Sermon preached by The Reverend Nicholas Lang
Tonight we have been invited to dinner. This is the anniversary of Jesus’ last day in the life his friends had experienced with him for the three years of his ministry. He did not spend it in solitude or even in deep prayer with God, nor among the crowds teaching and healing but rather with his friends, around a table, sharing bread and wine.
And here we are, invited to be among his circle of friends, to hear the words he said that night repeated as they have been since that night all around the world, to eat the holy food and drink he offers us, to rekindle the memory of what he gave us, what he taught us on that night so very long ago.
On Maundy Thursday we remember the two commandments Jesus gave us. With a basin of water and a towel and in bread and wine we learn the power of the Gospel to transform the world as it is manifested by the example of Jesus’ self-giving love. Maundy means “command” and on this night Jesus commanded us to love one another. He didn’t give us rules or laws. He showed us the way to live a fuller, richer life by doing simple, ordinary things in service to one another and in his name.
In just a few moments, we will recreate the scene just described in the gospel. We will participate in a dramatic and ancient ritual in which we re-enact what Jesus did for his friends on the night before he died. The act of washing feet had a very practical purpose in Jesus’ time. The roads were nothing but dirt and sand and the disciples would have arrived for the supper with pretty grimy feet. Foot washing was an act of hospitality performed in the ancient in the Near East when a guest entered a house.
It is the night of Jesus’ Last Supper with his intimate friends and later we will recall the words he prayed over bread and wine nearly two thousand years ago. By the power of the Holy Spirit which is present within the church as he promised it would be, bread and wine will again become his Body and Blood, and we will eat together the Mystical Supper that nurtures us through this life’s journey—a meal relived again and again over the centuries since that sacred night.
There is an old Scandinavian proverb that says “Inside every man there is a king. Speak to the king and he will emerge. Inside every woman is a queen. Speak to the queen and she will emerge.” The washing of feet this evening reveals the essence of the Gospel—the “mundatum,” the commandment that we love one another as Jesus loved us, that we serve one another as Jesus served us, that we see beyond the façade, the exterior appearance of each other and honor the royal person before whom we kneel, a member of God’s own family, an example of Christ’s presence in our midst.
Jesus got up from the table that night, knowing what he was going to do and knowing that it would disturb some people because he was assuming the role of a lowly slave. He took off his outer garment, a practical thing to avoid getting it wet, but a symbol as well. If we are going to be effective in our ministry, we need to take off the veneer behind which we hide—that outer garment we think others want to see. Tonight Jesus invites us to lay down our garments, to remove the masks that hide who we really are, and present ourselves humbly, vulnerably, ready to love to the end, in order to give life to others.
The care of other human beings is often menial, sometimes even messy, and sometimes risky. We may feel inept and silly. Our reluctance to bare our feet to others runs parallel to our reluctance to bare ourselves to others. When you wash feet you have to roll up your sleeves and go to work. You have to kneel to perform the act. You get wet and so does the floor. You touch people in ways you would not touch them outside the ritual. It’s not always easy to minister to some of God’s children who are sent our way.
Yet the foot washing we do tonight is no difficult task because we are washing the feet of friends. What we are meant to do when we go back into the world is to look for Jesus in the poor, the cranky, the weak, the marginalized and the simply difficult to love…as well as in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood given on this night.
On the wall in my office hangs a prayer written by the late Bishop of Zanzibar. It speaks to the essence of what this sacred night is truly about: “You are Christians,” begins this prayer, “then your Lord is one and the same with Jesus on the throne of glory, with Jesus in his blessed Sacrament, with Jesus received into your hearts in Communion, with Jesus who is mystically with you as you pray, and with Jesus enshrined in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down the world.
“Now go out into the highways and hedges, and look for Jesus in the raged and naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, and in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus in them; and when you find him, gird yourselves with his towel of fellowship, and wash his feet in the person of his brethren.”
Tonight we have been invited to dinner. It is a meal of promise and hope that by taking in our hands the Bread and drinking from the Cup we will be fed with the Body and Blood the One who died for us and given the grace to go back into the world with a resolve to love one another as he loved us, to serve one another as he served us, to see beyond the facade, the exterior appearance of each person we meet as an example of Christ’s presence in our midst.