A Bonus Sermon for Holy Week: Maundy Thursday
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
Texts: Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10) 11-14; I Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17; 31b-35
One day about 20 years ago I went to a Holy Week breakfast at the big downtown church in a major southern city. It was a Chrism Mass and the Bishop had called us together to renew our ordination vows and to eat together.
We drove in early, most of us from the suburban and rural outskirts. We wore our best Lutheran finery, black suits and black shirts and white collars and silver crosses. We vested in the chapel and filed into choir stalls in the chancel where the bishop preached and prayed and gave us communion and we prayed and pledged our troth and received the elements with humble hands if not totally humble hearts.
We divested ourselves of our albs and stoles and then retired to the small dining room where the Altar Guild laid before us a brunch of eggs and bacon and biscuits and cheese grits and sausage balls and fresh fruit and, and and. . . .
We sat at oak tables covered with linen table cloths and ate off good china with silverware that appeared to have a significant amount of real silver in it. And we had a wonderful time lamenting how difficult our lives were and how taxing our jobs were and what a burden Holy Week was and eventually it got time for me to leave.
Somewhere between the small dining room and the chapel where I recovered my alb and the long hallway to the parking lot I got turned around and lost and went downstairs and down a corridor and found my self spilling out into the street on the opposite side of the church from where I expected and wanted to be.
The morning sun was shining brightly in my eyes and it took me a moment to gather my wits and figure out where I was and when I came to myself I looked down the sidewalk in the direction I wanted to go and saw a long line of folk huddled on the dewy grass, trying to stay warm and dry while waiting for the food kitchen housed in the church’s basement to open.
I felt very conspicuous walking along beside that row of folk, dressed in my best suit, carrying my white robe, a silver cross around my neck. I spoke to a few folk as I hurried past them to the corner. As I came to the street and turned to the left I glanced back and then I looked up and to my right. And what I saw stopped me dead in my tracks.
From where I stood, I could see in the floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall windows of the small dining room. I could see the assembled holy people of the area Lutheran churches, smiling and talking; warm, dry, and well-fed.
By simply shifting my eyes I could see a significant portion of the area’s homeless population, cold, hungry, silent and appearing as alone in a group as they were by themselves.
And I wondered, “On this Tuesday in Holy Week, in this city, at this hour; which group would Jesus be eating with; the clergy or the homeless?”
Really, I wondered, “Which group should I be eating with?” Or better yet, “Shouldn’t all of us be down here eating with all of them?”
Jesus says, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done.” (13:15)
In our text from John’s Gospel, we find the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. In a note in a study bible and another in a textual commentary I was reminded of the extreme lowliness of this task.
Footwashing was normally done by a slave or a servant, not the host. If the host had no slave, he would provide water and a towel, but would not wash the guest’s feet himself.
Indeed, it was a job that could be performed by a woman or a child or a non-Jewish slave, but no Jewish male, not even a slave could be required by a Jewish master to do this for another. (The Access Bible and The Lectionary Commentary)
The example that Jesus has set for us is not the particular one of putting on towels and washing the feet of our fellow churchgoers, (though it would be nice if we actually thought that much of one another and could naturally do that without laughing or cringing.)
No, the example here is one of indifference to one’s own importance and of close and particular attention to the hurts and needs of the other to the point of self forgetfulness in service of those needs.
On this night, this Maundy Thursday, we are called to remember a number of things.
The text from Exodus tells us of the night of the Passover, the night the Hebrew people were set free from slavery in Egypt by God’s strong hand.
The meal Jesus and his disciples ate on the night of the footwashing was a Passover meal and the early church saw Jesus as the Passover lamb whose blood has protected us from the angel of death.
Our reading from I Corinthians reminds us that on the night that he washed the disciples’ feet, Jesus said some things that must of seemed strange to the disciples on that night but which came to mean a lot to them after his death and resurrection.
After they had seen his body broken and his blood spilled upon the cross, his words over the bread and wine that night took on new and more vital meaning and significance.
And buried within the John story is the reason this night is called “Maundy” Thursday.
After all, what sort of word is Maundy? What does it mean? It is an old English word related to “mandate” or “command” and this night is called Maundy Thursday because it was during the Passover meal, after he had washed everyone’s feet that he told them, he commanded them, “to love one another.”
Vs. 34 “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”
Well, how do you command love? To be more specific, how do you command one person to love another? To be really specific, how do you command someone to love someone else they don’t even like very much, if at all?
Well, you do it like Jesus did it, and he may have been the only one who could have done it and deserved to be obeyed.
You see, you do it by having loved everyone completely and totally and “to the end” (13:1)
To the end of his life?
To the end of time?
Or to the end that they will in response love one another?
Like YHWH freeing the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, God in Christ upon the Cross has freed us from our bondage to this world’s power, summarized by Luther as “sin, death and the devil.”
We have been loosed and set free by the death and resurrection of Jesus, shown forth to us in the bread and wine of communion. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (I Corinthians 11:26)
It is because of this new freedom and the love that Jesus gives to us that we are able to love others, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34)
Our calling this night is to remember the Lord’s death, and to anticipate his resurrection.
Our calling this night is to receive the love of God in Christ into our lives, the way the disciples received Jesus’ gift of washing their feet.
Our calling this night is to go out into the world renewed in our commitment to let the love of God in Christ that fills us, overflow from us into acts of kindness and generosity to others.
Amen and amen.