How well did you receive? Maundy Thursday (A) – April 13, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35 

“I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Tonight we enter the holiest time of the holiest week of the Christian year: the Triduum. The Triduum, meaning “Three Days” of our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection is the central focus of the Christian faith. The Triduum is one extended liturgy in three distinct parts beginning with Maundy Thursday and ending at the Easter Vigil.

The Orthodox describe tonight’s portion of this great liturgy as consisting of four parts: the sacred Washing, the Mystical Supper, the transcendent Prayer, and the Betrayal itself. It begins with intimacy and ends with the betrayal of that same intimacy. Through this liturgy we embody the great beauty, vulnerability and tragedy of Christ’s great act and commandment of love.

As Jesus faces his final hours, knowing what was coming, he begins by taking the place of a servant in an act of intimacy. Isn’t it interesting how Jesus has no trouble at all with washing the disciples’ feet? He quite naturally takes the role of the servant and just begins to wash the feet of each disciple. There is no self-consciousness about him, no discomfort.

The disquietude comes from Peter who, steeped in the honor/shame social systems of first century Palestine, cannot fathom a teacher doing the work of a slave. This just isn’t right!

But Jesus is clear: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” In Peter’s inimitable and impetuous style, he leaps beyond just feet and asks for his hands and head to be washed too. At this point, at least, he’s all in!

As you consider this scene, let’s ponder a question. Which role would you be most comfortable playing: Jesus, the one who is active and giving, or Peter, the one who is receiving? We live in a culture which values doing over being and is deeply rooted in both a utilitarian ethic and a mythology of independence.

Our American culture is prone to measuring personal worth based upon what we can do or contribute to society. Take our ability to “contribute” away, and our culture’s message is that you have no worth, no value.

This culture forms and shapes us into people who spend the bulk of our lives wanting to be the active agents, the ones who do, while we often either ignore or shun receptivity both in ourselves and in others. Being a “receiver” is often negatively viewed as being a “taker,” a “slacker,” a “leech” or “burden on society.” Our mythology of independence only reinforces this utilitarianism. We often see the need to receive graciously as an affront to our God-given independence. Being dependent on others is the dread of many, especially as we age or face a terminal diagnosis.

The two cultural forces of utilitarianism and independence become most deeply problematic as we face the end of life. One of the deep spiritual distresses faced by the dying is their inability to “do” for others and how worthless it makes them feel.

Clergy and hospice chaplains often hear this expressed in comments such as, “I hate being a burden to my family” or “All I do is sit here and rot.” Sometimes this anguish manifests in angry words and lashing out at the very caregivers who work so hard to make sure their loved one have their needs met.

This passage from John’s Gospel has much to say in the face of our culture’s idolatry of utilitarianism and independence; for our worth is not measured in what we do, it is measured by who we are … and whose we are. The world’s great lie is that doing is the be all and end all – and this is a lie! We are beloved of God because we are God’s very own.

As God’s beloved child, you are enough just because you are. As such, the ability to be a gracious receiver is as important as being a generous giver. There is a season for both and both are necessary to have a share in Christ. For if you cannot receive the ministrations of the people who love you the most on this earth, how will you ever know how to receive the glory of God in this life or the next?

An antidote to the corrosive effects of utilitarianism and independence are found in cultivating gratitude in receiving. Giving thanks to both God and expressing it to others who have given of themselves to you imparts love and blessing to the world. This can be done by all of us, no matter the conditions of our lives: from childhood to the deathbed, all of us can express gratitude and love to those who give of themselves to us.

Gracious receptivity is the other side of the coin of being a generous giver: we are called in baptism to be both. Unless we learn to receive the ministrations of others, we have no share in Christ. This mutuality of love, both in giving and receiving, is at the heart of Eucharistic spirituality. The Eucharist is the incarnation of Christ’s self-giving and receiving Christ in the sacrament prepares us to go out and share that love with others.

The new commandment to love one another requires both giving and receiving. We cannot attend to just one part of this and rightly call it love. If one only gives, it places the receiver of our giving at a safe distance and denies both intimacy and vulnerability. If one only receives, it reduces us to spiritual infants and fosters emotional dependency.

Attending to merely one aspect of expressing love is a distortion. To love well is to be able to give and receive.

As St. John of the Cross once noted, when we die God will only ask one question of us: “How well did you love?” How well did you give? How well did you receive?

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Anjel Scarborough, who serves as the rector of Grace Church, Brunswick MD and is wife, mother, iconographer, writer and retreat leader.

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Washed with holy love, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2015

April 2, 2015

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-171 Corinthians 11:23-26John 13:1-17, 31b-35

The disciples are gathered in the upper room for supper. Passover was beginning soon, and there was much work to be done. The air was tense – the disciples had heard rumors about the authorities coming to arrest Jesus. They knew that any disruption during the Passover feast would not be tolerated. And so they ate: quietly, quickly and unaware that this would be the last time they broke bread with Jesus, their beloved leader.

Jesus, of course, knew exactly what was about to happen. He had always known. And somewhere deep down in their bones, the disciples knew it, too. Whenever the unfiltered and uncompromising truth was spoken to power, power won. That much they learned from the prophets.

And yet, Jesus cut through the tension and anxiety that filled the air by quietly pushing back from the table, removing his outer robe, fastening a towel around his waist and bending down to wash the disciples’ feet.

This unexpected and scandalous act defied social convention and placed the disciples in a precarious position. Not only was Jesus breaking with custom by washing the feet of those subordinate to him, the very act of foot washing is a theological sign of a far more important underlying truth. By allowing their feet to be washed, the disciples were accepting what they did not deserve and what they had not earned: the love of Jesus. Peter protests, “You will never wash my feet.” But Jesus persists: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

This is the place we find ourselves on this Maundy Thursday: caught between a culture that promises that good things come to those who work for it, and a Christ whose love is so freely given – unearned and undeserved – that we can’t help but raise a fuss.

We say things like, “But just look at all of the mistakes I’ve made and the people I’ve hurt!” as Peter whispers in our hearts, “You will never wash my feet.”

Or we raise our fists and proclaim, “God can’t love me because I don’t know if I love God.”

“You will never wash my feet.”

Or we retreat into our shame and lament, “God can’t love me because I don’t deserve it.”

“You will never wash my feet.”

The great Anglican preacher and theologian John Wesley was right when he said, “There is nothing more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace.”

And yet, this grace that Jesus gives comes with a mandate; or, recalling our Anglican heritage, a maundy: Jesus says, “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.”

Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, knowing full well what would happen to him later that same night. And we hear these words as we embark into the darkness of the Paschal Triduum, the holy journey through Christ’s Passion, death and resurrection.

The disciples were given Jesus’ mandate to love one another as Jesus loves them just hours before one of their own would double cross Jesus and hand him over to his accusers.

But that’s the risk of love – especially holy love.

Holy love is given freely to saint and sinner alike; to people who spend their lives doing everything they can to share that love with the world, and to people who spend their lives doing everything they can to reject and dishonor it.

And the freedom with which this love is given is at once its greatest blessing and its greatest curse, because the more we open our hearts to give and receive this love, the more vulnerable we are to betrayal – a crucifixion all its own.

In his poem, “Lachrimae Amantis,” the great English poet Geoffrey Hill writes in part

“What is there in my heart that you should sue so fiercely for its love? What kind of care brings you as though a stranger to my door through the long night and the icy dew seeking the heart that will not harbor you?”

Tonight, as Jesus’ love is poured out as warm water cleansing and soothing tired and worn skin; as bread and wine is made holy food and drink, we come to receive what we have not earned and what we do not deserve.

And if we will allow it, we may find our hearts broken open by a love that is stronger than our fickleness, stronger than our fear, and stronger even than the finality of death.

And through the darkness, we will hear the Savior’s voice, full of life and promise: “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

 

— The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church in Florence, Ky. He earned a B.A. in American Studies from Transylvania University and a Master’s of Divinity and certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

Our mandate for this day: Love one another, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2014

April 17, 2014

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-171 Corinthians 11:23-26John 13:1-17, 31b-35

The ancient designation of this day, this night, is “Maundy,” a form of the word “mandate.” And what is a mandate? It is a command, a demand, an order, an administrative determination, a legal authority, something required. It is mandatory, rather than optional. No choice.

So, what is our mandate on this day? To love one another.

The story of this day, this night, includes dinner with friends, some farewell speeches, the washing of feet, entreaties to wakefulness, sleep, betrayal, violence, absence. It is a night of sweetness and of division, of coming together and ripping apart. The stories we most often associate with this day, this night, and which we remember most fondly, are the stories of a last supper, of Jesus instructing his disciples to “remember me,” of Jesus washing his followers’ feet.

Maundy Thursday is generally regarded as the occasion for the institution of the Eucharist, what some call Holy Communion, to commemorate Jesus’ last meal. Numerous congregations will have a ceremonial washing of feet.

But do you remember, too, the entreaty of Jesus to “watch with me for a little while,” when his disciples wanted to sleep? Loneliness. Abandonment. The quiet of a slumbering night. Do you remember the betrayal of Judas, when he identified his lord to the soldiers? Treachery. Anger. The other disciples responded with horror. One disciple cut off a soldier’s ear before Jesus stopped him. Finally, Jesus was hauled away by the soldiers, the disciples were left alone in shock and grief, Peter stumbled around, lost, denying he even knew Jesus, and the cock crowed. Once. Twice. Three times. The dawning of a new and terrible day when people would be put to death.

This is not a time to be sentimental. It is not a time for pleasant reminiscing. There is nothing charming about this part of our Christian story. Indeed, it has all the elements of a modern crime drama of the worst kind.

In the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, we read of Jesus and the meal of bread and wine. Many details are missing from this story. Who prepared the meal? What else did they have to eat? Was anyone else in attendance? These gospel writers have distilled it down to its essence: It was a final meal of bread and wine during which Jesus instructed his followers to share these elements, to remember him in doing so, and to love one another.

In John’s gospel we get a different take on things, a different emphasis, with the story of the foot washing. John tells of a meal, too, but his focus is more on the show and tell: “this is what it looks like when you love one another.”

When we mark Maundy Thursday, we mark the beginning of the end, in a sense. It is the time when Jesus bid farewell to his followers on this earth and gave them final instructions for carrying on in his absence. It was a last opportunity for Jesus to tell them his message and show them what he meant: Love one another; do it like this.

But there is another aspect of the story that we must remember, and we need to tell if we are to be honest, and if we are to fully appreciate the events of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter Sunday. Yes, this occasion commemorates the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Yes, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.

But we must give consideration, too, to the brokenness of these events.

When we come together Sunday after Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist and proclaim Jesus’ words to “do this in remembrance of me,” what do we do next?

We break the bread.

Breaking bread is a practice steeped in tradition, going back deep into Jewish history. It is also a practical action prior to sharing a meal. Breaking bread is mentioned throughout scripture in connection with ordinary meals, ritual meals and the miracle meals of Jesus, such as the feeding of the 5,000 chronicled in John’s gospel. This breaking of the bread is an important part of the story as the synoptic gospels tell it, yet is absent from the Gospel of John, which we read this day. Why?

For Matthew, Mark and Luke, the synoptics, Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples. Jesus ate the Passover meal, ate the bread. For John, on the other hand, Jesus was the Passover meal, the Passover sacrifice, the Paschal Lamb of God who is sacrificed for us. Jesus was present in the actual bread. Jesus was the bread. It was Jesus who would be betrayed and killed and shed the ritual blood that would redeem the people before God.

Jesus was the Passover sacrifice.

And so when we come together for the Eucharist, to commemorate the Lord’s Supper, the Last Supper, and we break that bread, it is much more than simply breaking bread that we may share it out among the gathered community. It is breaking Jesus all over again, that he may be the ritual sacrifice for us.

We break the bread. We break the Body. We break his body, as we have broken our promises, our commitments, our relationships, our community. All. Over. Again.

This is a pivotal point of the Eucharist, a pivotal point of our Maundy Thursday story, when Jesus is taken whole and consecrated to God, and then broken on the altar of our sins.

In the record of the synoptic gospels, Jesus and the disciples are nourished, body and soul, in the breaking of bread and the sharing of a meal, much as we commemorate in our Eucharist.

In John’s gospel, there is a different kind of breaking, a different sort of nourishment. For John, Jesus is the sacrificial figure, but the emphasis here is not on the Eucharist. So that when Jesus washes feet, he is offering nourishment of a different sort. When he breaks himself, lowers himself, to take on water bowl and towel and perform this lowly act of comfort, he is giving life to the words: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

The love of Jesus, the love of God, the love of neighbor, is more than breaking bread in church. It is emptying oneself in love and modesty to be filled with the spirit of God in service to our neighbors.

John’s relation of the story of this day, this night, has a message for us beyond the breaking of bread, even beyond the breaking of the Body of Christ, which we do over and over again in our lives and in our Eucharistic worship.

John’s message is this: Remember me. Love one another. And this is how you do it.

“Love one another” is our mandate for this day. As we break the Body of Jesus once again in the act of breaking bread, may we remember his command to love one another, and better yet, his example given us in the Gospel of John, to take care of one another – in remembrance of our Lord.

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religious studies for Park University, Parkville, Mo., following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses and making anything chocolate.

The journey from head to heart, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2013

March 28, 2013

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

On September 11, 2001, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was in New York City to give a presentation to a group of clergy and spiritual directors at Trinity Church on Wall Street. What he hadn’t planned on was being an eyewitness to an epic act of terrorism on American soil. He reflected on his experiences that day in his book “Writing in the Dust: After September 11th.” He opens the book with a contrast between the religious language coopted by the terrorists to justify their horrific violence and the compassion of the secular language of those facing imminent death as they called their loved ones from cell phones in the Twin Towers and on airliners. Williams writes this about those last words:

“The religious words are, in the cold light of day, the words that murderers are saying to themselves to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime. The nonreligious word are testimony to what religious language is supposed to be about – the triumph of pointless, gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged. It should give us pause, especially if we think we are religious” (p. 3).

Holy Week, and especially this time of the Great Three Days known as the Triduum, marks the climatic events of Jesus’ life central to the Christian faith. In the midst of a time fraught with religious drama it is ironic that John’s narrative tells us of Jesus doing something decidedly non-religious – washing his disciples’ feet. This act is not just ordinary and secular, it’s downright scandalous! In the honor shame culture of first century Palestine, no self-respecting rabbi would do such a thing. This is the work of servants, not revered teachers!

And if we are completely honest, like Peter, we are not very comfortable with the idea of our Lord washing our feet either. It’s just too much of a reversal of roles. Jesus, in this intimate act of care for his disciples, subverts the religiosity of his own day with a simple non-religious act of humble service and love.

It is easy for us to gloss over that Jesus was put to death by good, pious, religious people. The pious, religious Romans saw Jesus as a threat to the claim of Caesar himself being an incarnate god. The pious, religious Jews feared Jesus’ teachings and popularity would bring about the wrath of the military might of Rome and utterly destroy Judaism as the Babylonians had tried to do some 600 years before, which belies the sentiment uttered by the High Priest Caiaphas, “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

At its best, religious practice is a means of encountering the living God. Through our liturgy, sacraments, corporate prayer, music and art, our religious praxis can elevate the soul and create a conduit of grace by which we can experience God’s presence with us, in us and through us. The danger lies in when we confuse the means with the ends. When religious systems and practices become the end goal, we will use them as a cheap substitute for God. They will denigrate into egocentric structures that we will then feel compelled to defend and protect at all costs.

As Archbishop Williams writes:

“We’d better acknowledge the sheer danger of religiousness. Yes, it can be a tool to reinforce diseased perceptions of reality. … It can be a way of teaching ourselves not to see the particular human agony in front of us; or worse, of teaching ourselves not to see ourselves, our violence, our actual guilt as opposed to our abstract ‘religious’ sinfulness. Our religious talking, seeing, knowing, needs a kind of cleansing” (p. 5).

Religion runs the great risk of becoming a mask we wear as we attempt to hide from a true encounter with Christ and with one another. It becomes a ruse by which we avoid the intimacy of conversion.

If we are completely honest, conversion is terrifying. It requires us to do things we’d rather not do. Conversion requires the death of our own small egocentric self. It demands we release our stranglehold on our need to control, to acquire, to exert power over others, to exploit for our own gain and thus do violence to ourselves and others. Conversion calls us into stripping away our need to be important, relevant, educated, popular and powerful. Conversion requires us to face our own guilt, sin and brokenness honestly and without rationalization. Conversion entails handing over, in the words of our Rite 1 Eucharistic prayer, “our selves, our souls and bodies” utterly and completely to the God who is able to love us more completely than we can even love ourselves. And this is terrifying precisely because of the intimacy and honesty conversion exacts from us. Conversion strikes to our very core – to our heart.

It has often been said that the longest journey any of us take in our spiritual life is the approximately 12 inches from the head to the heart. In our industrialized western culture, we have a tendency to live in our heads. Being rational and pragmatic is of high value in our capitalistic, utilitarian world. When we spend all of our time in our heads, our faith is reduced to a set of intellectual assents about God with which we can either agree or disagree. If we stay in this “head faith,” we will find ourselves frustrated by the paradoxes of the scriptures and our traditions. We will grow weary of a prayer life that appears to be nothing more than talking to air and waiting in silence for what seems like no answer at all. We will continue to hide behind religious practices out of habit or guilt, or perhaps even walk away from the whole thing in a bout of cynicism and reject God as nothing more than a figment of the imagination.

If, however, we pay attention to the humility and hiddenness of God in Christ, the Spirit is able to guide us into a journey of conversion. We will be led to seek Christ in new ways: not merely in our religious practices, but in the faces of each other and in the ordinary and often messy stuff of relationships. When this happens, the Holy Spirit opens our hearts to make space for those we otherwise would have overlooked – the last, the lost, the little, the least and the lifeless. This is why Jesus came to be with us, among us and for us. When we put our trust in Christ he will lead us on the journey from the head to the heart and back again – over and over and over again.

Jesus invites us into this intimate conversion journey just as he invited the 12 that night and, like Peter, we will likely experience an initial resistance to this invitation to intimacy and conversion.

The journey is only about 12 inches. Will you come along?

 

— The Rev. Anjel Scarborough is priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Md. She and her husband are the parents of two teenage daughters. She can be followed on Twitter @ReverendMom and blogs at innumerablebenefits.blogspot.com.

I Give You a New Commandment, That You Love One Another, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2012

April 5, 2012

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-171 Corinthians 11:23-26John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Today is Maundy Thursday, the last Thursday of our annual Lenten observance.

The word “Maundy” does not have any meaning in and of itself. It is one of those exotic Episcopal or Anglican terms we sooner or later all become familiar with in our church. Scholars are not even sure of the word’s origin, though most now believe it to be a Middle English corruption of the Latin word mandatum – “commandment” – which appears in an ancient antiphon assigned for this day: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

This antiphon, taken of course from today’s gospel account, is an apt summary of what this day is about. And Jesus’ commandment to love is as much a new commandment today as it was in his own time. The command to love is, after all, always new – as is love itself. And the lesson of this day, Maundy Thursday, applies equally well to last Thursday and next Thursday and to all the Thursdays and other days yet to come. It is a lesson or mandate we, as followers of Christ, dare not forget.

Many Episcopalians today remember Maundy Thursday as the day when clergy and parishioners wash one another’s feet at church, recalling the ritual recounted in today’s gospel narrative when our Lord washes the feet of his disciples as a powerful example of love and servanthood. While contemporary Christians may be a bit squeamish about the rite, their discomfort is nothing compared to that of Peter and perhaps the other disciples as well. “You will never wash my feet,” Peter protests to Jesus.

Masters after all – as Peter well knows – most emphatically do not wash the feet of their disciples. It simply is not done. Yet Jesus surely does it. And eventually even Peter catches on, proclaiming, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” He has learned, in his own larger-than-life way, the lesson of Maundy Thursday, the new commandment of love.

After washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus returns to table and quietly asks his disciples, “Do you know what I have done to you?” He answers his own question. “I have set you an example,” he explains. It is an example of profound respect and caring for the other. And what he does for his disciples, he does for us too. He sets us an example. He shows us how things are to be done among his followers even to this day.

An example is always transformative. It commands our attention and changes us whether we want it to or not. We cannot witness another’s example of compassion and love without ourselves being challenged and changed by it. Our Lord does more than wipe the dust from his disciples’ feet. He alters their perception and awareness of human reality itself. He makes them conscious of others and their needs in a new way, which goes far beyond practical hospitality and kindliness.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

We, along with the disciples, can now no longer be unaware or ignorant of the unmistakable mandate given us to “love one another.” We cannot say we did not understand. We cannot say: If Jesus had only been a little clearer. Our actions – to the extent that they do not conform to Jesus’ example – betray us as surely as Judas’ kiss betrayed our Lord himself. The integrity of our faith is measured not by words alone but by the example of our own deeds.

Jesus gives us another “new” commandment that last night with his disciples before the cross, although it is oddly missing from the Gospel of John. Paul tells us about it in our second reading – a passage from his First Letter to the Corinthians. In what is arguably the earliest extant retelling of the Last Supper story, Paul hands on to us what he himself “received from the Lord.” After offering the disciples the bread and wine transformed to his body and blood, Jesus tells them to “do this in remembrance of me.”

He commands them, in other words, to remember.

The ancient words of the Book of Common Prayer echo our Lord’s words. “Take and eat,” declares priest or Eucharistic minister in our Rite One service, “in remembrance that Christ died for thee.” The Eucharistic bread and wine become for us the food of recollection – the provisions that remind us of Christ’s example and commandment. And Christ’s death on the cross, remembered and experienced in the Eucharist, gives us a share in the life to come – where he has gone but we cannot yet come.

But if, in the meantime, we feed only ourselves, we will never truly be nourished. We will always hunger for more and, ironically, starve to death in the midst of spiritual plenty. This is what the Lord’s example has done to us. The Eucharist itself demands of us not only that we remember, but also that we share and serve.

God does not forget us, his people. As we recall this Maundy Thursday what Christ has done for us, so too the Lord “remembers” forward the kingdom to come – and our heritage in it.

And in that kingdom, the Eucharistic meal we share this day is not the Last Supper but the First.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, a chaplaincy of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” St. Margaret’s Facebook page at www.anglicanbudapest.com.

God takes our offering and does something wonderful, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2011

April 21, 2011

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-171 Corinthians 11:23-26John 13:1-17, 31b-35

This is a day focused on liturgy: very basic and profound liturgical actions are recalled and acted out. Any liturgy has at its heart a sacrificial action. We offer something, and God takes that offering and does something wonderful with it, something we cannot do for ourselves.

In the Exodus reading for today, the focus is on the first Passover, a deliverance from the tenth plague – a horrible plague that killed the first-born males in every household, except those who lived where the blood of a lamb had been spread upon the lintels of the household door. That was followed by the actual deliverance of the people from bondage in Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land. This sacred text is read at every Passover feast in a liturgical setting as a profound reminder of a how a liberating and loving God delivers us from bondage, and even death itself.

The reading from Corinthians sets forth the form of the Eucharist, and reminds us all that bread and wine, offered along with “ourselves, our souls and bodies,” as it says in the Holy Eucharist, Rite One, are taken by God, made holy and received by us as the body and blood of Christ, a liturgical born-again experience that transforms us over and over into more of what God desires us to be.

The gospel reading from John focuses on another ancient liturgical rite, that of foot washing. Awkward for some, even distasteful, this solemn act included in the Maundy Thursday liturgy causes us to bow the knees of our hearts. As we slowly and solemnly wash one another’s feet, one cannot help but feel the sense of humility accompanied by the ancient tradition – a humility that is not intended to shame, but to assure us that God loves us so much that the Son of God stoops to wash our feet, turning all our concepts of higher and lower, above and below, inequality and equity, into a new reality of love and affection. “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

There is something about this sacred day that sets it apart – something deeply transforming. We’re not merely remembering the night before Jesus died, we are actually living it through liturgy. The flash of insight as we are connected with the Passover of our Jewish sisters and brothers, the solemn washing of the feet, the taking of the bread and the cup, these experiences leave us with a depth of meaning that goes beyond words, as all good liturgy does. The readings and liturgy work in harmony to bring us to that last night. Then, as the altar is stripped and prepared for Good Friday, we transition from the most intimate liturgical moment to the absence of God. What can we do but leave silently and go to our homes?

As we leave our places of worship, the words of Jesus remain in our hearts: “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.”

What we have just done is act out the boundaries of that new commandment – boundaries that expand rather than restrict our vision: perhaps we have washed the feet of someone with whom we have had a disagreement, or a person who is an ex-con trying to work out a new life after prison; perhaps we have sat and watched an older person wash the feet of a teenager. These are only glimpses of what that love looks like. The living out of this loving one another as I have loved you comes through a community of believers that sets aside its own agenda to help others, that allows its buildings to be used by people who need a safe place to meet, a community that practices radical hospitality to strangers, aliens, undocumented immigrants, the poor, and those who have no helper.

Maundy Thursday gives us liberation, freedom, and grace to become a new community, not one centered merely on liturgy that remembers, but one centered on liturgy that leads us to act. If we see Christ crucified and risen from the dead, then our lives are transformed forever. If we believe Christ offers himself on the cross as the ultimate act of love, then we can see ourselves as called to act on behalf of others.

So, renewed by this profound night of liturgy, and transformed by Jesus’ taking upon himself the passion of his love for us, there is nothing to do but leave behind the things that bind us: fear of the unknown, distrust of those unlike ourselves, wariness of others who will come to us, and our own feelings of inadequacy. When we are called by the new commandment, we are given the liberation from those fears and the strength to respond. Whatever we do because of this day will transform someone’s life as well as our own. Whatever action we take to love one another takes us one step closer to the redemption of the world. Whatever we risk of our own comfort and tranquility will be used by God to restore others who are lost and broken.

 

— Ben Helmer will be celebrating Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter with his congregation in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He lives with his wife in nearby Holiday Island.

A new order, not just a humble act , Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2010

April 1, 2010

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

“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.”

Have you ever heard a verse of scripture as if for the first time? Have you ever noticed a connection that, in many hearings in the past, you had ignored? Did you now hear the stunning juxtaposition contained in this one sentence?

If someone were telling you a story about a person who had been given all power by God – for this is what “all things into his hands” means – if you were introduced to such a person who came directly from God and was about to return to God, would you expect him to put on a towel, an apron?

Think about it. Imagine this scene. You would naturally expect such a person to put on a crown or assume the stance of power; this is what the world has taught us to expect. Why then did the evangelist make the first part dependant on and connected to the second? The second part of the sentence derives from the first: it means that the one person with control of “all things” willingly performs the humblest act of a servant. The connection between the two ought to stun us into silence and awe.

With this one scene vivid before us we tonight leave an insane world behind in order to enter into sanity – utter sanity and peace in the midst of the saddest story in the cosmos. The Lord and Teacher, as he admits that he is, takes on the role of the servant inside an ordinary upper room while the forces of evil are going mad outside; men who are drunk with their own power and cleverness are plotting to kill him, as he quietly takes off his robe, puts on a towel, and kneels before his students and friends. This is a situation that only God would have dreamed up. But Jesus says that by this act he is teaching us to dream in the same manner. Even though the servant cannot rise higher than the master, as the people believed in a world that kept everyone in his and her place, the master here becomes the servant.

Peter is scandalized. “You will never wash my feet,” he tells Jesus. And if the writer of that day possessed this particular technology, he would have italicized the word “my.” “Not my feet, Lord.”

But Jesus reprimands him. He is really saying to Peter:

“Forget the old ways of thinking and doing, Peter. Forget the structures that keep the poor, poor, and the slaves in a permanent underclass from which they cannot escape. Forget what you have been taught, and do as I do. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Many of us go through the motions of washing each other’s feet on this sacred Maundy Thursday but forget to remember and to emphasize that this is a new order, not just a humble act. All the passages we read tonight speak of a drastic change to the status quo. Think for a moment about that world of the first century. Rome controlled her subjects with an iron hand. Compassion, love, and non-violence had no place in such a world. Slaves were not considered human beings; the emperor had unquestioned power; the father in the household, the pater familias, could dictate the life or death of his own children; women were not citizens; and humility was not a virtue but a weakness to be despised. In Israel, an occupied land, the higher clergy, Annas and Caiaphas in this instance, controlled the people by collaborating with the Roman powers. Caiaphas admits it when he says during these secret machinations against Jesus, “It is better that one man should die for the people.” That meant that he knew how to appease Rome.

Into this world comes the Son of God, and by donning a towel and kneeling before his friends to wash their feet, he declares that in God’s eyes everything is different from what Rome and the clergy declare as the order of things. Power is relinquished willingly because love is stronger than power. What a revolutionary concept! It was unthinkable in that first century; it is scandalous even in our time, except for those who truly understand the good news of God in Christ.

Robert Browning wrote a poem about a fictitious Arabic doctor, who visited Israel some years after the resurrection. This physician comes across Lazarus and hears his own story of being brought back from the dead. He realizes that Lazarus’ way of seeing the world is totally different from that of other people. The physician relates this encounter to his friend Abib when he returns home. He tries hard to remain skeptical, but he keeps returning to what Lazarus revealed to him. He tells his friend, “If this indeed happened, think of the implications.” Listen to the last verse of this poem by Robert Browning, “An Epistle”:

The very God! think, Abib; dost thou think?
So, the All-Great, were the All-Loving too –
So, through the thunder comes a human voice
Saying, “O heart I made, a heart beats here!
Face, my hands fashioned, see it in myself!
Thou hast no power nor mayst conceive of mine,
But love I gave thee, with myself to love,
And thou must love me who have died for thee!

 

— Katerina Whitley is the author of Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross (Morehouse, 2003) and other Biblically based books.

Peter got it right, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2009

April 9, 2009

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-171 Corinthians 11:23-26John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Peter got it wrong. We shouldn’t be surprised in the least. The gospels have taught us to expect Peter to be the eager disciple who energetically jumps to the wrong answer and is ready to act when listening and learning is called for.

Peter sees Jesus get up from the table, take off his outer robe, and tie a towel around himself. Then he watches as Jesus pours water into a basin and begins to wash the disciples’ feet. You can almost hear the wheels turning in Peter’s mind as Jesus wipes the wet feet with the towel that was tied around him. Peter is waiting until it is his turn. He lets the other disciples take part, but he will never let the master be his servant.

Then as it is his turn, Peter asks, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

Jesus replied, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

Impetuous Peter doesn’t want to wait. He understands perfectly well that Jesus is serving his disciples in the humblest of ways and he isn’t going to play along. Disciples wash their teacher’s feet, not the other way around. Peter says flatly, “You will never wash my feet.”

Then in language that has long reminded the church of baptism, Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” This changes everything for Peter. If foot washing is a sign of being part of Jesus, then he wants to be drenched – soaked from head to foot.

Picking up on the baptismal line of teaching, Jesus seems to push it further in saying, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean.” In this same way, one who has been baptized needs only repent of his or her sins to be made clean again. One doesn’t have to be baptized a second time.

But the connection to baptism was not Jesus’ main purpose that evening. It was the night before he was to die. The disciples did not know this yet. But Jesus is using his last evening to get across his most important lessons one more time. In case they missed the significance of his washing their feet, Jesus points out that he has done this to give them an example to follow, saying, “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.”

This is where we expect Peter to strip off his outer robe and start working his way around the gathering washing up the other disciples. But this time, he seems to understand that something more is going on here than a lesson about washing feet. It is an example Jesus is giving. An example of service rather than a command to spend one’s days cleaning road grime off feet.

It might not have been easy to get across, but Jesus clearly connected with this message about servant leadership. Peter and the other disciples might have left the table still wondering about when and where they were to wash each other’s feet. But everything would change in a few hours. The next night they would be gathered in mourning at the death of their rabbi. Much later, sometime after the shock of Good Friday and the joy of Easter, this foot washing lesson sank in. We know the point got through because with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the disciples really came to understand their call to ministry and were empowered to act on it.

Later, when remembering that night before he died, Peter and the others would have seen foot washing from the far side of the cross and the empty tomb. Having seen how complete was their teacher’s love and commitment, those words of Jesus, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” must have sounded so different. Then even Peter knew that the life of service to which his Rabbi called him would involve much more than washing the feet of those he might have considered beneath him. After washing their feet, Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Jesus’ example was much more life changing than the humble act of washing feet. Jesus had been obedient unto death, even death on a cross. He had loved as God loves, and in the process, so upset the status quo that various groups who couldn’t agree about anything agreed that Jesus must die. Jesus was restoring outcasts to community. Jesus was breaking down the dividing walls between those who were “in” and those who were “out.”

Those in control, Jews and Romans alike, knew they had to stop this new movement before it got out of hand. In this, those who opposed Jesus were no different from those in power in all times and places, working to keep their influence and authority. Yet Jesus would not give up on his revolutionary love, even when the price of that love was torture and death.

The disciples did come to understand Jesus’ actions fully. Seeing the foot washing anew in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, they came to understand that the only real power and authority belongs to God. We mortals who spend our lives trying to build up that sense of control for ourselves chase an illusion. And here all the paradoxes Jesus had been teaching could be heard anew: the last shall be first; those who love their life lose it; and the master comes among us as a servant. These paradoxes spoke to the deeper truth in Jesus’ life and ministry.

Jesus did not call his followers to lead in the same way that others led, by lording over them. He called those who would come after him to lead through their service to others. Jesus called those who would follow him to love as he had loved, with more concern for the other person than for ones’ self.

Simon Peter would come to live fully into Jesus’ example of loving others. Peter was part of that first band of disciples who turned the world upside down with a revolutionary way of loving. The disciples followed Jesus in working from the bottom up to help the world see outcasts and victims not as those cursed by God, but those in need of God’s love and healing and redemption. They came to serve others, even the gentiles, who at first seemed well outside the bounds of their mission.

What is most amazing is that the early church never seemed to take up foot washing as a sacrament alongside baptism and communion. Yes, the act of washing feet was preserved, but never in quite the same way. To this day, some groups practice foot washing, others do not. But all Christians hold on to the essential truth that in serving others in need, we are living in to Jesus’ command to love one another as he loves us.

Tradition tells us that Simon Peter became a scapegoat himself. The early historian Eusebius tells us that Peter was put to death by the Roman Emperor Nero. It seems that following the burning of Rome, someone had to take the blame, and why not that new sect who refused to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods?

Peter went to his death boldly, not giving up on the love we are to have for others that Jesus taught that night before he died in the humble act of washing feet. In response to that self-giving love of Jesus, Peter gave up his own life willingly. Peter served others by giving the example of faithfulness unto death.

Peter got it right.

 

— The Rev. Frank Logue is a church planter in the Diocese of Georgia and the vicar of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland, Georgia.

What we have before us are ‘death table’ words, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2007

April 5, 2007

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Reading deathbed quotations can provide information and amusement, bewilderment, and boredom. Seldom, though, do famous last words produce meaning and inspiration.

Such is not the case with Jesus, however. Commonly, Good Friday sermons reflect on Christ’s last words from the cross. But his truer deathbed quotations come in the lessons for today’s worship.

Okay. What we have before us are “death table” words, but they are the famous last words of our faith and of all creation – words that provide meaning and inspiration, words that give us hope and life, in the deepest sense.

Jesus used his last moments with his inner core of followers to profound effect. He knew he was about to die. He knew they would have trouble going on without him. So he knew he had to leave them with words that would sustain them.

We heard the first of his famous last words in the Epistle reading. “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. … This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

By following these instructions after he was gone, the disciples could keep Jesus among them – by recollecting, by recalling him to their presence. Through a special act, using common food, he taught them to become what he was, and to perpetuate him within themselves. As they ate what he called his body and his blood, his life itself, they became the love that Jesus was and is. Those who would accept his mission and live into his vision would become the Body of Christ in the world he was leaving behind.

Eat the Body of Christ. Drink the blood of the holy one whose self-sacrifice made you the most special and valuable beings in creation, by making us all worth dying for. Be ever connected with him. Be ever aware of God’s presence with you and God’s love for you. Do not be afraid to risk living, really living, as the reality of Jesus that is in you gives you courage and strength and comfort in the midst of this often troublesome world of ours. In this spiritual food we gain spiritual and emotional energy to sustain us on our way.

Take the body of Christ. Become the Body of Christ. Become love in unity with all others through the love of Jesus. We are united at the Lord’s Table, are we not? At least at the moment of receiving the sacraments alongside our fellow Christians, we are one. We are united with one another in all our intentions and with all our focus as we recall Jesus among us. We are at total peace with one another and all of humanity in this special, holy moment.

Sometimes it may be only for that moment, as we perhaps stray into negative or judgmental thoughts, noticing something or someone even as we return to our pew. Nevertheless, the action stands for us as the benchmark for what we can become. The loving, peaceful unity of the Lord’s Table can become reality in our day-to-day lives. Theses famous last words of Jesus can transform us. “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. … This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

The other famous last words of Jesus come to us from St. John’s version of the Last Supper. He gives us a more specific understanding of what it means to be the Body of Christ. As the bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus, fills us up, it overflows from us onto others in the form of loving actions.

Jesus got down on the ground before the disciples and washed their dusty feet as a way to lead them into actions of love for others. To be the Body of Christ, he says, reach out with your resources to serve others as I am serving you. “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.”

These famous last words in this startling exemplary action tell us what to do as his followers. Remember this, he tell us. Remember me in front of you, serving you, and do the same for others.

On the eve of his death, Jesus did not focus on his need but on the needs of others. The one who was the leader – the focus of all attention, the master – became like a slave to those who by all logic should have served him. In taking the towel and basin to himself, Jesus turned the realities of the world upside down and shook them out so the values of God could pour out on us. He transformed the traditional understanding of power and laid priority on values that rest only in God.

In the light of the events of the night before Jesus died, could his closest followers have failed to remember his teachings about caring for the least among us? After he was gone, must they not have connected his washing their feet with his continual reminders about loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves – about denying ourselves and taking up our own crosses in following him?

Did Jesus’ famous last words provide meaning and inspiration – giving hope and life, in the deepest sense? The answer bears itself out day by day as we, his followers, remember – as we recall him to presence and face the challenge of becoming the very Body of Christ, loving others as Jesus loved us.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

They will remember, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2006

April 13, 2006

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-171 Corinthians 11:23-26John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Together with the sense of the Holy, the experience of Maundy Thursday affords us the most profound awareness of the role of change in our lives as well as the meaning of remembrance. Both are interwoven with the events of the saddest day of the church year. The arrest, stealthy court proceedings and torture of the Son of God in the middle of the night follow the heart-breaking hours of the Last Supper; the gathering of friends for a farewell meal is infused with sorrow because they know it will bring the end to a time of intense friendship and teaching, consistent fellowship and praxis. Certainly, the central character knows that this is the end of the teacher-student, master-follower communal living of the past three years; the others, seeing his sorrow at the imminent parting, must suspect it, even though they don’t acknowledge it.

Jesus has been their friend but also their master – in the manner people of that time knew well: a friendship that was based on a complementary, not a symmetrical relationship; they knew they were not the equal of their remarkable rabbi. Theirs was a daily fellowship that demanded loyalty and obedience from them because it was based on love abundantly given by the master to the disciples. The twelve, and the rest of the followers of Jesus, had heard him speak words of Truth and Justice to them and to the crowds; they had seen him heal the sick time and time again; they had felt power emanating from him; three of them had seen him glorified in a mystical mountain epiphany, but now, suddenly, they are seeing him in the role of the servant. It is not a comfortable experience for them. He dons a towel and starts washing their feet. This was much different from the ritual washing we see in some churches on Maundy Thursday. Theirs were dirty feet indeed. They had walked many miles, they had been bare or in sandals, on unpaved terrain, on dusty roads that had hardened their soles and imbedded the dirt for all time in the cracks.

The courteous thing for a host to do was to wash the feet of the guests – or, more likely, to have a servant perform this act of ritual honor and necessity. Jesus is their host but now also their servant. He doesn’t ask one of them to do the washing; he does it himself. The disciples must be stunned, but only Peter protests. Peter thinks he knows his place and wants Jesus to know his own place also. But Jesus is not playing by the rules. He never has; Peter ought to have remembered, but he doesn’t. Peter is frightened. Everything is changing and he doesn’t like change. Later, in the night, he will be so terrified of his master’s different role that he will deny his dearest friend. But right now he shows his usual blustery independence: “I will not allow you to wash my feet.” Jesus, who is being very tender to all of them throughout the meal, puts Peter quickly in the new place he has in mind for him – that of the obedient, strong follower who knows how to be a servant also. “You better let me do it, Peter, or you will not be with me – you will have no share with me.” In other words: Learn to accept and understand the change, Peter. From now on our relationship is different; I am showing you something profound, much more than just the act of kneeling before you to wash your feet. I am showing you that the share I want you to have in me will make you become like me.

It is this change in their relationship to their friend and master that the disciples will remember later, and in the remembrance they will find meaning and understanding. Enough to change the world.

They have been followers and friends, they have been students and companions to the man who called these fishermen by the seashore promising them that he would make them “fishers of human beings.” In those heady days when Jesus attracted the thousands with his signs of the Kingdom and with words of authority, they basked in the popularity of their master and felt some of his power rub off on them. They were filled with pride. They were the chosen. But tonight, on this unforgettable Thursday night, their roles are changing drastically, and they are afraid. The change comes with sorrow, but also with great tenderness, and with an example of servanthood. “Having loved his own, he loved them to the end.” Is there a more loving sentence in all of literature? It is this deep love, this agapē that is preparing them for the change.

They are warned that when his arrest and death come, they too will be in danger and be despised. Jesus himself knows that soon he will enter into the most agonizing hours of humiliation and abandonment. But first, he must give hope and strength to his friends. Having loved his own, he loved them to the end. He is pouring this love out to them by giving them his new commandment: “Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.”

The hours pass. The agony of the garden follows, then the humiliation of the court procedures, the torture of his body, the danger that sends most of his friends scurrying away. The disciples forget his words, forget the years of joy in the concern of saving themselves. Peter denies him. They are facing the end of hope.

Later, they will remember: they will recall this last meal together, his tenderness, the washing of their feet . One imagines that throughout the remainder of their lives, every time they enter a home to have their feet washed, they will remember this night and their Lord kneeling in front of their feet and the memory will be nearly unbearable. Above all, they will remember that he loved them and that he went willingly to the cross because of his great love for them and for the truth of his Father.

They will remember and they will understand the meaning of his words and of his acts. And they will share this remembrance with the rest of us. This is why we are gathered here tonight: in partaking of this meal, we too will remember.

— Katerina K. Whitley is the author of Speaking for Ourselves: Voices of Biblical Women (Morehouse, 1998), Seeing for Ourselves: Biblical Women Who Met Jesus (Morehouse, 1998), and Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross (Morehouse, 2004).