our long-time friend Mae Cannon, ReadTheSpirit plans to bring readers a monthly series of stories from this ancient Eastern branch of Christianity. You can read our latest Cover Story on Mae Cannon’s work from 2020, headlined: As millions of Christians move toward activism, you should meet Mae Elise Cannon, an ethical organizer. Among her many commitments, Mae is executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, which made this new monthly series possible. You can learn more about Kevin at the end of this column.

We start this week with a story about Father Elias Khoury, a Greek Orthodox priest in Jadeidi, Israel, who is preparing for Great Lent to begin on March 15. That may surprise many of our readers, because we reported on the start of Lent for Western Christians last month! In fact, this year, the Western and Orthodox calendars vary by almost an entire month.

Father Elias: ‘As Christians, our life is a fasting period.’

Father Elias Khoury

By KEVIN VOLLRATH
Contributing Columnist

When Father Elias Khoury, a Greek Orthodox priest in Jadeidi, Israel, talks with his community about the Fast of Great Lent, he uses words like “celebrate” and “joyful” that may sound surprising to Christians living in the United States. Millions of American Christians—Catholics and Protestants—began Lent on February 17 with Ash Wednesday. Because church calendars vary between Western and the ancient Eastern churches, Orthodox churches will begin the period of reflection that leads to Easter with Clean Monday on March 15. And very much like Father Elias’s sermons in the Middle East, Orthodox clergy emphasize the great joy families should feel while giving up a whole host of favorite foods.

For Americans, giving up chocolate during Lent seems like a major sacrifice. In the Orthodox world, observant families abstain from meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, wine and oil.

What’s joyful about that?

This kind of fasting is a reminder of the watchfulness and humble self-denial with which Christians should live their lives, Father Elias says. “As Christians, our life is a fasting period. We’re not just doing it one day or one week. It’s not just a celebration of a memorial day. It’s something that we live, not just during times like the Fast of Great Lent, but all of our life. It involves much more than what we are eating and drinking. We must learn to become watchful and fasting is living in that awareness, when you watch yourself always. It’s a daily process and our job as Christians.”

That is also why Great Lent is part of a much longer process that actually began weeks ago for Orthodox communities—preparing week by week with scripture readings, prayers and a gradual paring away of foods to be ready when Great Lent begins.

The seven weeks of Great Lent are preceded by four weeks of preparation in which the faithful give up whole sections of their normal diet until a family’s dinner table is, for the duration of Lent, stripped of animal products, wine and oil. Far from arduous, it is a joyful time of drawing near to each other and God, with daily prayers and inspiring Bible readings. Lent is a celebration because it gives us the opportunity “to live the biblical story” liturgically, from creation in Genesis to redemption in Revelation, as Father Elias puts it.

“Our readings during this time are joyful and not sad,” Father Elias says. “We’re celebrating the Kingdom of God on Earth! It’s part repentance, and part happiness that God gave us salvation”

Before becoming a Greek Orthodox priest, Father Elias worked as an engineer. He has been married for over 20 years and has two kids. He also enjoys teaching in a local middle school.

READ THE REST OF THE ARTICLE HERE