Maundy Thursday--Love's Mandate
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. mark
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
This evening, we mark our entrance into the triduum—the three great days—that comprise Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter. We tend to think of each of these three days as discrete liturgies, but properly understood they represent a one long liturgical act that reveals for us the various faces of a single, startling fact: the fact of God’s unconditional love for us. Love in the washing of the feet, love and forgiveness on the way to the cross, love in depths of separation from God, love that utters, “No so fast, Mister Death,” and breathes not vengeance but peace on the disciples.
In our gospel for this evening, we hear those words from St. John—“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” That’s our starting point for Holy Week and that is our end point—knowing ourselves to be “marked as Christ’s own forever” by the indissoluble bond of baptism, and that God loves us “to the end”—through mountain peaks and valleys, times of light and darkness, trial and joy—so that we might know in our very bones the love of God for each one of us, and have the boldness, courage, and perseverance to witness to that love to all whom we encounter.
In the different moments and movements of the Holy Week liturgies, our eyes are gradually opened to the awesome scope and minute particularity of what it actually means to be Christ’s own and for God to love us to the end. This night, in the liturgy of Maundy Thursday, we experience the love of God walking alongside us to the end in the image of Jesus stripping off his outer garments, tying a towel about his waist and kneeling down to wash the disciples’ feet. To those steeped in the poetry and literature of the Jewish eschatological imagination, as the disciples were, this would have been an unexpected turn indeed. Think of the story of Elijah and Elisha, for example. Just before Elijah departs in a blaze of glory, he asks Elisha what he would like to receive from his master. “A double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replies. Just before ascending on the chariot of fire, Elijah gives Elisha the mantle he had used to part the waters of the Jordan. Calling upon God, Elisha discovers that he too can make the waters part at his command.
You can imagine that the disciples, having heard of Jesus’ imminent departure, might have a similar picture, or set of expectations, in their minds. Jesus will ascend in glory like Elijah and bequeath to them the mighty powers that he has demonstrated over the course of his ministry. But what does Jesus do? Instead of climbing into heaven on a chariot of fire, he takes off his robes and kneels at the feet of the disciples. Instead of being clothed in glory, he clothes himself in a towel. The way up, the way that most fully expresses the way of love in human form, is the way down. The ascent to God is the willing descent of humble, foot-washing service.
In Jesus, we see not the chariot, but the towel, that humble, domestic item that dries dishes, washes children, wipes tables, binds wounds, blots tears, and mops away sweat. God’s love for us in Jesus is not some abstract, philosophical thing. It meets us right here, right now in the midst of the gritty particularities of daily life. God in the person of Jesus gets down in the muck and straw to love us just as we are, right where we are. This is the humility of God who comes not to be served but to serve, who will stop at nothing to unite us to Himself, to reveal to us the only place where our hunger and longing, our isolation and quiet desperation can find a full, and final resolution—“Having loved his own who were in the world, he love them to the end.”
It’s interesting that Peter, under the guise of humility, initially refuses Jesus’ gesture of foot-washing—“You will never wash my feet.” Notice that Jesus replies, “Unless I wash you, you will have no share with me.” Unless we receive Jesus who stoops to meet us, towel in hand, and let him wash us, we will not have a share in him. But it’s difficult to receive this kind of love. It makes us nervous and skittish. At my parish in Washington, D.C. it was common practice to get a fancy pedicure before Maundy Thursday and to pack an extra pair of socks for the foot washing. A stop at the shoe shine stall in the metro wash not unheard of. Let me say, I’ve never seen such clean feet! Baby power rose like clouds of incense before the altar of the Lord, and there was nary a blister, bunion, or callous to be found. We think we have to clean ourselves up in order for God to love us, but Maundy Thursday wants to disabuse us of this all-too-limited picture of God, who in the person of Jesus, kneels down, towel in hand and washes us. Such self-emptying love is disarming. It makes us vulnerable. It comes to us on terms we can’t understand and turns our predicable world of tit-for-tat upside down. “No thanks Jesus, we all know there is no such thing as a free lunch…” “Shut up and let me wash your feet!”
So Peter resists. Such love is overwhelming. He feels unworthy of it. This love is reserved for everyone else but him. But Jesus won’t let him go. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Unless you know yourself to be loved just as you are, you won’t be able to be the love you are called to be in the world. Unless you receive this love and let it wash away your false humility and your inherited stories of your own unworthiness, you’ll never blossom and flourish into the full stature of the person you have been created to be. You have to receive my love, to be love for others—otherwise you’re just loving from a paltry human picture of what love looks like, which might be nice but it’s not the reason I’m here.” Knowing ourselves to be loved is what opens up the wellspring of love for others in our hearts. We are washed so that we might wash others, but letting ourselves be washed, realizing our need for savior who can work in us things far greater than we can ask or imagine, is hard, isn’t it? In those famous words the Anglican poet George Herbert, “Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back.”
So that’s the first thing Maundy Thursday sets before us—the difficulty we have in accepting God’s love for us, in letting ourselves be loved. We are so used to earning everything that God’s no-strings-attached love just doesn’t compute. It doesn’t fit into our usual economy of exchange. What happens when we learn to let ourselves be washed? What happens when we welcome the welcome of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit in the inner room of our heart? We change. We are transformed. We are transfigured. The unique, quirky, unrepeatable lineaments of our life are shot through with the light of God’s grace and we become, each in our own way, the shape the loving presence of Jesus takes in a crazy, mixed-up, and broken world. God welcomes us just as we are, without condition, but when we begin to live from that welcome, we find ourselves changing, propelled by love on the journey from image to likeness, from our potential for Christ-likeness, to putting on the mind of Christ, the Washing One.
I sometimes think we should change our sign that says “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” to something like, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You, But Be Warned—You Are Going to Be More Like Jesus and That Is Inconvenient.” That’s why Peter, suddenly awakened to his habit of holding back from abandoning himself to Jesus’ love for him and falling into grace says—“not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Peter glimpses what God has in store for him—God doesn’t want just a part of us, our big toe, to be dipped in his life-giving waters. God wants our whole life to be immersed in God’s life, that we might shine forth the fullness of God’s grace. “Not one day in seven, but seven whole days will I praise thee,” as the old hymn says. Not just on Sundays. Not just in our quiet time with Jesus each morning, but always and everywhere. We are to be “little Christs” as Augustine says,—“not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
That’s a big deal, but that is the boldness of the Christian vision of what it means to be a human being. We are washed with water that we might be that water for those outside the walls of this church. We are fed with the “meat of love” at the table of Divine Welcome so that we might be that bread, be that welcome, to all those who have no one to love them: the lost, the lonely, the sick, the shut away, the unclean, the unsavory. Yes, churches should be places of welcome, but to be honest, that’s the easy part. The challenge of the Christian life, the task of the path of true and costly discipleship is to make our very lives places of welcome, instances of encounter, and tents of meeting where the love of God happens in and through us in each encounter.
That’s what it means to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to respect the dignity of every human being. We take the time to see the person in front of us. To simply be with them and listen to them. We kneel and open ourselves to the other and receive their story as gift. We let our judgements about them, our fears about them, our commentaries about them be washed away and practice the simplicity of seeing that person who has been rendered invisible, whose cries have been drowned out, whose embodied story is lost in the fast-paced, sound-byte driven din of Facebook, Twitter, and the 24 hour news cycle. That’s why this Church, properly understood, has no walls. They get washed away too, and we realize we are kith and kin with the whole world and all of creation. Jesus washes and feeds us that we might be that cleansing water, that bread of life, to the least of these when the Deacon boots us out the door as if to say, not “Let us bless the Lord,” but, “Get lost and love one another!”