Maundy Thursday: The Means and the Mandate

RCL Years A, B, C The Church of the Holy Cross
Maundy Thursday April 17, 2014

Exodus 12: 1-14
Psalm 116: 1, 10-17
1 Corinthians 1123-26
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

If you knew, almost certainly, that you had less than 24 hours to live, what would you do?

I imagine most, if not all of us, would do just what Jesus did. We’d gather the people we love most around us, maybe share a meal with them, and tell them the things we don’t want them to forget. The guideposts we want to leave with them for the time when we’re not here to speak to them. If we are teachers, or if the people around us are our children, we’ll give them the best counsel we can, all that we remember that we’ve learned in our lives, maybe the mistakes we’ve made that we don’t want them to make and the things we’ve learned in our relationships with other people.

It would be hard, don’t you think? Knowing we wouldn’t be with those we love to talk things over with them and to guide them. To walk through life together? We wouldn’t want to waste time with trivialities. We’d cut to the chase and tell them, even show them, all we want them to know.

This is what Jesus did, in that last supper with his friends and disciples and loved ones.

Time was short. They knew when they came into Jerusalem they’d face powerful and dangerious opposition. Rome was against them, and the church was against them. Almost certainly, Jesus had to be taken out, done away with. And the way people jealous of their power do away with the ones who oppose them is to use force. Jesus had so many followers, the only way was to kill him. The forces were already moving. The time was short. Fear was the ruler.

It was Passover, the most sacred celebration in the Jewish year. Everyone was on edge. On the one hand, there were the ones in power, strange allies: Rome and the temple authorities. Both fearful of the havoc the vast number of Jews, should discontent become prevalent, could do to their control. The temple control was being questioned seriously for the first time. Rome could not afford an insurrection. Powerful, if unlikely, allies.

And on the other hand you had the reason for their fear: Jews, thousands of them, coming into Jerusalem with all the religious fervor possible. Emotions ran high, as they do when people celebrate something that lies close to their being. Remembering the flight from Egypt, God’s redeeming Israel from bondage, calls into the present the very essence of Judaism. This is the night. Passover is the night Israel began to be formed into the people Yahweh called her to be. Passover is Israel’s beginning. We would name the sentiment nationalism, but the religious foundation added weight. People from all over Israel were coming to their capital city that for them had been sacred since the time of David. The thin veneer of celebration barely covered the undercurrent of anger. Jerusalem did not belong to them anymore. Anyone could see that it would take only a spark to start a wild fire. Religious fervor and anger threatening jealous rule can spell danger.

And so Jesus gathered those closest to him for the sacred Passover meal. And he told them in as few words as he could speak what he wanted them to remember. The most essential things. The two things we remember tonight. Two things that are the foundation of our gathering as Christians.

First, come together. Don’t neglect to come together. In the gathered community there is memory and there is power. Hold one another up. Feed one another. Share a sacred meal. I will be with you. The bread is my very body. The wine is my own blood. I am with you as often as you share this meal with one another. This is essential.

We celebrate this night that we call Maundy Thursday as the night of Institution, the night Jesus instituted the meal we name the Eucharist, Thanksgiving. Whether Jesus said these very words or not, we keep them holy for our celebration.

This is my body, given for you. This is my blood of the new promise. In this you are assured that just as I am with you tonight I am with you always. Always the same. You are forgiven. You are renewed in God’s love. You are given strength to renew the world.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?

And then he gave them a new instruction, and he did it first by giving them an example: Jesus assumed the most menial position he could take, that of a servant. He knelt at the feet of his friends and washed their feet. Who would have thought? Their great friend and teacher had become their servant. He showed them the life they would lead as his apostles. He washed their feet.

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.

It’s an old practice in the home, one we don’t do anymore, in this day of plenty of water and daily baths and automated ways of getting around that keep the dust off our feet. The host of a party would never have bathed the feet of his guests; that job would be required of his servant. It was the most menial of jobs and one Jesus’ friends probably had never been in a position to perform. They were shocked. Peter rebelled. Clearly, this work was beneath Jesus and would not be tolerated.

A more graphic picture they could not have had: Jesus kneeling and washing their feet. Can you imagine doing that? It’s not something we think is a very likely possibility today.

But that’s exactly how we are to be, to one another and to our neighbors. Servants. And if we’re not, if we’re just an inch above that position of foot washing, we’re not following Jesus very closely. We’ve missed the point.

How many people have hurt you? Can you forgive them, as Jesus shows us in the humility of a servant?

Has someone made you angry? Can you forgive them?

This is not an easy road, the road of a servant. This is the road that seeks no accolades. On this road we’ll find people struggling not to hold grudges or to argue just so they can be right; people praying for God to help them resist selfish motives or the urge to step over others so they can get ahead. This road of the servant is the one not taken by everyone because, although it is clearly marked, it can be dusty and full of stones and hard to travel. There can be switchbacks and wrong decisions that require prayer and patience with ourselves; trust in God. After all, the decision to travel this road goes against all our human tendencies.

And then, finally, came the command: Love one another. By your love you will be known as my followers. I have loved you; love one another. Show your love as you serve one another.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

Will you see in those people who hate you, those who oppose you, those who don’t look like you and live lives just like yours a thousand faces of Christ? Will you try, with God’s help, to show the saving love of Christ to them?

This was a hard night, in so many ways. A night of good byes; a night of sorrow in the midst of celebration. But a night of such weight in our faith and in our lives that we dare not enter into it carelessly. On this night Jesus gives us both the means and the mandate for discipleship: If you will follow me, you will come together for fellowship and prayer and nourishment, for strength and renewal. And I will give you all you will need to be my disciples, to be servants in a world that will not always welcome you. You will love, and you will serve.

This is my body. This is my blood. Love. Forgive. Serve.

The Rev. Mary B. Richard