A Homily for Maundy Thursday
Texts: 1 Corinthians 11:23-36; St. John 11-17; 31b-35
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who gave unto us a new commandment: love one another. Amen.
It’s been quite a week — the tension and turmoil have been steadily building since Sunday. We saw Jesus enter into Jerusalem during what must have been the city’s most chaotic time, just before Passover as pilgrims from across the world flood into the holy city, in a political rally that set Rome’s teeth on edge.
After the Triumphal Entry, the Gospels show us a more confrontational Christ: cursing fig trees, turning over the money changers’ tables in the Temple, openly arguing with the Sadducees and the Pharisees, preaching more apocalyptic sermons. Last night, we heard another prediction of Christ’s death, echoing the words we heard the second Sunday in Lent and setting the stage for all that will follow over these next three days. It’s just in the past few days that the plot to kill Jesus finally came together, coming to a head yesterday – on Spy Wednesday – when, according to tradition, Judas Iscariot agreed to betray Jesus.
In the midst of so much chaos, our Lord sat down with his closest disciples for a meal. During such an intimate gathering, our Lord handed over some of his final lessons. It’s a long sermon, five entire chapters in the Gospel according to Saint John, nearly a quarter of John’s text. But it starts off this way: before they ate, Jesus took on the position of the lowliest servants, washing his disciples’ feet. Looking at his beloved friends, he gave them a new maundatum, a new commandment, a new law: “Love one another,” he said. Love one another so much that you’re willing to wash each others’ feet. Love one another so openly that the entire world sees your love and knows that you follow me. Love one another so completely that you ware willing to lay down your life fore each other.
The entire the law is summed up so simply: love one another. The law is summarized with such grace that it confounds our ability to divide between law and grace: love one another.
It’s so simple, so graceful, and yet it’s still so very difficult to do. The symbolic act of Maundy Thursday, foot-washing, is difficult enough for many people — even in a close-knit community like ours; how much more challenging must it be for Pope Francis, who has radically expanded this practice? Who, instead of keeping with the tradition of washing the feet of Catholic men, included women, and prisoners, and immigrants, and Christians from other traditions and Muslims and Hindus? How difficult is it to love our neighbors who aggravate us, who grieve us deeply, whom we view with so much suspicion?
Or to love our neighbors who are different from us – who are members of a different congregation, or denomination, or religion, or whose skin is a different color, whose families have immigrated from different countries, who speak a different language.
How difficult it is, indeed, to love those who have done us wrong – the family member who has destroyed so many relationships through lies or addiction. Or to love the terrorist who has killed so many – how difficult must it be for the people of Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston to love Dylan Roof?
How difficult must it be for those starving to death in South Sudan or waiting in refugee camps just outside of Syria to love those of us, well-fed fed and in relative safety, in the US? And how hard is it for us to love them, the most vulnerable among us, in return?
Love one another as Christ has loved us. It sounds so simple, but in those few words, Christ summarizes all of our failings, all of our brokenness, all of our thirst for vengeance, all of our greed and fear, all of our sinfulness.
Here, the Law really is a mirror, revealing all of our sinful shortcomings, reflecting an ugly truth. And here, it really is Christ showing us how we are called to live as his disciples, reflecting God’s beautiful reality.
How can Christ expect us to live up to such a lofty standard, to love as he loves? When we do see examples shining out in the darkness of this world, they confound us. Such a radical love presses in on us and then pulls against our very nature. We hear stories like the saints of Mother Emanuel forgiving their oppressor, and we wonder how they do it. How can they look across a courtroom and see someone with the blood of their loved ones on his hands but also see a child of God?
To love others so much that we would humiliate ourselves by washing their feet? Or laying down our lives for them? Or forgiving them even their most evil acts? It’s a law that is simply out of reach.
Such divine love – such charitas, such agape – comes only through the grace of God.
And so, to bring us into the Kingdom of God and set us under this new law, Christ gives us himself – his very body and blood. Taking bread and wine, he says, “Take and eat; this is my body, given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me,” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and all people for the forgiveness of sin. Do this for the remembrance of me.”
As the great Lutheran scholar Timothy Wengert summarizes it, Jesus gives us ordinary food and drink, saying: “Here I am. For all of you. To forgive.”
In this most blessed Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we therefore make our Eucharist – that is, we give thanks for all that God has done. And in offering our thankful praise, we are graciously brought into communion with God and with one another. Through the body of Christ, we are forgiven. Through the body of Christ, we are set free to love as Christ loves. When we receive Christ at the Altar, we, though many, as the grains of wheat scattered on the hill, are united into one Body. As the blessed Saint Augustine reminds us, we come to the Lord’s table to, “Be that which you behold, and receive what you are.” When we consume the Body of Christ, we are consumed into the body of Christ. We are what we eat. Through the body of Christ here at the altar, we are united into the body of Christ for the sake of the world – in the meal we share at this table, we are continuously brought further into the Kingdom of God.
As the body of Christ, then, we are set free to forgive others as we have been forgiven. And as the body of Christ, we are strengthened to love as God has first loved us. Here, beloved, is wine to revive you and bread to make you strong. Here, dear Church, is the precious Body and Blood of our Lord, pouring out grace upon grace. Here, kindred, are we: the Body of Christ, gathered as grains of wheat, into one. Here, dear friends, is the strength to love as Christ has first loved us. Here is the strength to endure.
Receive it, and feed on it in your hearts, because the hour grows late, and there is more to come.