Sermon for Maundy Thursday
March 24, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
God gives, and God takes away. God took Israel away from Egypt, and took familiarity away from Israel. God took away their familiar daily rations of food that their taskmasters had doled out, and by so doing, took away the illusion that their life and sustenance came from a source other than God. God gave them the truth and taught them a little about who God is, taught them in the experience of the Exodus, the holiday of the Passover, the words of the Law, inscribed in stone, and taught them in the example of the manna, which became part of their flesh.
Jesus, being fully God and fully human, continued to teach the ways of God in the ways God teaches them. He began with an example, washing his disciples’ feet. This task was always done by the lowest-ranking person because it was the worst job in the house, because it came after a day, or many days, of walking in sandals, sweating, weeping, perhaps bleeding, walking through dust and all the filth of the world. That’s one of the reasons I don’t do foot-washing here; our feet are delightful compared to theirs, so the symbolism doesn’t work. It would make more sense for me to clean your toilets, but bringing them to church is more than I can ask. Another reason is that I don’t want us to make the same mistake Peter did, and think it’s about cleanliness or, God help us, purity. It’s about humility and servanthood, which among Christians is meant to be mutual. So when Jesus teaches them, “wash one another’s feet,” he goes on to clarify, “Servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.”
On the other hand, though, he went from washing all of their feet to taking a piece of bread, dipping it, and giving it to Judas. It hadn’t occurred to me before this year how disgusting this is, but it does explain why Judas got up and left at that moment. But here’s the thing: Jesus doesn’t limit his work or his teaching to the cute, the safe, the comfortable, or the appealing. Jesus is actually there for us where and when we need him the most, in the darkness, in our fear, guilt, despair, desperation, disobedience, even our betrayal.
Considering this, let’s reconsider the event that lends a name to this holy day. At the end of our Gospel reading, 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.” What’s new about this commandment is not the concept of the Golden Rule, which is recorded in some of the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible and may be much older.
Rather, Jesus sets a new standard. No longer shall we treat others as we would like to be treated, but rather as Jesus loves them, and us. Also new is the reason: not because of who we are, or what we hope to gain, or how we are related to the other, but because of who Jesus is and how much Jesus loves the other, and loves us. And that’s, well, that’s a lot. And it’s more than we can do.
So the difficulty of keeping this commandment is well-known. Legend has it that our patron saint, John the Evangelist, would preach only one sermon, which consisted of three words: Love one another. Whenever he was asked when he would teach something else, he supposedly would answer, When you have mastered what I am teaching you now. And we usually think about the good that we do when we do manage to love people whom it is difficult to love, and we tend to think in terms of how our love benefits them. But of course that’s just a little narcissistic and condescending, or runs the risk of being so.
We also overlook how difficult it is not to obey this New Commandment. Holding on to grudges, allowing ourselves to be crippled by fear or entitlement or self-righteousness is exhausting. Withholding love doesn’t preserve our resources, it wears us down from within. Offering love and forgiveness doesn’t just benefit others — indeed, sometimes it doesn’t seem to affect them at all — but it does always benefit us.
Keeping Jesus’s New Commandment can benefit another other, though. By which I mean, third party observers, the “everyone” whom Jesus says will know we are his disciples. People with whom we have no special relationship, either positive or negative, will nevertheless see that we are different. When we manage to keep the New Commandment, all who see it see God. And in this world of terrible news, of terror attacks and homegrown hate, let me assure you, there is a great appetite, a deep longing, for the light of Christ. And so this teaching is not so much academic as it is a revelation, and a gift of life.
Soon the rhythm of the Church’s calendar prescribes that Christ’s light will be hidden from us, but only so that we remember that it was restored, and magnified to light up the world, as God has promised.
God gives life and grace and wisdom, and God takes away fear and sins and death. God gives, and God takes away, and we are the better for it. Blessed be God, now and always.