Our gathering on Maundy Thursday is the beginning of the three-day service known as the Paschal Triduum, the central worship of the year that proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus. (Click here for an account of these three days). We begin our celebration with an exhortation, allowing the washing of feet to serve as a visible sermon following the reading of the Gospel: John 13:1-17, 31b-35.
The texts we will hear this evening are important for us to keep in mind as we come together over these next three days to let the cross and resurrection speak to our lives. I want to talk about them briefly – but first I want to say something more about this last sentence: we come together over these next three days to let the cross and resurrection speak to our lives.
We are here to hear the voice of God. We are here trusting the promise that, in these words and actions, we will hear the whisper of the eternal call our name, lift us up, touch us with the Spirit, lead us in love, grant us strength and courage, and fill us with hope and joy. We are here trusting the promise that somewhere “in, with and under” the sound of the splashing water, the caress of the towel, the words of the readings, the cry of the prayers, the taste of bread and wine, we will feel the embrace of a wondrous love.
We are here to let this whole majestic and profound story of the cross and resurrection speak to our lives. We are also here to let this majestic and profound story be spoken into the world.
The world needs to hear this story of suffering love. The world needs to hear this story that the one who is the perfect image of God bends to wash feet. He bends the knee; he does not bend the truth. He prays for the world and seeks to fulfill God’s will. He endures spittle and shame and does not respond with hate. He forgives his torturers and takes no revenge upon a brutal world. To the end, he remains faithful to God and to us.
We need to be brought back again and again to this story. But we are also here to let this story loose into the world.
There are lots of things to worship in the world, lots of things in which we are tempted to put our trust. There are plenty of stories about what we should be: There are people telling us how to get rich. There are people telling us how to be youthful and sexy. There are people telling us how to be successful in life and love. There are people telling us that these things are the secrets to life. They tell us such things are worthy of our worship, adoration and praise. They are worthy of our time and energy, our mind and heart, our wealth and resources. But the truth is that all these things are rendered powerless by death. There is only one who is not undone by death.
We are here to let this majestic and profound story of the cross and resurrection speak to our lives and be spoken into the world. We are here to hear the voice of the angels who sang at Jesus’ birth and waited in the tomb to declare: “He is not here; he has been raised.”
Tonight we see the face of God that bends to wash feet. But this night is also the night of the last supper when Jesus took bread and broke it saying that his body would be broken. And this is the night we remember the Passover when the blood of a lamb saved Israel from death – and Christ is revealed as the true Passover lamb whose blood is poured out to deliver us from death’s power.
So our first reading is about the Passover. The instructions on the annual observance of the Passover are placed within the historical account of that first Passover. Every year Israel is to remember this night. Every year Israel is to remember that they were slaves and God set them free. It was supposed to keep them from surrendering their freedom and becoming slaves again. And it was supposed to keep them from betraying their freedom and making slaves of others.
The story also commands them to eat this meal with their bags packed and their shoes on their feet. They are to be ready to move, ready to follow where God shall lead, ready to live their freedom.
The lamb is to be roasted – roasted because it is quicker to cook, quicker to eat. There is no time to bring the pot to boil and let the meat simmer all day. They need to be ready to go. The bread is unleavened because there is no time to wait for bread to rise. They are a people on the move from bondage into freedom. They need to remember all this in the years to come.
The second reading will tell us give us Paul’s instructions to the believers in Corinth about the Lord’s Supper. These are the familiar words we use every week over the bread and wine. It is part of a longer conversation about what it means to share in this meal. The Corinthians had forgotten that they are members of one another, that at the heart of this meal is the example of priceless love. This is why, when John (the writer of the Gospel) wants to talk about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, he doesn’t talk about the bread and wine, he tells us about Jesus washing feet. At the heart of this meal is priceless love. Christ’s body is given for us. Christ’s blood is shed for us. Christ kneels in priceless love.
The psalm that lies between these two readings speaks of lifting up the cup of salvation. In this psalm the Christian community through the centuries have heard words and phrases that evoke Jesus and what we do in Holy Communion.
Then, finally, we will hear of Jesus bending to wash feet and giving us the mandate to love one another. That mandate gives us the name Maundy Thursday. Mandate Thursday. Commandment Thursday. Whatever else we may be as a Christian community, we are to be a community where love dwells. It is by love that everyone will know that we are followers of Jesus.
When Jesus bends to wash feet, he shows us the face of God and the face of our true humanity. I remember reading some book when I was a child that told the story of Narcissus. Narcissus, in Greek Mythology, was known for his beauty. But he was full of himself and spurned the affection of those who loved him. He was lured by the goddess Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, to a pool where he fell in love with his own reflection. He couldn’t ear himself away from his own reflection and it led ultimately to his self-destruction.
Somewhere along the way I read a similar story about an enchanted room where the more you looked into the mirrors, the larger they became while the windows grew progressively smaller. Ultimately this person was left in total darkness.
Our self-concern is not the path to our true humanity; it is the path to darkness. We are most fully human when we look out the windows toward God and others rather than in the mirror at ourselves.
The Christ who meets us this night, and in this entire story of the cross and empty tomb, is a man who loves completely. He is crucified for this. He is judged and condemned as a liar about God and a danger to the people. But God will overturn that judgment. God will void the sentence of death. God will declare Jesus true.
Here in this man with a washbasin and a towel is the true face of our humanity. Here is the true face of God. This is the story we come to hear. This is the story we come to set loose into the world.
Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABrooklyn_Museum_-_The_Washing_of_the_Feet_(Le_lavement_des_pieds)_-_James_Tissot.jpg James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons