A Homily for Maundy Thursday
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 turmoil has 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. The soldiers were sharpening their spears already on Sunday, and the tension has only grown.
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, even predicting the destruction of the Temple, that jewel in Jerusalem’s crown, that staple of Judean identity. The religious leaders must be furious – if this upstart rebel isn’t silenced, the Romans will see to it that the Temple actually is torn down.
It’s just in the past few days that the plot to kill Jesus finally came together, coming to a head yesterday. Last night, on Spy Wednesday, we read that missing portion of tonight’s text, in which Judas Iscariot went out to betray Jesus.
In the midst of so much chaos, Jesus 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.
It’s absurd that their Lord and Rabbi would wash the disciples’ feet. This is the job for a slave – and not a particularly skilled slave at that.
We’re talking about a rigidly divided culture, one in which wealth and social standing ruled everything. Even the wine was segregated. At a Roman banquet, laws dictated who could serve quality wine or sumptuous food, and inspectors would break up feasts found to be in violation. The wealthy, feasting at the head of the table, drank the finest wines and ate the good bread. Moving away from these positions of privilege, the people got poorer, the wine got cheaper, and the food got worse. Slaves drank cheap swill made from the leftover skins and stems.
For the leader to transgress this strict boundary, to voluntarily take on the position of a servant, was unfathomable. This is not the action of a Lord or a Rabbi.
Resuming his position back at the table and looking at his beloved friends, the Lord gave them a new mandatum, a new commandment, a new law: “Love one another,” he said. Love one another so much that you serve each other with fervent devotion. Love one another so much that you are willing to wash each others’ feet. Love one another so openly that the entire world sees your love and knows that you follow Christ. Love one another so completely that you are willing to lay down your life for each other.
The entire 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, among people we have known for decades; how much more challenging must it be for us to go out to serve those we do not know or don’t like, to serve those who are different from us – whose skin is a different color, whose families have immigrated from different countries, who speak a different language, who live in the “wrong” part of town, who are in a different economic class from us.
Even in the early Church, division had infiltrated the Body of Christ, and the mandatum was broken. Saint James wrote of the wealthy using the poor as “footstools” at the Eucharist. Saint Paul warned against receiving the Sacrament “unworthily.” We so frequently misunderstand what he’s saying: it’s not about our merit to receive God’s grace but a call to unity. The church in Corinth was continuing the Roman practice: the wealthy would come together to feast and get drunk on the Blood of Christ while the poor were sent away hungry, receiving only the crumbs and dregs.
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 partiality and prejudice, all of our thirst for power and greed, all of our need for God’s grace, all of our sin.
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? If not even the earliest Christians, those taught by the first apostles, could keep this law of love, what hope is there for the rest of us?
To love others so much that we would humiliate ourselves by washing their feet? Or laying down our lives for them? It’s a law that is simply out of reach. 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.
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 graciously gives us himself – his very Body and Precious 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.”
Our Lord, who took on the position of the lowliest servant, has united us to himself and us to each other. In Christ, our distinctions fall away. There is no longer servant or lord, rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, male for female, Lutheran or Catholic, liberal or conservative, white or black. We are instead united in one cup of blessing, one bread, one body, one faith, one Lord of all. As our own self-imposed segregation is wiped away, we see that love, unity, service, grace, and the Blessed Sacrament are all bound together. Perfect love leads to self-giving service and unity in Christ. In becoming servants of all, we are formed in the ways of Christ-like love. In the Holy Communion, we are united through Christ by grace and strengthened for loving service to God and neighbor.
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 for all of our sinful acts and set free. 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, sent out to be servants even to the least among us.
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 make yourself servants of all, even to the point of laying down your life.
Receive it, and feed on it in your hearts. Cling to this grace. Because the hour grows late. We need this gracious strength to endure what is to come.