Maundy Thursday, April 18, 2019. Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: John 13:1-17, 31-35
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Holy Week is an intense week. It was intense then, and it’s intense now. This Holy Week has seen the burning of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, striking a chord of grief with people all over the world. Closer to home, this Holy Week has seen the release of the redacted Mueller Report, the next chapter in our polarized, tumultuous political life together. And those are just some of the challenges that we are facing in our own time. But Holy Week has always been intense.
Maundy Thursday is a tough night. Tonight is difficult, because we know what will happen tomorrow. We know that in a few hours, our Lord Jesus will be betrayed by one of his own students and followers, he will be tried by the religious leaders, and he will be executed by the state. We know that we are entering into a period of darkness. Anytime that we know ahead of time that we are entering into a period of darkness, it’s hard. There’s no point in trying to sugarcoat this, or to pretend that the biblical events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are not hard.
How, then, does the Lord call us to live in hard times?
We may get a clue from the name of this day. Maundy, you may have noticed, is a strange word to use to describe a day. In fact, it’s a strange word, period. The reason we call this Thursday “Maundy” is because of a Latin word. The word ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin word mandatum, which is the source word for the word “commandment.” “Maundy” is a cognate of our word “mandate.” In the midst of Holy Week, we have Mandate Thursday. The Christian community lives under a mandate. The specific mandate that is referred to is found in John 13:34, when Jesus washes the feet of the disciples and says to them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Our mandate – in the midst of every turbulent and intense situation – is to love others. We are to do this, the text says, not because we are particularly nice people. We are to do this, because we have been loved ourselves, because we actually live our lives in a matrix of love – no matter how hard that may be to see at any given moment – and the summons, the invitation, the mandate is to live in that flow. To allow love to flow into us, to receive it, to accept that we are beloved, allow it to flow into us, and to allow it to flow out of us. To flow out of us towards the poor, the vulnerable (in biblical terms, the widow, the immigrant, and the orphan); to flow out of us towards the earth itself; to flow out of us towards our enemies and those people for whom hatred, not love, is the easier and more instinctive response.
In John 13, we are told that, during that last supper, after that Passover meal, Jesus got up, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he began to wash the feet of his disciples, and later told them that they would be doing the same. That’s what love looks like in this story.
Washing the feet of others suggests to us that downward mobility, not upward mobility, is the direction that Jesus calls his followers to go. We hear this theme elsewhere in the Gospels: the first shall be last, whoever wants to be great must be servant of all, and all that. Jesus calls us away from the compulsion to build ourselves up, padding our resumés with accolades and things of significance, so that we can get ahead. That way of life does not lead to true happiness; that way of life will exhaust and drain you. According to Jesus, the way to fill yourself up, the way to become full – according to Jesus – is actually to move down. Washing feet, as a symbol of the Christian life, is a way of building others up rather than worrying about building ourselves up.
Of course, washing and drying the feet of each other is not what dignified, respectable people do. You get to see my hammer toe, I get to see your bunions, and the feet of those of us who have been wearing socks all day may smell pretty ripe. It wouldn’t have been much better in Jesus’ day, with all the dusty roads and whatnot. The Gospel of John does not tell us explicitly why Peter did not want Jesus to wash his feet, but we can understand his reluctance about it. Loving and serving others requires that we live in a non-defensive, non-violent way, and in our world, that is hard.
Holy Week is intense, and the events of Holy Week can be hard. But Jesus shows us the way through the hard times. The way through is love. Not a sentimentalized, Hallmark card kind of love, but a non-violent, non-defensive, open-hearted love for others. In just a moment, we will come to the Communion Table to be fed. And when we come to the Table, we believe that we will receive everything that we need to embody the life of Jesus in our own lives. Jesus feeds us with his own love, his own life, and he invites all those who want to follow him, all those who want to know him, all those who want to receive his love into their loves, to receive the food and the life that has been prepared for them. To God be all the glory. AMEN.