Maundy Thursday: April 13, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Consider the scene: the disciples are gathered around the table for a meal, right on the eve of the Passover feast, the feast where they will hear again the old old story of God bringing Israel from slavery into freedom, the central story of God’s redeeming work. They are breaking bread together, even as there hovers about them tension and anxiety over what’s going to happen next. The religious and secular authorities are fiercely set against Jesus, the city of Jerusalem is full of unrest and Rome is ready to clamp down on anyone who ignites it, Jesus himself is acting strangely, like he knows something they don’t know, and so is Judas. And somewhere in the middle of this dinner, Jesus gets up, strips down, and proceeds to wash their feet as a slave would do. Grimy, dusty feet, feet that walked miles each day in sandals on dirt roads, feet that didn’t take a bath all that often. And after doing this, Jesus tells them, do like I have done for you. Love one another like this.
In a few moments we will have the opportunity to enact this part of Jesus’ story, right here in church. Our liturgical version of this is pretty cleaned up by comparison. Chances are most of us have bathed our feet recently, and we haven’t been walking in sandals on dirt roads for some time. But let’s face it – there is an ew factor about feet, isn’t there? This ritual can be a little embarrassing. The intimacy inherent in handling each other’s feet, in having our own feet touched, is shocking indeed, especially in the middle of worship. But I wonder if that isn’t part of the point. Yes, it’s embarrassing for us to get so intimate and vulnerable with each other, and sort of awkward to go pulling off our socks here in church, sticking our feet in water in front of everyone. But isn’t that intimacy and vulnerability what Jesus is talking about when he tells us to love each other?
And there’s one other thing about the gospel story that we might not catch at first. At this dinner, in the midst of this act of teaching Jesus does, all of the disciples are present – including those who will betray him. When Jesus goes around and washes the feet of each disciple, he washes Judas’ feet as well, knowing that Judas is about to go sell him out to the authorities. He washes Peter’s feet, who even though he swears otherwise will deny Jesus that very night when the going gets tough. He washes the feet of the rest of the disciples, who will flee and scatter rather than stand vigil at the cross. Jesus loves Judas and Peter and all of them and honors them with the same action with which he loves and honors those who will stick by him. Loving each other, he shows us, isn’t just about loving the ones who love you back.
Be intimate with one another. Serve one another. Get involved with each other no matter the cost. How messy. How inconvenient. How downright foolish by our standards – especially to love even our enemies this way. And yet this is the commandment Jesus gives us. He tells us that this love is the sign by which people will know we are his disciples. It is the sign of our identity as followers of Christ.
Several people at St Michael’s, including the vestry, have been reading The Book of Joy, a book about the friendship between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. One theme that emerges in their conversations is the idea that practicing compassion and serving others leads to joy. If we want to be joyful – a deeper version of happiness – we don’t get there just by focusing on our own joy, making ourselves happy. We get there by caring for others, stepping out of ourselves and taking care of the needs of others. Archbishop Tutu talks about the concept of Ubuntu, which says that a person is a person through other persons. In other words, we don’t find our own true nature in isolation from other people – we are human because of our relationship and involvement with others. And so the more we turn toward others, the more joy we experience – it’s how we are made. And the more joy we experience, the more we can bring joy to others – the more we practice this love and care for others, the more of it we have to give.
That is what Jesus shows us on this night. As Christians and followers of Jesus, our identity is based on love for others. And as human beings, that love for others is in our very nature. To follow Jesus in this path, then, is to be fully human. It’s not just following the rules and being good – it’s being fully alive.
But that love is more than just being nice and friendly with others who are like us. Just as joy is more than being happy with our circumstances – and in fact, persists sometimes despite our circumstances – the love for others Jesus teaches us goes beyond our instinctive tribal connections with family and friends. It is love that is also for our enemies, for those who are radically different from us, for those who may not have our best interests at heart. It is love that may not come naturally – but rather require us to work to cultivate it. Love that expresses itself in caring for others – looking out for their needs even when they may not care a whit about ours.
So what do we do with this commandment, ‘mandatum’ in Latin, the word that becomes ‘maundy’ in Maundy Thursday? It’s unfortunately like human nature that we turn it into a safe and sane once-a-year ritual, and so absolve ourselves of having to live it every day. Queen Elizabeth I, it is said, washed the feet of 100 poor women and so ‘kept her maundy’ on Maundy Thursday – but what did she do the other 364 days? I doubt she washed many feet.
No, this new commandment Jesus gives us isn’t about a ritual, or about earning points with God. Jesus doesn’t say, do this and God will be pleased with you and take you to heaven. Jesus says, do this as I have done it for you – love as I already love you. And do this because to live this way is better – to live in love is its own reward. To live in love changes us. To live in love changes the world.
But with this and all commandments, the real gift is that when we’re able and willing to follow them and when we are not, Jesus fulfills them completely. Jesus does the footwashing first – not just as an example for how we are to do it, but because we need that washing first, to show us that we ourselves are loved. He lays himself down for us long before we’re asked to do that, and shows us that we are worthy of sacrifice; he loves us and calls to us, and so we know that we are his. Whether we are ready to love or not, Jesus is ready to wash our feet – ready to love us even when we betray him and refuse to love in return. Ready to love us into trying again.
Jesus has already taken down the barriers of guilt and tribe and all that that keeps us from love and from one another. Perhaps we could save ourselves the trouble and let them stay down. Perhaps we could allow the intimacy of God – allow God to touch us, to serve us, and so touch and serve one another. Perhaps we too can be fully alive, fully human, fully children of God.