He loved them to the end: A Sermon for Maundy Thursday, 2018

Today we enter what are called the Triduum, Great Three Days, as we remember, re-enact, and participate in the events of the last days of Jesus’ life. Today is Maundy Thursday when we remember the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples. At our services end tonight, we will strip the altar and chancel area of all its decorations in a sort of symbolic gesture to Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane, his arrest and trial. Tomorrow of course is Good Friday when we will remember the crucifixion. The Great three days, the Triduum ends on Saturday night with the Great Vigil, the lighting of new fire, and the Easter proclamation.

Tonight, though our focus is on the Last Supper, and our lessons offer three perspectives on it. The reading from Exodus is the story of the first Passover, including instructions on what the Hebrews were to eat and how they were to prepare for their flight from Egypt. It’s likely that the last supper Jesus had with his disciples was a Passover meal—that’s what the chronology in Matthew, Mark, and Luke offer, although it wasn’t a Seder as is now practiced among our Jewish friends and neighbors—that ritual became fixed only in later centuries as the rabbinic tradition was codified.

In the reading from First Corinthians, we have the earliest New Testament account of what happened at the Last Supper, as Paul reminds his readers of what had been passed on to him and them—the words of institution, the bread and wine—words that are uttered at every celebration of the Eucharist.

And in the gospel reading, we heard John’s very different version of what happened at the Last Supper, the story of Jesus getting up from the table taking up a towel and basin, and washing the feet of his disciples. All of these readings offer ways of approaching the Eucharist and this last night that Jesus spent with his disciples, but by no means do these readings, or our liturgy, exhaust or define the significance of the Last Supper or our retelling of those events in our Eucharistic meal.

As you know, the Gospel of John is fascinating and complex. At times, it is puzzling and its language and imagery can be problematic, strange, even offensive. Its anti-Judaism, especially dominant in the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution has left a terrible legacy over the millennia. But at the same time, abiding in John’s gospel, to use one of those common words in the gospel, can illuminate our hearts and lives and lead us deeper into relationship with Jesus Christ.

Few passages have worked more powerfully on me than the verses we just read—not just the footwashing itself, which is a parable, a miracle of Christ’s love and service, a call to imitation, hospitality, service, and love. Equally profound to me are the first verses of this chapter:

“Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.” 

There is so much in these three verses for us to ponder, so much on which to meditate. First of all, that second sentence—it’s one of my favorites in the whole gospel, perhaps in all of the Bible, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. First, there’s that little detail that Jesus loved his disciples; it’s the first time it’s mentioned in the gospel, but of course, we assume it from the very start. More than that, it’s worth pointing out that Jesus loved all of them—even Judas who would betray him, and Peter, who would deny him. Then there’s that last clause—“he loved them to the end.” What might that mean? To this point? To the end of the gospel? Or taking note of the greek word that’s translated here as end, “telos” which can also mean goal or purpose, that adds another range of possible meanings. And we might connect it to Jesus’ final words from the cross, when Jesus uses a verbal form of that same word telos to say, “It is finished.”

I’m also struck by the repetition of the verb “to know.” In the first verse, Jesus knew that his hour had come. Later, it says, knowing that Father had given all things to him and that he had come from God and was going to God. Jesus knew all this.

And how did he act on this knowledge?

He got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around his waist. Knowing all that he knew, that his hour had come, that the Father had given all things into his hand, knowing that he had come from God and was going to God, Jesus performed an act of humble service to his friends. It was a parable enacted, a symbol of love, a giving of himself to his friends and an offering of an example of himself to them and to us.

We don’t know what he was thinking as he performed this simple, humble act. We don’t know what he was thinking as he washed the feet of those who had walked with him those many months, those who he had brought here, to this place, to this city, to this moment. We don’t know what he thought as he washed the feet of the one who would betray him, the one who would deny him.

We know what they were thinking, or at least what Peter was thinking—how inappropriate it was for the master to wash the feet of his disciples, for the host at the meal to lower himself in this way. We can be sure they puzzled over it, wondered what it all meant, especially in the context of this meal.

For us, now there is another set of questions as we reflect on both the meal and the footwashing. “This is my body and my blood,” he said, as he shared the bread and wine with his friends. In John’s gospel the presence of the footwashing hints at how we should think about the Eucharist itself.

Our liturgy encourages us to interpret the Eucharist in light of the cross and resurrection. It uses language of sacrifice, of body broken for us, blood shed for us but when we bring into the equation the humble, tender, loving gestures of footwashing, we are invited to focus on Christ’s love and service, and our response to that love and service by loving and serving Christ and others.

The love of Christ, exemplified, symbolized, enacted in the cross is also exemplified, symbolized, and enacted in footwashing. We have experienced Christ’s love as he embraces us from the cross. Like the disciples, we experience Christ’s love as he kneels down and washes our feet. And so to, like the disciples, we are called to be examples of that love, to embody the love of Christ in our service to others. May this Eucharist, may this Holy Week be a time when through our renewed experience of Christ’s love, we can embody that love to our world.

 

 

Poetry for Maundy Thursday: Descending Theology: The Garden by Mary Karr

Descending Theology: The Garden
Mary Karr
We know he was a man because, once doomed,
he begged for reprieve. See him
grieving on his rock under olive trees,
his companions asleep
on the hard ground around him
wrapped in old hides.
Not one stayed awake as he’d asked.
That went through him like a sword.
He wished with all his being to stay
but gave up
bargaining at the sky. He knew
it was all mercy anyhow,
unearned as breath. The Father couldn’t intervene,
though that gaze was never
not rapt, a mantle around him. This
was our doing, our death.
The dark prince had poured the vial of poison
into the betrayer’s ear,
and it was done. Around the oasis where Jesus wept,
the cracked earth radiated out for miles.
In the green center, Jesus prayed for the pardon
of Judas, who was approaching
with soldiers, glancing up—as Christ was—into
the punctured sky till his neck bones
ached. Here is his tear-riven face come
to press a kiss on his brother.

Poetry for Maundy Thursday: Mary Oliver and Mary Karr

Gethsemane
Mary Oliver
The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move,

maybe,the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement, lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.
Descending Theology: The Garden
Mary Karr
We know he was a man because, once doomed,
he begged for reprieve. See him
grieving on his rock under olive trees,
his companions asleep
on the hard ground around him
wrapped in old hides.
Not one stayed awake as he’d asked.
That went through him like a sword.
He wished with all his being to stay
but gave up
bargaining at the sky. He knew
it was all mercy anyhow,
unearned as breath. The Father couldn’t intervene,
though that gaze was never
not rapt, a mantle around him. This
was our doing, our death.
The dark prince had poured the vial of poison
into the betrayer’s ear,
and it was done. Around the oasis where Jesus wept,
the cracked earth radiated out for miles.
In the green center, Jesus prayed for the pardon
of Judas, who was approaching
with soldiers, glancing up—as Christ was—into
the punctured sky till his neck bones
ached. Here is his tear-riven face come
to press a kiss on his brother.

Knowing that … he got up from the table, took off his robe: A Sermon for Maundy Thursday

I still remember vividly the first Episcopal Maundy Thursday service I attended. It was probably in 1992. I had begun attending an Episcopal Church in a city north of Boston earlier that year and for whatever reason I decided to check out the service that Thursday. I’m glad I did. Together with the Great Vigil of Easter that I attended two nights later, that experience of Holy Week made me an Episcopalian. Continue reading

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Albrecht Dürer, Christ taken Captive (The Large Passion)

The Collect

Almghty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Thursday in Holy Week

Is not this, then, why Jesus give us some very specific things to do in order to “re-member” our dark past into his future of love, to re-educate even the flesh beyond the distortions of competition and conquest? And so, before he goes out into the dark to confront his own unspeakable pain and agony and loneliness, the authentic marks of his humanity, Jesus first opens the door to the mystery of how transformed memory and love can, in him, coincide with perfection; how, through the love commandment that he gives us, and the special act of memory he demands of us in foot-washing and bread and wine, we may find our way back into the vineyard of love that we have repeatedly despoiled but long to re-enter.

–Sarah Coakley (more here)

 

 

Images of Maundy Thursday

I’ve been worshiping at Episcopal Churches on Maundy Thursday for more than 20 years; the last ten participating actively in the liturgy in some way. I’ll never forget the first time I witnessed the procession of the Blessed Sacrament to the Altar of Repose and the Stripping of the Altar. It was at St. Paul’s Newburyport, MA. It broke me.

I don’t know how people experience it in the pews but I do know that of all the liturgies throughout the year, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are times that I am caught up in the ritual even as I am thinking about what’s going to happen next and worrying that something might go wrong. None of it matters. The drama of the Triduum transcends any of the rest of our mundane concerns, even when, as tonight, there were issues with the sound system and flickering lights.

Ritual connects us with God. It also connects us with all of the communities in which we have experienced those rituals in the past. It also connects us with communities who are performing and experiencing those rituals in different ways across the world. Maundy Thursday especially connects me with my past. Not just with those congregations where I have worshiped or participated, or celebrated in the past, but also with my deeper past.

I grew up in the Mennonite Church. At that time, communion was celebrated twice a year and included not just the Lord’s Supper but also footwashing. Baptized members washed each other’s feet and greeted each other with the Holy Kiss. The power of those symbolic acts remained with me long after I left my home church when I graduated from High School. I suspect that the next time I actually attended a footwashing was that first Episcopal Maundy Thursday service in Newburyport in the early 90s. And I know that those powerful memories kept me from participating in it for myself as an Episcopalian until I had to, when I was serving at the altar, as a Postulant for Holy Orders.

Now when I wash feet and when my feet are washed, I think back to that Mennonite congregation in which I was raised and where I was baptized. I remember washing the feet of friends, of men my dad’s age, and of elderly men. And I remember having my feet washed by them. Most poignantly, I remember my dad, who was usually the song leader and as we washed our feet, he would lead us out in familiar hymns that we would sing, a Capella, as we imitated Jesus Christ, serving each other and demonstrating in that lowly and uncomfortable act, Christ’s commandment to love one another as he loved us.

So tonight, I was remembering my dad. I was also remembering the people of West Clinton Mennonite Church in rural Wauseon, OH. I was remembering the people of St. Paul’s Newburyport, of All Saints Chapel, Sewanee, of All Souls’ Cathedral, Asheville, of St. Margaret’s, Boiling Springs, SC, Church of the Redeemer and St. James, Greenville, and Grace, Madison, WI. I was remembering all of them as I was remembering those disciples gathered with their Lord in Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago.

And I was also mindful of images from today. Of Pope Francis, who continues to surprise, washing the feet of a young Muslim female prisoner and of the foot care clinic at the Church on the Green in New Haven, CT

If you’ve not seen them, here’s a shot of Pope Francis today20130328cnsbr14973

And from the Church on the Green

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“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’” Jn 13:34-35