Homily for Maundy Thursday
I love the way this chapter of John’s gospel begins: “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.” Everything Jesus said and did at this last meal he shared with his friends, those last few hours of their life together as they had known it, it was his way of loving them right to the end.
There were two main things that Jesus did on that last night. The first was that he shocked them all by getting up from the table and taking off his outer garment, and fetching water like a common slave. And then he knelt down before each one of them and washed the dirt from their feet. They were all horrified, especially Peter, that their Master would act in such an undignified way – it didn’t seem proper, and really, in human terms, it wasn’t even sensible. One of the men whose feet he washed was about to sell him out to the men who were plotting to kill him; another one would swear up and down that he didn’t even know who Jesus was; and within a very few hours, all of those feet would run away and leave him to the mercy of his merciless enemies. Jesus knew all that; he told them as much. But he wasn’t serving them because they deserved it, or because they were better than he was; he was serving them because he loved them all, and he wanted to pass that love on to them, to teach them how to be lovers, how to love like he loves us.
And we reenact this lesson ever year by kneeling down in front of one another and washing one another’s feet. It isn’t the same for us, because we don’t have the custom here and now of washing the feet of people who come to dinner at our houses, and we don’t have slaves or servants and we don’t even particularly have dirty feet, since we have showers and wear shoes and socks. But it is still a powerful act for us, if we are brave enough and humble enough to do it. It takes courage sometimes to take off our shoes and socks and let someone else see our feet, let alone touch them and wash them. And it takes humility to kneel on the floor in front of one another and go through the act of washing someone’s feet and drying them. We might feel clumsy and weird. We might feel awkward and stupid. But that’s really perfectly OK, because it’s our way of remembering, not just with our minds, not just in words, but with our whole bodies as well, that we are called to love one another, and all people, by serving them, not considering ourselves too good or too important or too busy, but humbling ourselves in love before every man and woman and child we meet.
But it starts with remembering how much we have been loved. “We love,” John wrote, “because he first loved us.” We serve one another because first we have been served by our Master. He washed the feet of his friends as a practical, ordinary example for them to follow, but he gave them something more; he gave them the signs of bread and wine as a witness to something much, much greater that he was about to do for them – his last and greatest act of love. After he had finished washing their feet, and come back to recline at the table with them, he blessed the bread for the meal, and he broke it in pieces to share it with them, and he said something they couldn’t possibly understand at the time, the very words we say every time we share the Eucharist: this is my body, given for you. This is my blood, poured out for you. Do this, share this meal, as often as you eat and drink the bread and wine, in remembrance of me.” And when they had seen the body of Jesus, broken on the cross, and his lifeblood poured out, then they knew at last how great his love was for them, and for us all.
This meal, of bread and wine, remembering how Jesus Christ loved us to the very end, this is the heart and soul of our life as Christians. From the earliest days of the Church, and even today in some parts of the world, God’s people have risked their lives to come together and eat the bread and drink the cup of his love. Because it is far more than just an act of remembering. When we share the bread and the wine, Jesus has promised us that he is present with us in the elements so that as we eat and drink, he himself becomes part of the fabric of our human bodies. We eat and drink his love, because he is love, and his love becomes part of who we are. His love becomes the motivating force of how we live, what we do and what we say and how we see one another. We don’t live as Christians just by learning his philosophy and following his rules. We feed on his love; we hunger and thirst for him with all our being; and he is present with us whenever we gather, even two or three of us, as his people, but most especially as we gather to share this holy meal, week after week, until the day when all healing and all restoration and every work of love is accomplished, and our Lord shares it with us in the flesh.