Maundy Thursday April 21, 2011

Exodus 12:1-14                                                                   

1 Corinthians 11:23-26                                                      

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

When I left the last parish I served – after a very painful time for me – the bishop, Frank Griswold, asked me whether I was going to look for another congregation. “Yes,” I said, “I am.” “Good,” he said. “John, you need a congregation in which to do theology.” It was a discerning judgment on his part. He was thinking of me as, like himself, basically an introverted intellectual who tends to live off alone in his head. Theology, he was reminding me – the word means basically knowledge or relation with God – theology can’t be done alone or in our heads. It requires immersion in a community, life together with others. And this has proved itself for me. In our years together, Holy Cross has transformed me, very intimately and deeply. I’m still by nature an intellectual, an introvert. But it’s always now for me the congregation, the community, you and your lives, where I begin and end my thinking. It is in you that I know and relate to God.

I say this because this liturgy, Maundy Thursday, is at its heart about community. This is the night before Jesus’ death; the hour before his betrayal by Judas. Jesus, as St. John presents him to us in his gospel, knows fully all that is to befall him. This knowledge is part of his “oneness” with the Father, as well as his “oneness” with humanity. And so Jesus is preparing his disciples, his little fragile community that he loves so completely, for his departure, for what is to come. Every word that he speaks, every action that he does, has significance. The disciples do not understand it all now, but they will recall and understand in the future. It will sustain and comfort and give them courage. As Jesus asked them to, they will repeat his actions in the future. And so of course Christians have done through the ages, and so we do tonight.

There are two actions, two components, to Maundy Thursday: though as we will see, they are linked so closely in what they signify that they are really just one. The first is what we heard described in the reading from Corinthians: what we call the institution of the Eucharist. Whenever we come together, a community in the name of Christ, we are to take, bless, break and share the bread, which will be for us Christ’s Body. Whenever we come together, a community in the name of Christ, we are to take, bless, pour out and share the cup, which will be for us Christ’s Blood.

So this is about table fellowship, yes. But it is about more than that. It is also about sacrifice – a reminder that this fellowship we share in Christ is not just coffee hour bonhomie, but a life that asks utter commitment, the death of our old selves and the receiving of radically transformed new selves. But, again, it is about more than sacrifice. The Eucharist is at its heart about union, with God and with one another, with all of humanity, all of creation.

I said that the footwashing is really about the same thing as the Eucharist. Liturgically, the footwashing “came back in,” at least in common observance, with the reforms of Vatican II and the 1979 Prayer Book. It is still, like olives, something of an acquired taste – though I can’t imagine actually liking to do it. That’s the point – bringing ourselves to do something we hesitate to do. It’s awkward; very few of us, particularly as we get older, have beautiful feet. I had my annual physical recently, and after we went through all the preliminaries we got to the point where the doctor asked me to take off all my clothes, except my shorts. I did so, but I also left on my socks. The doctor laughed. Almost everyone leaves their socks on, he said. Nobody likes to bare their feet.

So what is going on with Jesus washing feet? This was, in his day, something that slaves would have done, which gives us a clue. Slaves were not really persons, so it would have been like having a machine wash your feet. That was why St. Peter protested, “Lord, you will never wash my feet.” But Jesus tells Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share in me.” What he is talking about is the same thing the Eucharist is about: union. Jesus is saying that this union between us and him, between him and the Father – and among us, the community of his beloved disciples – this union must be one of utter vulnerability, complete intimacy, allowing someone to wash our feet, washing someone else’s feet.

Of course, the intimacy and vulnerability of which Jesus speaks, this union, is something you and I work towards. Like the union foretold in the Eucharist, it will be completed only at the Parousia. But the two sacraments together tonight remind us of where we need to be headed, what we need to work on. As Christians, as members of the Body of Christ, we are never to relate to each other or to the communities of which we are a part in mere terms of whether we “like” someone or something. We are never to relate in mere terms of what we can get in return for what we are required to give. We are never to pretend to be better or other than we are. We are never to despise others as being worse than ourselves. We are to be self-giving, self-risking; never self-protective, self-justifying.

The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin commandment: “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 re my disciples, if you have love for one another.” That is what it is all about. Not just this night. All life. Love in this deepest sense of union. Love as performed and commanded for us by Jesus Christ.

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