Maundy Thursday, April 1, 2021
Holy Wisdom Monastery, Madison, WI
Today’s Gospel is the beginning of Jesus’ long Farewell Address which continues through chapter 17 verse 26. The leitmotif of this whole Address is the word which summarizes Jesus’ entire ministry—Love. Today’s Gospel begins with love—Jesus’ love for his own, whom he loved to the end; and it ends with love. “A new commandment I give you…that you love one another just as I have loved you. That’s how people will know you are my disciples.” The body of this Gospel in John’s story of Jesus’ last attempt to communicate to his disciples what this love is and what it requires of them.
The conflict with the governing authorities that was provoked by Jesus’ announcement of the coming Reign of God is nearing its climax. Everyone gathered at the table was acutely aware of this, though they were no doubt hoping for a better outcome. Jesus himself knew what was coming; he knew he was about to be arrested, tortured, and executed by the governing authorities. He knew that the future of his mission would depend on his followers and the Spirit with which they will be endowed. This is his last chance to get his message across to his disciples, which gives a certain urgency to this reading.
He’s not been particularly successful so far. In his account of th
is meal, Luke tells us that immediately after they had eaten the bread and drunk from the cup, while they were still at table, a dispute arose among the disciples about which one of them was the greatest. Clearly, they had not grasped the Truth that is at the very heart of Jesus’ ministry—the Truth of agape love. Overhearing this dispute, Jesus said “The Kings of the gentiles lord it over them and those in authority over them are called Benefactors. Not so with you. Rather, the greatest among you must become like the youngest and the leader like one who serves.” Benefactor, it’s worth noting, was one of the titles of the Roman Emperor printed on Roman coins.
Whoever will be the greatest among you must be the servant of all. Service—this is what agape love is about. Jesus has tried many times to communicate this to his disciples, but they hadn’t gotten it. This is not hard to understand. They, like us, are surrounded by and immersed in Caesar’s domination system, constantly bombarded with and indoctrinated into its values. In this system, greatness is wealth, status, and domination over others. Achieving these things is the meaning and purpose of life.
This is the Big Lie the Pharaohs and Caesars of the world, with the help their sycophantic devotees, sell and too many people buy. If we are honest, we have to admit that we ourselves are deeply influenced by this lie and that our lives as both individuals and communities reflect its influence. Even church institutions are far from immune to this Big Lie.
Accepting the Truth that to be great is to live a life of love as a servant of all is hard; living it is harder still. It requires dying to self and rising to a new life through participation in the Pascal Mystery. When we are cut off from communion with the God who IS agape LOVE, this is impossible. When we are in communion with God, we are delivered from the Big Lie and able to embrace and practice agape love through serving others, especially the poorest and most vulnerable among us.
Tonight, Jesus uses a radical symbolic act to get his message across. He gets up from the table, takes off his outer garment, and ties a towel around himself. A few years ago, something struck me about this very familiar story that I had never noticed before. When Jesus took off his outer garment, tied a towel around himself and poured water into a basin, he stood before his disciples in the garb of a slave prepared to do the work of a slave
I’m sure the disciples never forgot this act. It turned their world upside down, disorienting, even shocking them. Peter expressed this discomfort. His words reveal that he was still living in the domination system. This is too much, Jesus. You’re our Master and Teacher. Get back in your place, stick to your role. This intimacy is inappropriate and uncomfortable.
I think most of us are pretty much like Peter. We feel safer and more comfortable in Caesar’s intact world where everything and everyone has its place and where laws and duties tell us what to do than in the reign of God where there is only one law—“Love one another as I have loved you.” Like Peter, we’re also uncomfortable with too much intimacy even with one another let alone with God.
In the end, the disciples did get Jesus’ message of agape love and lived it. And they aren’t the only ones. There have also been women and men in every age who understood that message and practiced it– people like Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was one of those many “other sheep” of whom Jesus spoke in John 10—sheep, he said, who do not belong to this (Christian) fold but do follow him.
“Jesus is risen!” we will soon be proclaiming soon. Inspired and empowered by the hope and energy generated by the resurrection, faithful disciples like these and millions more have continued and are continuing his mission through their transformational lives. Those transformational lives changing the world is one of the meanings of resurrection.
Most of us are neither able nor called to live this love so radically. But with the help of Spirit and inspired by their examples, we can reject the Big Lie which the Pharaohs and Caesars of our own time continue to sell and embrace the agape love of God’s reign in less radical ways. Even modest acts of love and service performed by everyday saints like you and me change the world.
At the end of today’s Gospel Jesus gave us a new commandment. “Love one another just as I have loved you.” He also gave us this Eucharistic meal through which we experience intimate communion with him, the One who sent him, and each other and which empowers to live a life of loving service. Let us eat and drink together as we remember and honor Jesus.
Instructions for washing feet.
Introduction to the Washing of Feet
In these or similar words.
Once a year, on Holy Thursday, we have the opportunity wash each others’ feet.
We do this as an expression of Jesus’ command
to love and serve one another.
It is a very personal and even uncomfortable gesture
of love, service, reconciliation, affirmation, honor— whatever we wish to bring to it.
It is also an expression of the Beloved Community we are
called to be all through the year.
Those of you participating in the live stream may wish to
wash the feet of your loved ones at home.
During this time, let us all join in prayer and reflection.