Maundy Thursday Sermon
April 17, 2014
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Last summer I had the chance to spend a week at the Taize Community in France. Taize is an ecumenical monastery that draws people from all over the world together to spend a week in prayer, service, study and fellowship. Each person who goes to Taize is put into a small group that is given a community chore for the week. So your small group might be in charge of serving meals, or in charge of picking up and washing dishes, or in charge of emptying garbage. These small groups would not only work together, but they would also get together every day for discussion and reflection about the daily biblical text that was presented by one of the Taize brothers in the morning. The week that I was there, Brother Pedro would teach each morning about Peter, and every day we would think about a different text featuring Peter. The reading for Thursday was our text for this evening—the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. And Brother Pedro invited us to spend most of that day—from right after the morning Bible study until our small groups met in the afternoon—in silence, reflecting on this story and on what God was saying to us through it.
Now, my small group had the wonderful chore of cleaning bathrooms. You can imagine the snickers of the Americans in the group when we were told to report “for toilet training.” So every day after we heard Brother Pedro teach about the Bible passage for the day, we would meet at the bathrooms and clean them. So on Thursday, the day we were thinking about the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and the day we were to be in silence, we worked together to clean the bathrooms. And it wasn’t lost on me that we were cleaning the bathrooms after reading about the foot washing. I thought back to several conversations I’ve had with people about what the modern equivalent of foot washing would be. What would a church leader have to do today that would be so against the accepted norm that those around him would say, “no no no…you’re not supposed to be the one to do that!” It would maybe be cleaning bathrooms, right? I mean, can you imagine if a group of pastors were gathering with their bishop at a hotel, and as the hotel staff were going through the hallways with their room cleaning carts the bishop picked up the toilet brush and the rubber gloves and started cleaning the bathrooms? What kind of outrage would that cause!?!
So this experience of cleaning the bathrooms in silence was really impacting for me. When we were done I sat outside with my journal and my Bible, and I read the story again. And something struck me that maybe wasn’t overly brilliant, but for me was pretty monumental. During supper, Jesus got up from the table. Now, John doesn’t include what we know of as the Words of Institution in his telling of this story. We don’t get Jesus breaking the bread and pouring the wine in John. But in other gospels, this meal that Jesus shares with his disciples is what we know of as the Lord’s Supper. And for us, this meal is a sacrament, meaning we believe that God encounters us and works in us through the words and the elements. We talk a lot about the importance of this meal, and in fact Christians get into unfortunately heated arguments about what exactly happens, who’s invited, what’ the appropriate protocol. This is an important meal. And for some reason, when I read this story while at Taize, it struck me that Jesus got up from the meal, took off his robe, and bent down at his disciples’ feet. Now, bear with me for a minute. This footwashing story is another central story in the Christian church. It is the quintessential example of servant leadership. The bowl and towel are the symbols for radical service. This action of Jesus, of getting down at the feet of his disciples, is an action that we point to as a model for the kind of servant-hearted leadership we as Jesus’ followers should be doing. In fact, as a deaconess, this story is central to my identity as a minister of Word and SERVICE.
So I knew these two stories…the one of Jesus sharing the meal with his disciples and the one of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. But while I was at Taize, as I went directly from listening to Brother Pedro teaching about this story to cleaning the bathrooms, the stories became connected in a way they weren’t before. This radical act of service flows directly from what happens at the table. Service flows from sacrament. Sacrament leads to service. Jesus got up from the table and washed his disciples’ feet. Service flows from sacrament. Sacrament leads to service.
As I made this connection in my own mind, I began to wonder why there seems to be such a disconnect between the table and the towel in the church…between service and sacrament. We have titles for those who are called to service, and we have titles for those who are called to sacrament. We work really hard to make sure everybody is informed about, invited to and included in the sacrament of Communion. Do we work just as hard to make sure people are getting up from the table and serving those around them? Do we make the connection between sacrament and service? Do we see our service as flowing from what happens in the sacrament?
Jesus got up from the table.
What would it look like if sacrament and service were more connected in my life? I had to ask myself that question. In the church we have a lot of conversation about who gets to do the sacraments and who gets to do the service. But in the story of Jesus, service and sacrament go together. Almost every time Jesus shares a meal with people, he also does some sort of service that challenges people’s perceptions of him and of God. And this is something I haven’t really researched that much, it was just an observation I made as I was preparing for this sermon. But think about it for a minute. We have the story of his meal being interrupted by the woman with a questionable reputation who comes in and washes his feet with her tears. We have the story of his disciples expecting he will turn away the hungry crowds, but where instead he shares the bread and the fish and feeds the multitudes. And we have this story of him gathering in the upper room with his disciples and him washing their feet. For Jesus, the power of the meal directly results in radical and transformational acts of service.
The last point I want to make about this sacrament to service connection is that after Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, he gets back up to the table. He puts on his robe. And he says to them, “do you know what I have done for you.” Jesus doesn’t just lecture and teach about service…he models it. He doesn’t prepare his disciples by saying, “watch what I’m about to do, guys…this is going to be really great.” He just does it. But then he gets back to the table. He puts his robe back on. He re-establishes mutual community with them. And he reflects with them. “Do you know what I have done for you”.
Ideally, as we move from sacrament to service and back to sacrament, we are taking time to re-establish mutual community between teacher and student, between pastor and congregation, between leader and follower, and we are asking the question, “Do you know what Christ has done for you”. It’s only after this reflection question that Jesus says, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Without that reflection time, the disciples might have had clean feet, but they still would have been confused. They would have received the service that Jesus had done for them, but they would not have heard the mandate to go and serve others.
It’s this mandate that brings us to Maundy Thursday. “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus said. Some translations say, “a new mandate.” That’s where the word “Maundy” comes from…at least that’s what I was always told. So as we gather today, having shared in a meal together and about to share in the Lord’s Supper, it’s important that we hear the part of the story where Jesus says, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” The intention of both the sacrament and service is to do as Jesus has done. In the sacrament of communion we receive forgiveness and are told to go and forgive others. When we receive radical acts of service from those in our community, we are to go and show radical service to others. Sacrament leads to service, and both call us to action. Both are gifts. We don’t earn or deserve either. But they are a call to action.
What would it look like if we became followers of Jesus who really lived this sacrament to service example stuff? What would it look like if we trusted and received the gift of forgiveness Christ offers us and stopped trying to earn it? What would it look like if, having received the gift of forgiveness, we got up from the table and radically served those around us? What would it look like if we paused to ask the question, “Do you understand what Christ has done for you?” and we developed language to talk about what God is doing in our lives? What would it look like if we didn’t just watch and learn about what Jesus did, but we actually followed his example with our lives?
When I was in Taize, having listened to the story and cleaned the bathrooms, I realized that this would change me. I would no longer be able to separate sacrament from service. I would no longer be able to just come up to the table and hear the words, “the body and blood of Christ, given for you,” without also thinking about, “and Jesus got up from the table, took off his robe, tied a towel around his waist and washed his disciples’ feet.” Because, in this journey towards the cross, walking with Jesus into his death and resurrection, both go together. Sacrament leads to service. Service flows from sacrament.