April 18, 2019: Maundy Thursday The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin Readings:Exodus 12:1-14a; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; I Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-7, 31b-35
From the gospel according to John, “Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
For weeks leading up to the observance of Maundy Thursday, the Parish Administrator at my home church in Boston would be tasked with rounding up twelve volunteers who might agree to have their feet washed by the clergy. See, in that parish, only a select few were included in tonight’s ritual – enough to represent the twelve disciples. And oh my, what a nightmare that was for the Administrator for the truth is, most of us just don’t “do feet.” I mean think about it. Do we really want someone to touch our feet let alone touch someone else’s? I remember one year when only six volunteers could be mustered and well, at least there were still twelve feet to wash. But I did find it amusing that with a slight smell of Febreeze in the air those who participated presented freshly scrubbed feet with pedicured and polished nails – just like those disciples did over two thousand years ago, right? I don’t think that washing beautifully coifed feet was what Jesus had in mind. This action was not offered to show that Jesus was a nice guy. No, in washing their feet, Jesus shows them and us something far deeper – something that goes to the heart of what it means to follow Jesus Christ, what it means to, in the words of the Prophet Micah, “Walk humbly with our God” (Micah6:8b), what it means to grasp the holiness of this week.
Tonight, with millions of Christians throughout the world, we begin a three-day journey that is, in reality, one single liturgy. The actions and prayers and events of these “Great Three Days”, as the Church calls them, is one continuous liturgy that begins in an Upper Room. There, with Jesus, we share in that first Eucharist and wash one another’s feet. Then, our liturgy moves to Gethsemane where we pray with Jesus and are present when he is betrayed and arrested. The liturgy continues through Friday as we participate in his trial, walk the road to Calvary, and see for ourselves, the agony of his crucifixion and death. Our Liturgy then continues into Saturday as we gather at his tomb and offer prayers for ourselves and the world. And the Liturgy of these Great Three Days concludes on Easter Sunday where it all began: in an Upper Room where we hear those incredible and yes, for some, for many, those unbelievable words from the Magdalene, “I have seen the Lord. He is risen.” One liturgy over three days and for good reason – a reason that will begin to unfold as we move forward tonight.
And so, here we have gathered in that Upper Room where Jesus washes feet and breaks bread with his disciples in a meal known to us as the Holy Eucharist. Now, we know the Eucharist well. It is the principal act of worship in The Episcopal Church and the focus of our weekly Sunday gatherings. Yet, tonight, I am reminded once again that the Church and perhaps, the whole world, would be a very different place if the climax of our worship services each and every week was not our communing together at an Altar, but rather, the untying of shoes, the removal of socks, and the washing of feet.
But picture, for a moment, being present in that upper room. Imagine what was going through the disciples’ minds when, as John tells us, Jesus stood up, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around his waist. I hear them thinking, “what are you up to Jesus? Then he pours water into a basin and begins to wash their feet and to wipe them with that towel. “Don’t do that Lord. My feet are so dirty.” Perhaps, some present remembered that day when Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well. He shouldn’t have spoken to her because she was unclean. “Why do you keep on serving the filthy, the unacceptable, those sinners and tax collectors? The Messiah is supposed to lead us into power, to change the world, to restore our Kingdom and our country, not grovel at our feet. Why are you doing this?” And Jesus just keeps on washing their feet.
When he is finished, Jesus offers an answer to their silent questions. It is an answer that is so very hard for us to fully grasp let alone even imagine living every moment of every day. Jesus says, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you … If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” I don’t know about you, but I imagine quite a gasp rising from their mouths. What? You want us to what? Have you taken a good look at Peter’s feet, Lord? They’re hideous! And Jesus answers, “Yes” because “Jesus’ example isn’t about watching him put his hands on someone else’s feet. It is about letting Jesus put his hands on our feet.”Not all of us are comfortable with that. And yet, that is what Jesus calls us, invites us, urges us to do not just tonight, but every day of our lives.
You see, if we don’t allow Jesus to wash our feet, then our Holy Week journey with him stops right here. Oh, the rest of this three-day liturgy will unfold around us, but we will only know its grace as mere spectators, as disengaged persons in a distant crowd. Jesus desires for us to know and experience this week in our hearts so that it changes our lives, changes who we are.
Yet, our Lord’s invitation goes even that much further and deeper tonight. He invites us to this Supper, this sacramental meal together, and to experience it not as distant spectators, but rather, as full participants. The Eucharist is a memorial of Christ’s passion, a remembering of his own sacrifice. But it is more than a recollection of an absent, past, historic Jesus. In the Eucharist, we are invited to encounter Christ truly present with us in this moment. For us, this bread and wine has become the body and blood of Christ – Christ’s body and blood are really given and really received. Thus, the Eucharist is an outward and visible sign of a spiritual grace, a spiritual moment within us. It is sacramental in every grace-filled sense of that word. The Early Church emphasized the real, honest to God presence of Christ in this sacrament. St. John of Damascus and St. Gregory of Nyssa described how, through the Holy Spirit, these earthly substances of bread and wine changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. It is a spiritual change, not a chemical or scientific one. And yet, although this change is simply spiritual in nature, its consequences are physically real to us and within us. For through this meal, our souls are nourished, our unity with God and one another is restored, and we are sent forth to serve our Lord, sent forth in physical service to others, to wash the feet of the world.
And so tonight’s Eucharist enhanced by foot-washing presents us with the pattern of all Christian life: offering, blessing, breaking and sharing, washing and serving. Here, we are urged to offer our whole lives to God within the redemptive offering of God’s Son. As our feet are presented - just as they are – calloused and with chipped or broken nails – so we come to this table and offer ourselves just as we are - with calloused, chipped, or broken hearts and our lives are laid open to the sanctifying, consecrating and healing power of the Holy Spirit. Our lives are poured out in union with Christ for the life of the world.
So, friends, I invite you to respond to our Lord’s invitation to come and serve, to come and be served, to come and be nourished, to come and be made whole. Let us allow Jesus to put his hands on our feet and wash them and, in so doing, wash us all. Allow Jesus to feed our hearts, our souls, with his own body and blood. And then let us go forth as that living Body of Christ to be Christ’s redeeming, washing, and serving presence in this world. Jesus said that in so doing, in offering, washing, and serving, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” May God be glorified in us, too, this night and forever Amen.
The Rev. Alyce McKenzie, Reflections on Maundy Thursday.