Love, Service, and a Meal

A Homily for Maundy Thursday

Texts: I Corinthians 11:23-26; St. John 13:1-17, 31-35


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who loving nourishes us with his Body and Blood. Amen.

Cast your mind back, if you will, to just before the beginning of Lent – roughly two months ago, on Transfiguration Sunday. Simon Peter, James, and John climb the mount with our Lord and behold the revelation of his glory as Jesus stands, radiant, talking with Moses and Elijah. Do you remember Saint Peter’s response?

He wants to stay, to build shelters for Christ, the Law Giver, and the Prophet. “Lord,” he says, “it’s good for us to be here.”

How much more so do you think he felt that during the Last Supper?

After the emotional high of entering the city in triumph, things had taken a turn. Suddenly, Jesus was in direct confrontation with the religious, economic, and political powers. He had turned over the money changers’ tables in the Temple, had debated with the Pharisees and Sadducees, and his teachings have taken a turn for the apocalyptic. If the Romans hadn’t been paying attention to this Nazarene preacher before, then the parade into the city and the scene in the Temple had surely drawn unwanted attention from Roman soldiers.

Maybe Peter and the other disciples felt the tension, or maybe they were too caught up in the excitement. But had he known everything that was about to happen – the tears in Gethsemane, the betrayal and arrest, the sham trial, his own denial, the torture, the cross – how much more would he have begged Jesus to stay at the table, tearfully pleading, “Lord, it’s good for us to be here.”

Let us stay at this last supper. Let us eat, drink, and be merry. Don’t go unto dark Gethsemane, Lord, because the soldiers are waiting there for you. But here – it’s good for us to be here.

Food is funny. Our senses form strong memories, and so we eat or we drink or we catch a whiff of something and we’re transported. The smell of bacon? I’m suddenly eleven again, back at my grandmother’s house on a summer morning, with piles of grits and eggs and bacon and toast. Grandma’s making sure the table is set and grandpa is making pancakes. It’s more food than we’re able to eat, but we’re sure gonna try. And any time a guest would look up from their own plate, grandma was sure to ask, “Can I get you anything?” It was simple, common food – but prepared and served with love. It was good to be there, and I cherish those moments when a scent transports me back in time.

We might wonder – could Peter or the other disciples ever eat bread or drink wine again without suddenly being back in that upper room? Or would they walk by a vineyard and smell the juice flowing from the crushed grapes, only to be back at the table with Christ? Could they ever wash their feet again, to feel water pull away the dirt and grime, without seeing their Lord kneeling down before them? Did the taste of bread leave them with these words ringing in their ears? “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.”

Foot washing is a remarkably intimate form of service. It can’t be done at a distance, and it’s not quick. It involves kneeling before someone – itself a uniquely humble act – and touching them, wiping away the dirt and grime from the road. This isn’t a pedicure, tending to a foot that is normally protected by socks and closed-toe shoes by people walking on pavement but washing away a day’s worth of whatever sweat and dirt had turned to mud – to say nothing of the animal waste or sewage a person may have stepped in. This is the work of a slave – and not a well-thought-of slave at that. This isn’t what kings, teachers, or gods do.

Love one another, Jesus says. Love one another so much that you will humbly serve each other, even to the point of giving up your lives. Love one another as much as you are loved.

The love Jesus commands us to have is no mere emotion but a driving force. It’s not the sort of over-emphatic enjoyment that we sometimes call “love” – as in “I love pizza,” – nor even the passionate romantic love of newlyweds. No, this is the sort of love that drives us to humble ourselves, to serve others, to give up our lives. It’s the love best called charitas – charity  – which is never done out of pity but instead out of love. Love is the impulse that animates us to serve those whom we love, even in the most intimate of ways, actions that can’t be done at a distance but requires us to be up close and personal: in non-covid times to visit the homebound, the hospitalized, the imprisoned; to call those who have spent the past year in isolation; to feed the hungry – not only to give them canned goods but to dine with them, to get to know them as friends and neighbors; to kneel down and wash someone’s feet.

Jesus calls this a commandment, a law, but it’s such a profoundly gracious law that it confounds our ability to distinguish between law and grace. It reveals so much of our own failings, where we have not loved God or neighbor, but it also reveals the beautiful reality that God has always intended for us: that we are loved and created to love.

This new commandment is so simple, and yet so impossible to keep. It is only possible through the grace of God. And so, out of great love for us, our Lord handed over not only an example but also his very Body and Blood, a sacred meal to bring about forgiveness and to strengthen us for loving service to God, neighbor, and each other.

Taking bread and wine, he blessed them and said, “Here I am. For you. To forgive.” In these common, everyday elements, Jesus has promised to be present for us, a source of grace and strength. In this meal, we are united. Taste the bread. Smell the wine. Be transported back to that room with all the Apostles, gathered around the presence of our Lord. Be united through the Body of Christ with the Body of Christ. In this meal, we are gathered as grains of wheat that, once scattered across the hills, have become one loaf. In this Blessed Sacrament, we are united through the Body of Christ with one another and all the saints throughout the age and across the globe.

Here is bread and wine. Here is the grace to love. Here is forgiveness for when we fail to love. Here is strength. Eat. Be nourished. Because the hour is growing late. And there is more to come.

Amen.

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