Maundy Thursday: A Sermon


Maundy Thursday in Holy Week, these dense readings: so many things that might capture our attention. Tonight, let’s look at two choices: Jesus’ choice to bring matters to a head at Passover, John the Evangelist’s choice of foot washing as that evening’s focal act.

In the second half of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) the central tension is between Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, and Jesus’ teaching that he must go to Jerusalem—to die. There were lots of ideas about (scripts for) what the Messiah would do; dying wasn’t in any of them. The disciples don’t understand. We don’t understand. Jesus’ death: what was that about? Scripture gives us a wealth of images, metaphors—but translating these into simple prose?

So Jesus’ choice of Passover as the moment to force a choice on Jerusalem (recall the Triumphal Entry) is an important clue. Passover: the annual feast of the Lord’s delivering Israel from Egyptian slavery. Our first reading is the institution of the feast. By Jesus’ time the feast followed a liturgy involving various dishes, various cups. As Paul recounts in our second reading, Jesus takes that liturgy and reinterprets it: it’s about what Jesus is about to do. Jesus’ death at Passover: about freeing slaves. Unpacking that is an important part of the New Testament’s agenda: Jesus freeing all peoples, our recognizing the different sorts of slavery we suffer, our imagining freedom. What’s Jesus’ death about? Our freedom.

What if Jesus had chosen, say, the Day of Atonement? Jesus’ death: about achieving atonement between the holy God and a sinful/unholy people. We hear those notes in the New Testament (John the Baptist’s “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” [Jn. 1:29]), but—by Jesus’ choice—these notes are not the center.

Jesus’ choice of Passover shapes, I think, how we approach any celebration of the Holy Eucharist. There’s a place—a necessary place—for contrition, sorrow over our sin. We’re not a cheap date. But if that becomes the dominant note, perhaps we’re missing the point. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit desire our freedom, and this is what they do to win it.

Deep breath—and over to John’s Gospel. John has no account of the Eucharist’s institution during Holy Week. (He said everything he wanted to say about the Eucharist in the conversation between Jesus and the crowd after the feeding of the five thousand!) Rather, the action he narrates is Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. That’s a choice. What does he want us to see?

Well, with John, probably more than one thing.

“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God” (Jn. 13:3): with that prelude John invites us to see the footwashing as an image of Jesus’ entire trajectory: he leaves the table (the Father’s side), does for the disciples what needs to be done, returns to the table. Footwashing: that’s what folk at the bottom of the totem pole do, a gentle preview of Jesus’ very ungentle descent to the bottom of the totem pole.

Then there’s the conversation with Peter, our Peter. Think how much we would have lost had Peter been better at keeping his mouth shut! Jesus, his Teacher and Lord, washing his feet, and he could see where that was headed. Jesus confirms it: “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” I wonder if this is why John swapped the institution story and this story. The danger with Passover is that we’re beneficiaries, passive. Eucharistic Prayer C tries to counter this: “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” So John tells the footwashing story: So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” In this Passover we’re active participants.

(By the way, in the paragraph from which our second reading is taken, Paul is addressing precisely this problem. The Corinthians are using the Lord’s Supper as another opportunity to flaunt status and privilege, the polar opposite of washing one another’s feet.)

Finally, it looks like the foot washing circles back to Passover also in another way. Pharaoh wouldn’t have been caught dead washing anyone’s feet: that’s the whole point of hierarchies, pecking orders: everyone has their place, knows their place, stays in their place. Jesus’ foot washing (like his teachings elsewhere in the Gospels) eliminates all that. If Jesus is washing my feet… When we learn to live like that, no need for an Exodus; the Exodus has already happened.

We’re not doing foot washing this year. Holy Week in Wisconsin rarely encourages sandals, there’s some cultural difference: it’s inconvenient, uncomfortable, off-putting. But when we take seriously what John is doing with the story, that’s small potatoes compared to the ongoing discomfort to which the ceremony invites us. Who knows what we might do in 2024.

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