Sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 9th, 2020 YR A
The liturgies of these last days of Holy Week really need very little said about them, because at the heart of these services are symbols which in themselves are a loud and clear witness to the message of the gospel. And they speak so clearly because these are the symbols which Jesus himself chose to communicate his message, as well as to share his very life with us.
Tonight the symbols we encounter are eating and washing—two very simple, very human actions. Indeed, eating and washing are part of our daily, mundane existence. But both of these actions were taken by Jesus and transformed by him. By using these simple signs of human life, Jesus also made them signs of the divine life, the abundant life. They continue to be signs of the life of God among us, the life of God’s spirit within us.
In the second reading tonight, Saint Paul reminds the Corinthians of the tradition which they had received from him about Jesus: how, on the night before he died, he took bread and wine, blessed them, and shared them with his friends. On the occasion of that meal, Jesus identified himself, his body and blood, with the bread and the wine; then he went on to tell his disciples that whenever they eat the bread and drink the wine, they are to do this in remembrance of him.
But we need to be aware that in both Hebrew and Greek, the words for “remember” mean much more than simply to call someone or something from the past to mind. To “remember” means to make present a past event: to take something from the past and literally bring it into the present. So when the disciples shared bread and wine “in remembrance” of Jesus, they understood that they would be making present his life, his very self. They believed that in this action, Jesus would really be present with them.
That is what we do every time we gather for Eucharist. When we eat the bread and drink the wine, we also proclaim the redeeming death of the Lord until he comes again. We also make present his life, his very self. We also believe that Jesus is really present with us. Jesus chose the simple elements of bread and wine to be the means of communicating his life to the disciples—to all his disciples, including you and me.
But in this evening’s Gospel, at the very same place where Matthew, Mark and Luke record the “institution” of the Eucharist, Saint John instead relates that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. And in this very human action he tells us something very profound about the divine life.
Perhaps more than any other symbol we encounter in Holy Week, the washing of feet makes us feel a bit uneasy. It is, after all, a very personal thing to wash someone else’s feet. In Jesus’ time, it was a duty that slaves performed for their masters. And yet, Jesus chose to do this for his friends.
What does this tell us about the divine life? Just this: that God has chosen to relate to us in a personal and intimate way; that the Lord and Master of us all not only came to share in our life, but to minister to us, even as a slave would minister to his or her master. Jesus emptied himself; he laid aside the divine glory that was his and girded himself with only a towel, in order that we might know the full extent of God’s love for us.
But he also told his disciples, that he had given them an example: “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” The divine life, which by nature is out-pouring, self-giving love—that life cannot be truly received unless it is shared with others. Even in the Eucharist, we are nourished and strengthened with God’s life and love, not simply for our own benefit, but so that we can share that life and love with others—and not just in general, but in a personal and intimate way.
We all constantly need to remember Jesus’ example. But on this evening we cannot gather to share in Eucharist and share in the washing of feet. Nevertheless, I invite all of you, as those who share in the royal priesthood of Christ, to remember whose servants you are. Even as we remain in our homes, think about your interactions both real and virtual. What act of care or service is the contemporary equivalent to washing someone else’s feet? Let that be a symbol of the ministry that began for you at your baptism. And do not neglect to receive the gifts of others as they embody God’s love for you. Once again Jesus reminds us: “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”