Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Homily: Maundy Thursday (20 March 2008)

Maundy Thursday: 20 March 2008
(Exodus 12:1-14/Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19/1 Corinthians 11:23-26/ John 13:1-17, 31b-35)
How Quaint

In the name of the one who came among us as one who came to serve,
even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

If someone knew nothing of the Gospel, nothing of the church, imagine how strange this Maundy Thursday service would appear. We publicly confess our sins to one another and then the greatest sinner of the group – the one called by all the others to speak to them on behalf of God – has the audacity to do just that and pronounces forgiveness in the name of Christ. We wash one another’s feet, not because they particularly need it – In fact, I’ll bet everyone was careful to have especially clean feet and trimmed toenails before coming to the service this evening! – we wash one another’s feet not because they need it but because Jesus did it and because we need to do it. And we celebrate a final feast, a last supper. We call it a feast, but it’s really just a pinch of bread and a sip of wine over which we intone some words about a broken body and shed blood. If someone knew nothing of the Gospel, nothing of the church, and witnessed this Maundy Thursday service, he or she might judge us quaint, at best, or maybe even foolish.

But we believe that these quaint, foolish things we do are signs of the in-breaking of God’s new creation. We believe that in them and through them we see God’s Holy Spirit hovering over the chaos of our fallen world whispering again the words “Let there be light and life.” And we believe that they are sacramental, that they are glimpses and instruments and channels of God’s life-giving and life-transforming grace unleashed into the world through his people and through the raw materials of old creation renewed: word and water, bread and wine.

Jesus started this foot washing business and if we did it for no other reason than to imitate our Master, that would be enough. But there’s more to it than that, more certainly than our uninformed observer might first suspect.

Now before the festival of the Passover, 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 (John 13:1-2, NRSV).

So foot washing is all about love – about love expressed through the most humble of acts. We often look for the extravagant gesture, the grandiose symbol to show our love; but that misses the point that Mother Teresa learned through a life of foot washing: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” So Jesus stooped – literally – to the level and work of a slave to say, “All that I do, I do because I love you. All the horrors you will witness in the next agonizing hours, I accept freely and willingly because I love you. Now, you love one another in this way.”

Following fast upon his statement of love, John mentions that Judas was there, that his heart was filled with evil, and that he was even then engaged in a betrayal of Jesus and his love. Love like we see in the washing of feet doesn’t conquer all, as much as we might wish differently. In fact, it doesn’t conquer anyone at all. It doesn’t overpower; it offers. It doesn’t dominate; it submits. It doesn’t shout; it whispers. It can be ignored and rejected and it often is.

Peter tried to reject Jesus’s offer of love, but for vastly different reasons than Judas. As Jesus neared Peter with the basin and the towel Peter said to him,

“Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean” (John 13:6b-11, NRSV).

I think I understand Peter, here: I may be all wrong, but I think I understand. Peter is making a point about love, too. But while Jesus’s statement of love is born of humility, Peter’s is born of arrogance and one-upmanship. “I love you more than the rest of these, far too much to let you wash my feet as they’ve let you wash theirs. Here, give me that towel; I’ll wash your feet, then everyone will see how much I love you.” But love doesn’t work that way, as Jesus makes clear. The humility of giving love must be met with the humility of receiving love for any true transformation to take place. Love is a dance; sometimes you lead and sometimes you follow, but the rhythmic give-and-take is everything.

Jesus also makes clear to Peter that love and forgiveness are well nigh inseparable – a lesson Peter is about to need more than he could imagine. This foot washing is about love, and love reaches its zenith in forgiveness, in a forgiveness that makes the other clean.

So we wash feet on a Thursday called Maundy. Jesus told us to.

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So 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 should also do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:12-17, NRSV).

So we wash feet. It reminds us that Jesus loves us. It reminds us that Jesus has forgiven and continues to forgive us. And it reminds us to do likewise for one another and for the stranger, even for the enemy. We believe that doing the one here tonight might just empower us to do the other out there tomorrow. Maybe that’s quaint, maybe even foolish. But I don’t think so.

Excerpt from Pastor Richard Wurmbrand: Finishing the Race (Hieromonk Damascene, Again Magazine)

An Undying Love
When I was in jail I fell very, very ill. I had tuberculosis of the whole surface of both lungs, and four vertebrae were attacked by tuberculosis. I also had intestinal tuberculosis, diabetes, heart failure, jaundice, and other sicknesses I can’t even remember. I was near to death.
At my right hand was a priest by the name of Iscu. He was abbot of a monastery. This man, perhaps in his forties, had been so tortured he was near to death. But his face was serene. He spoke about his hope of heaven, about his love of Christ, about his faith. He radiated joy.
On my left side was the Communist torturer who had tortured this priest almost to death. He had been arrested by his own comrades. Don’t believe the newspapers when they say that the Communists only hate Christians or Jews—it’s not true. They simply hate. They hate everybody. They hate Jews, they hate Christians, they hate anti-Semites, they hate anti-Christians, they hate everybody. One Communist hates the other Communist. They quarrel among themselves, and when they quarrel one Communist with the other, they put the other one in jail and torture him just like a Christian, and they beat him.
And so it happened that the Communist torturer who had tortured this priest nearly to death had been tortured nearly to death by his comrades. And he was dying near me. His soul was in agony.
During the night he would awaken me, saying, “Pastor, please pray for me. I can’t die, I have committed such terrible crimes.”
Then I saw a miracle. I saw the agonized priest calling two other prisoners. And leaning on their shoulders, slowly, slowly he walked past my bed, sat on the bedside of this murderer, and caressed his head—I will never forget this gesture. I watched a murdered man caressing his murderer! That is love—he found a caress for him.
The priest said to the man, “You are young; you did not know what you were doing. I love you with all my heart.” But he did not just say the words. You can say “love,” and it’s just a word of four letters. But he really loved. “I love you with all my heart.”
Then he went on, “If I who am a sinner can love you so much, imagine Christ, who is Love Incarnate, how much He loves you! And all the Christians whom you have tortured, know that they forgive you, they love you, and Christ loves you. He wishes you to be saved much more than you wish to be saved. You wonder if your sins can be forgiven. He wishes to forgive your sins more than you wish your sins to be forgiven. He desires for you to be with Him in heaven much more than you wish to be in heaven with Him. He is Love. You only need to turn to Him and repent.”
In this prison cell in which there was no possibility of privacy, I overheard the confession of the murderer to the murdered. Life is more thrilling than a novel—no novelist has ever written such a thing. The murdered—near to death—received the confession of the murderer. The murdered gave absolution to his murderer.
They prayed together, embraced each other, and the priest went back to his bed. Both men died that same night. It was a Christmas Eve. But it was not a Christmas Eve in which we simply remembered that two thousand years ago Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It was a Christmas Eve during which Jesus was born in the heart of a Communist murderer.
These are things which I have seen with my own eyes.

I wonder how many feet the priest had washed in his life.


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