Maundy Thursday - April 13, 2017

Preacher: 
The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

Maundy Thursday, Year A

April 13, 2017

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor

 

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 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. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, "Not all of you are clean."

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:1-7; 31b-35)

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Every year on Maundy Thursday, we hear the passage from the Gospel of John that I just read.  It is from this gospel, in which Jesus gives us the new commandment to love one another, that we get the name “Maundy” based on the Latin, mandatum, which means commandment.

Of the four gospels, the one attributed to John was likely the last to be written.  The church was probably fifty to sixty years into its life at that point –at least one full generation removed from the events the gospel describes.

Conflict and disputes among the disciples and in the first Christian communities existed from the beginning, but by the time of John’s gospel, these divisions were becoming institutionalized.  We know from scripture and other documents that the early church had fractured into alliances centered on particular teachers or personalities, and the community loyal to John was one of them.

But even within those communities, there were growing divisions.  The question of status, then as now, was no small matter.  So it shouldn’t surprise us that some issues and concerns loomed larger than others, which led to different emphases in the varied tellings of the gospel story. 

For instance, in the Gospel of John there is no clear record of the actual last supper meal; there is no blessing of bread and wine, no words of institution, no “this is my body, this is my blood.”  There is only this strange business of footwashing.  And I’ve always wondered about that.

Just as in the other gospels, the disciples gather with Jesus at the last supper before his death. And we find them preoccupied with the same arguments, debates and discussions.  But in John’s account, the disciples are suddenly amazed to find Jesus at their feet.  Doing work delegated only to the slaves or women of the time, Jesus kneels on the floor before them, washing dust and dirt from their feet.

The disciples did not understand this.  It made no sense to them at all - at the time.  But for the writer of the Gospel of John, the gift of hindsight offered a better perspective.  For him, the posture and relationship that Jesus symbolized as he washed the feet of his friends became a prerequisite to any sharing of the bread and cup.  His commandment that their life together and their witness in the world be based on that same posture and relationship became the central theme.  In other words, there could be no eucharist without first embodying the kind of self-giving love that Jesus modeled as he kneeled before his friends.

And yet, I wonder.  How many of those first century Christian communities [gathered around John’s memory] actually understood that this account was addressed to their own fractious divisions?  More importantly, do we understand?  We hear “love one another as I have love you,” and we are really good, at least here at All Souls, at embodying that.  But what about the church, as a whole?  And then, what are we supposed to do about it?

The Church, as we knew it as children, has continued to decline in this country as an institution.  Some would even say that it is dying, at least in its current form, and that may be true.  All organisms, like human beings, are mortal, continually moving toward diminishment of their power.  Of course, it isn’t comfortable to see ourselves or our church as powerless when so many others around us are seeking and celebrating power.  It isn’t easy for us to see ourselves or our church as servants of society when we have made a life defining ourselves as a society. 

Like many other institutions in America, the church has tried to promote its self-sufficiency and autonomy.  So it gets harder and harder to think of ourselves as anyone’s servant when so many preach a gospel of liberation and independence (and prosperity).

Which is why, I think, we especially need to see that the exasperation that dropped Jesus to his knees is the same spirit that brings us, and our churches, to our own.  Jesus recognized that there can be no Eucharist until the disciples all understood what it means to be in loving relationship with one another.  Without that, what they were about to share would not be Eucharist, it would only be supper.

So Jesus got down on his knees and wash their feet, all of them:  the ones who loved him beyond reason, and the one who would betray him as well.  Jesus somehow knew that before the Eucharistic bread could be broken open, our natural tendency to seek power and privilege also had to be broken.

Can we be brave enough to see this?  That the only way make eucharist – to embrace it in our own lives, to bring it to this culture of ours, and to bring that culture to the fullness of Christ’s table – is to do the same?

We as a congregation have known something about this.  Since we don’t have a church building or decades of tradition to anchor us down, we’ve lived without the prestige and power that older churches around us grew so used to having.  We worship in “someone else’s space”, as tenants, and we’re subject to the decisions of others who don’t always make our needs a priority.  And so our attitude has had to be, by default, a humble one. 

But that, I believe, has kept us in tune with the needs of others in our community, and on our own knees – whether tilling the soil in the garden, mopping the Atlee house floor, or lifting a child to place a container of applesauce into a sack hunger bag. This is something I’ve thought a lot about as I contemplate a move to a church that has a long history and a building to preserve and protect, and I pray that the same spirit of humility that I’ve learned here will keep bringing me to my knees, and serve as a model to others.  The church needs this model. 

Jesus understood that none of this comes naturally to us.  Like anything that is rare, it always surprises.  And Jesus surprised his disciples. He didn’t demand that they look up to see God, but compelled them each to look down.  He put himself in the posture of a servant, one who was powerless and unliberated, and did the simple but necessary work of washing their feet.  Down there, on the floor, in service, was where they would see God.  Down there, on the floor, in service, was where they would be church.

The same is true for us.  Our place is at the feet of those whom God has entrusted to us.  Our place is also to allow our own feet to be entrusted to others.  This work isn’t fancy or fashionable, but it is functional and faithful….just plain service to others, even if it is nothing more than washing countertops, or the faces of tiny children, or washing feet. 

The challenge, at least for me, is to remind myself that when my own eyes are lifted to those I am called to serve, they aren’t to be lifted for approval or recognition, whether divine or human.  Instead, when my eyes meet the eyes that look upon me – if I am true to my baptismal vows and to the stuff of Christ in me – those who look upon me will simply see my gratitude to God, my thankfulness for the gift that each of them is.

And that is when the eucharist begins: not when bread is broken open; but when we are.

Amen

 

With Acknowledgement to Sam Portero, Daysprings (Lanham: Cowley Publications, 2001, Kindle Version).

 

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