The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of Maundy Thursday
13 April 2017
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Tonight we gather for the last time with Christ and his closest friends. It is a meal of fellowship, solace for the storm that lies ahead, and the last opportunity Jesus has to teach his disciples what it means to love and serve one another in humility and self-giving care before they have to endure the time of trial. What they take from this night may be all that carries them through the next three days as their understanding of messiah and their ministry over the past three years is transformed into their call to carry on as Christ’s hands and heart in continuing ministry for the rest of their lives.
To wash the feet of a guest was reserved for the lowest household servant. So, of course, here again, our wily Jesus takes the opportunity to place himself in a position that challenges all expectations, shocks and disturbs his friends—and sets them enough off-balance to get their attention. Here they were about to eat a meal with the triumphal messiah who had just been acclaimed, a few days earlier, by the crowds who placed their cloaks and branches along his path into Jerusalem. He had driven out the money changers in the temple, he had embarrassed the scribes, Pharisees, and temple authorities, collectively referred to in this and other passages in John’s Gospel as “The Jews,” as they tried to discredit him, and he had taught and healed in those same religious authorities’ own sacred space, boldly demonstrating himself to be anointed by God. Any day now, perhaps after the Passover festival that would begin on Friday night, he would turn his focus to the occupying Romans and take David’s seat as king. And those gathered here this night, would be his trusted advisors—exalted and revered.
Except something was amiss. Why was he disrobing? Why was he tying a towel around his waist and filling a basin of water… and… and kneeling at their feet?? Important people don’t lower themselves to doing such things. Kings simply don’t wash people’s feet. This is slaves’ work!
To which, our Jesus responds, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you…” None of you is better than another—each of you is loved equally by God. And “just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
As our reading from Exodus explains, the people of the Passover are defined by it—every year they were and are to remember it, take it into themselves as they relive the memory of God’s providence in taking them out of slavery in Egypt, and keep their covenant with God. John’s specific placement of the start of the Passover festival on the Sabbath that year—on the evening of what we in the Christian church now call Good Friday—is significant, particularly as Christ’s blood was seen by John’s community (as well as to many Christians since) to be as fundamental a turning point for all of humankind as the Passover was for the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt.
So too, the people of Christ are defined by his example—every year we remember this night, take it into ourselves as we relive the memory of God’s providence in Christ—taking us out of slavery to a world that, even still, teaches us to seek the place of honor, to grab for power and hierarchical privilege, to premise honor on social standing, and to premise respect on position rather than on the equal dignity of every human being.
As Christ teaches us, and as he exhorted us to follow in his example, there is no greater honor than to serve one another in un-self-conscious love.
Our reading from Corinthians recalls the continuation of the events of this night as later, at table with those same friends whom he served, whose feet he washed, and whom he joined with in fellowship at the evening meal, he took bread and wine, gave thanks for them, and shared them in the words we remember at each eucharistic paschal feast of our church year. An offering of himself as the nourishment of our hearts, souls, minds, and bodies, which we take into ourselves, and which becomes a part of us as we take that same loving and self-sharing gesture of abundance and service into the world with us.
Our Psalmist for tonight asks how we are to repay God for all the good things God has done for us. Christ answers us: Do likewise to one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Enacting the kind of love that sees no humiliation in caring for the needs of another, Christ’s last acts in fellowship with his closest friends are to show them the deep hospitality of intimate care, sharing of himself in service, in nourishment, in solidarity, and in expectation that these acts of fellowship and love were to transform how they understood themselves and their place in relationship with one another and with God. Transformation from social expectation to experiential enlightenment; from seeking competitively for power over others to claiming the power we already have with others in cooperation, to reach out to one another in love; transformation from death, darkness, sin, and alienation, to life, light, grace, and solidarity. In preparation for the coming time of trial, the love, care, support, and service to one another Christ demonstrates and commends to them this night may be the most important element to keeping this group from simply falling apart in despair and scattering.
In 2009, Sarah Coakley gave her inaugural lecture at the University of Cambridge. Titled, “Sacrifice Regained,” she discussed both sacrifice and cooperation in terms of evolutionary biology. Until the last decade, the intermingling of a more religious term such as “sacrifice” with the science of evolution would have been practically laughable. It was widely assumed that there was a selfish gene that was simply a part of human biology, and popular theories over the past decades posited that any form of sacrifice had a foundational basis in violence. Working at Harvard with Martin Nowak, Coakley became familiar with his research in mathematical evolutionary dynamics, which offered a counterargument in evolutionary biology that not only problematized the notion of an evolutionary selfishness inherent in humankind, but demonstrated that the commonly quoted “survival of the fittest” actually depends on cooperation rather than the misconception of only the strong surviving. In fact, as she explains Nowak’s work, it is in the stable communities of cooperation that fitness and survival are actually achieved, from the level of bacteria all the way up to the level of human communities. In those communities in which selfishness becomes normative, the health of the whole community declines, whereas in communities in which cooperation becomes normative, the whole community thrives.
We see this at work in root-networks of living forests, where trees surrounding a languishing member will sacrifice nutrients to the weakened tree, seeking (for lack of a better word) toward the health and wholeness of the whole community.
So too, as Christ sought to teach his disciples, in times of trial, despair, physical, emotional, and spiritual weakness, our communities of care and mutual support must work in cooperation, in solidarity, and in loving service to one another for the health and return to wholeness of all. In humility, we must be willing to care for one another’s needs—to wash one another’s feet, as it were—without letting pride get in the way. We must be wiling to nourish one another’s hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits in a fellowship that seeks for one another’s wellness, wholeness, and integrity. And we must be willing to carry this same heart of love and service with us as we encounter those in the world who are languishing—who are in desperate need of a human reminder of God’s love for all of God’s children.
I say all of this fully realizing that when the tables are turned, it is far easier to support than to allow ourselves to be supported. In those times when we ARE those who are languishing, Christ’s transformative example, along with his admonition to Peter, also reminds us to allow our hearts to be lightened by those seeking to care for us—to reach out in faith and hope for the light that surrounds us, and to let our needs be cared for. To sit with someone else in the depths of their loss, realizing that nothing we can say will make it better, and allowing them the space to simply grieve is perhaps one of the most profound moments of friendship, solidary, and love we can show to another. However, to be on the other side of that equation—to have the true safety and support to simply break down is a gift that honestly feels like it just can’t be repaid. I spoke with a friend this past week about being a survivor of abuse. And while our discussion was in the context of the transformation of my own heart from brokenness back toward wholeness through forgiveness, I realize, examining my own heart in the context of today’s readings, that part of the ongoing journey toward wholeness that I still struggle with is intimate trust. I am always ready to listen, to give of myself, to accompany, but when I am the one languishing, I can honestly count on one hand the number of people I have trusted enough in my life to share this level of intimacy, and yet it is precisely what Christ calls us to do—both to accompany and be accompanied by one another—to both give and be willing to receive in our own seasons of loss and need.
In those times of our own need, when the world can feel like a place that is simply too unsafe to unburden our hearts, community can only start from a place of safety—a place where we are met-where-we-are, without judgment, and offered a way back to the light of hope.
Where this kind of community starts, as Christ demonstrates to his disciples in our gospel tonight, is in the kind of love we show for one another. This night, as we risk the intimate touch of washing one another’s feet, we too are put off balance by the threat to transform our relationships, by the humility not only of offering intimate hospitality, but of offering, in return, a gift of trust and vulnerability. Gathering at the table this night, the bread which is broken for us, the wine which is poured out for us, the body and blood of Christ, which we receive, also becomes what we are as we give of ourselves to one another in a gesture of nourishment and accompaniment that is taken in trust and fellowship.
In a world that often feels too unsafe to unburden our hearts, may we, following in Christ’s example, make of this place, tonight and always, a place of safety, where we are met-where-we- are, nourished, and sustained to the dawn.