A sermon for Maundy Thursday
1 Corinthians 10:23-26 and John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Typically on this night we are together. Typically on this night we have the table set with the bread and the wine and we gather to remember the events surrounding our Lord’s last meal. Typically on this night, year after year, we are celebrating with our fourth graders who have completed their Holy Communion classes, many of whom would be joining us around the table for the meal for the first time. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, none of those things will occur this year, and I don’t know about you, but I feel a sense of loss and sadness. I was looking forward to working with those fourth graders during Sunday School in Lent and watching them finally take the bread and wine with that look of mystery and joy on their faces. I was looking forward to seeing them kneel at the altar rail with their family members and then be surrounded by their church family too. I know they were looking forward to it all, too. Some of them have been asking me about when they get to receive the Lord’s Supper since the fall. One of these days very soon we will all be back and one of the things we will put at the top of our list is receiving those young disciples at the table. That will be a joyous day.
We have wanted to find some way to share this Supper during this time of physical distancing, but each way we can think of to do so would very likely exclude quite a few people and complicate the message of what Jesus’ meal is really about. We could try sharing the meal digitally, so-to-speak, but not everyone has access to internet or is able, for whatever reason, to access these services on-line. Furthermore, there is no way to ensure that everyone would have access to and be able to receive bread and wine, the elements we would be sharing here. There would be too much potential for disunity and confusion, which is precisely what the apostle Paul was addressing in the Corinthian church in our second reading this evening.
Paul had heard there was division among them, especially at that moment when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Some had food available, while others were needy. These divisions of haves and have-nots were undermining the unity and love the meal was supposed to foster and symbolize. Paul gently reminds them they are to do what was passed on to him, nothing different—they break apart the blessed bread and share it around, and then do the same with a common cup. It is his way of reminding them of the heart of this meal and the main message of tonight, which is love. The commandment that Jesus teaches his first disciples that night he shares his last supper is that they are to love one another as he had loved them.
Friends, the best way for us to love one another at this uncomfortable point in our common life is to refrain from celebrating Holy Communion until we can all be together again. The best way we can nurture our congregational community and our bonds of love with one another is, ironically, to fast from the table, because we will all be fasting together. We will remain steadfast in God’s Word, rely on the promises of our baptism, and join in prayer for one another and the world around us.
Speaking of going through things together, I have been hearing more and more talk lately about what kinds of lasting impacts this pandemic lifestyle might have on our society and our individual lives. Will this have some type of legacy, some enduring or at least lingering effect on the ways we view life and our relationships? I saw a statistic the other day about Google searches over the past four weeks. Searches for things like “home workout,” “jigsaw” and “make bread” have skyrocketed over the past month. People share about how they’ve been reminded of the uncertainty and fragility of life, but they also talk about enjoying the slower pace of things and cherishing time with family. Some, who are more isolated and lonely than usual, talk about how much they had taken certain fellowship opportunities for granted. I’ve enjoyed watching the creativity that some families in our congregation have displayed with meals each evening. They have themes and each person dresses up—sports theme, beach theme, Star Wars theme. Will all of these kinds of things and feelings be a lasting trend, incorporated into our lifestyles, or will they fade like mist once the heat of our old patterns return?
It is hard to say, but legacy is on Jesus’ mind this night. Jesus wants to be remembered by love, and not just any old love. Jesus wants his followers to hang onto this kind of self-sacrificial love, costly love, love that puts us at our neighbors’ feet. At one point after his last meal, Jesus gets up from the table and takes off his outer robe and ties a towel around himself. It’s like Jesus puts on his PPE—his personal protective equipment. He then places himself at the dirtiest, most germy place of service. He grabs the feet of Peter and begins to wash them. Jesus exposes himself to all the places Peter has walked, all the dusty and mud-caked roads Peter has been on. The water pours over Peter’s feet and gets more and more dirty, but the lesson becomes more and more clear: their life together and their witness to the world will be forever linked. The ways they humbly care for each other and the ways they even sacrifice dignity and power and privilege in order to serve the other will be the way Jesus’ love is experienced in the world.
Exactly 75 years ago today, a German Lutheran pastor by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis at Flossenburg concentration camp after accusing him in an assassination plot against Adolf Hitler. The world remembers Bonhoeffer for many things, including his compassion for his students and parishioners, his faithful opposition to the fascist powers in control, and his writings on theology and scripture. He, too, is remembered as a humble man but one of strong Christian faith, a person who continued to serve his fellow prison inmates as a pastor and a spiritual guide right up until the moment of his death.
Bonhoeffer once said, “One act of obedience is worth a hundred sermons.” That is what Jesus teaches his followers as he shares this meal with them and washes their feet. One act of obedience to that kind of love, one act of obedience to a neighbor in need, will be a force far more powerful than anything they say. This kind of obedience sends Jesus to the cross. It is not just the feet of Peter than he intends to clean with his mercy and compassion but the entire world.
We only need to open our eyes and see thousands of acts of obedience around us today. Nurses, physicians, scientists, lab techs, pharmacists, and all kinds of medical professionals are literally kneeling at the needs of people in this dark hour of need. Mothers and fathers are stooping to teach their kids at home. Teachers are bending over backward to put materials on-line and nurture young minds. Restaurant owners who can barely pay employees are delivering free meals to overworked hospital staffs. Thousands of acts of obedience are worth millions of sermons.
And Jesus invites you and me into our own acts of obedience. Our feet are washed—our whole lives are washed—and we can put the towel around our waist and get to work. And here’s the thing: Jesus is not just remembered as we do this. He is not dead, and he does not just leave a legacy. He lives, and his Spirit brings his presence to each of us and to the world each time we enact this love. Furthermore, guess what? Each time we gather for this meal there is a theme: the self-giving of God. And we get dressed in Jesus’ righteousness. This is no legacy. It is a rebirth! It is a new life that lasts—it lasts in you and it lasts in me and it lasts in us and in each act of humble service.
We give thanks to God for these humble acts that make the whole world whole again that make dirty souls clean again and broken hearts ready to love again. One act of obedience is worth a hundred sermons. Let us be silent and adore the obedience to love we are about to see unfold.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.