For several months now I’ve been helping out at the local Anglican parish; their priest retired and a new one has yet to be found. This means that a couple of times a month I lead Morning Prayer/Service of the Word and get to preach. My involvement has the blessing of both local Anglican and Catholic Bishops. Today, Holy Thursday, was the first time I found myself leading this most sacred service. The following is the homily I preached.
Exodus 12:1–14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17
The events of this last day in Jesus’ life have all the features of a modern crime drama of the worst kind. Jesus is having one more dinner with friends; he speaks some last words to them, and he gives them several means to remember him by. There are calls for keeping awake, struggles with sleep, cries of agony from Jesus’ heart. Finally there will be betrayal, violence, absence. It is a night of sweetness and of division, of coming together and of ripping apart.
What we associate most often with this day, this night, and which we remember most fondly, is the story of the last supper, of Jesus instructing his disciples to “remember me.” Maundy Thursday is generally regarded as the occasion on which our Lord instituted the Holy Eucharist. We heard tonight Paul’s account from his letter to the Corinthians; it is the earliest written record of this monumental event, an event that has become the source and summit of our Christian faith. The three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, record the final meal Jesus ate with his disciples. Take and eat, he said; take and drink. Every time you do this, remember me. We know the words as intimately as our own inner thoughts.
But we are here tonight, this holy night, on this anniversary of the “first” Eucharist, and we are without Eucharist. Or are we?
When we celebrate the Eucharist and proclaim Jesus’ words to “do this in remembrance of me,” the bread and wine are taken, blessed, broken and shared. We break the bread. Breaking bread is a practice steeped in tradition, going back deep into Jewish history. Breaking bread is mentioned throughout scripture in connection with ordinary meals, ritual meals and the miracle meals of Jesus. The breaking of the bread is undoubtedly an important aspect of Jesus’ witness among us, yet it is absent from the Gospel of John, which we read this day. Why?
In John’s gospel we get a different take on things. John tells of a meal, too, but his focus is more of the show and tell kind. In John’s gospel, there is a different kind of breaking, a different sort of nourishment. For John, Jesus is the sacrificial figure, but the emphasis here is not on the action of the Eucharist, but on the action which follows the sacred meal. When Jesus washes feet, he is offering nourishment that is both the same and different than the Eucharist by itself: “This is what Eucharist is meant to look like: wash one another’s feet, serve one another in love, do not lord it over one another. I am setting you an example, so do likewise.”
When Jesus lowers himself, taking water bowl and towel to perform this humble gesture of charity, he is giving life to the words: “Do this in remembrance of me.” The love of Jesus, the love of God, the love of neighbour, is more than breaking bread in church. It is emptying ourselves in love, humility and generosity in order to be filled with the spirit of God, that generous spirit expressed in concrete service to our neighbours, especially those most in need. Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel are particularly relevant for us here at St. Andrew’s today. In this time without a resident priest, Christ nevertheless calls us all to continue remembering him in our actions and our dealings with one another.
Just as Jesus’ body was broken for us on the cross, and we remember this in the breaking of the bread in Eucharist, Jesus summons us to offer our lives over and over again in service and sacrifice, extending love and compassion and mercy without reserve. In the washing of feet, Jesus illustrated powerfully the other face of Eucharist: radical love given in service to one another.
We too may protest like Peter did at first. After all, what would we do if Jesus showed up in our homes and started washing the dishes, washing the floor, and maybe even cleaning the toilets? What would our response be? “No! Please go sit on the couch and relax. I will bring you something to eat. Don’t do that!”
Peter has the same resistance, which maybe all of us would have, as Jesus kneels down at our feet. Maybe a very natural resistance even to having our feet washed. Peter resisted, because his picture of Jesus was “up there” and people “up there” don’t do things “down there.”
Now I get that, I get where Peter’s coming from. Do you? Normal, natural reaction to an unexpected action. What is more surprising, though, is the reaction of Jesus. “If I cannot wash your feet, you shall have no more part with me.” Strong words, powerful words. “If I cannot wash your feet, you cannot share in the Kingdom. The Kingdom will no longer be part of your heritage. You are no longer my disciple.” Or, to put it more bluntly, “If I cannot wash your feet, there is the door!”
Poor Peter. I can just hear him muttering – cool it man. Didn’t know this foot-washing was such a big deal for you. Understandably, Peter panics. “Well then, not only my feet, my head and my hands!” You see, he is a loyal person and he wants to do things right but he’s getting confused because Jesus is not acting the way Peter thinks he should be acting. He couldn’t imagine that Jesus was going to make such a big deal about washing his dirty and calloused feet. It’s as if Jesus is saying to Peter, “If I cannot show that I want to be your servant, then you are no longer my friend. Because you must understand that leadership means service in love, turning upside down everything you’ve ever known.”
Jesus turns the old conventions on their heads. And he wants to communicate this by touching our bodies through the washing of our feet. So Peter had his reasons for objecting, understandable reasons. What could possibly be our reasons for hesitating to have our feet washed by Jesus? Maybe because it goes so much against the grain of how we’ve decided things should be in life. Maybe because we’re uncomfortable with being touched and washed by someone else … Allow me to share a story about that:
You may remember the news last month about Jean Vanier. He received the Templeton Prize for his work with the mentally challenged in l’Arche. Jean often recalls his work with a severely handicapped young man named Eric. Before coming to l’Arche, Eric had spent 12 years in the psychiatric hospital. He was blind, he was deaf, he couldn’t walk, and he couldn’t feed himself. Eric lived in deep and constant anguish – a tormented young man who wanted to die. In the psychiatric hospital the nurses avoided him because he wasn’t fun or gratifying, he could do nothing.
The only way to communicate with Eric was through touch. Jean speaks about the privilege he felt in giving Eric his bath every morning. Slowly, as loving hands washed his body day after day after day, week after week, month after month, Eric began to experience God’s love for him, a love that told him he was beautiful and lovable, a love that moved him from a desire to die to a desire to live.
That’s the power of divine touch through our bodies. We are to touch one another reverently, with a deep respect and tenderness. Our hands, and not just our voices, can be holy vessels of love, the love of Jesus. The Word became flesh, so that our flesh may become the sacred Word. Our flesh, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can reveal to people their value – that they are cherished and loved by God.
And still we might hesitate. Maybe our pride prevents us from offering our naked feet to be washed by our sister or brother in Christ. What if those naked, smelly and dirty feet betray our naked spirit, wounded and distressed and fearful as that spirit can be?
Life has a way of breaking us, each one of us, sometimes in a million pieces. Life has a way of breaking our trust and courage. God knows this all too well, and God has come to our aid. Jesus’ life was broken in the most brutal way imaginable. That same Jesus, on the night before he died, gives us one another and summons us: love one another and reach out in love to one another. I am giving you an example tonight, that you also should do as I have done to you. This mutual serving in love can restore all your brokenness.
And so, yes, we’re invited into a vulnerable place with one another. We’re invited to touch bodies, to wash feet. We’re invited to let ourselves be touched, be ministered to. That’s always a vulnerable moment. But remember the one who is extending this invitation: Jesus our own Lord and Saviour, the one who came to serve not to be served, the one who became one with us in our bodies, the One who laid down his life for our salvation. And so, yes, the central message this night, intimately connects and reaches far beyond the breaking of bread, even beyond celebrating the Eucharist. Washing one another’s feet is the Eucharist in action. So, I ask again: are we without Eucharist this evening?
As we prepare to enter this sacred action of washing feet let it be an expression of our love and commitment to Christ. Let our washing of feet be a celebration of the meaning of Eucharist, expressed in our desire to love one another, especially in the vulnerable and painful places of our lives. This mandatum is Christ’s mandate for this day, which makes this Thursday a Maundy Thursday. AMEN
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