N.B. This is the sermon I will preach at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL Maundy Thursday, 2016. Mary Jane Miller's icons, from which the communion images came, can be found at , "Playing in the Dirt: The Inclusive Icons of a Self-Taught Artist," Faith and Forum, 48:1 (2015)
Tonight we have arrived at the high point of Holy Week. From this culmination of Jesus’ three years’ ministry, the events of the next two days will prove to be a precipitous tumble: betrayal, arrest, trial, torture, a shameful execution and burial. The joy of this last supper will seem light years away in just a very short 24 hours.
Holy Week began last Sunday as we commemorated Jesus’ riotous entry into Jerusalem. The ground before his donkey was spread with garments and palm branches, the crowd erupting into cheers: “Hosanna! The Son of David! The Messiah has come! Hosanna!”
Ted Neeley, Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
But not everyone is rejoicing. From the sidelines watch the nervous Temple guard who are alarmed at the attention this charismatic would-be Messiah is receiving. The entire enterprise of the priests and those who serve with them in the Temple as well as the lucrative income and social status it produces- all of that is at stake here. A prophet who convinces the people that they do not need ritual sacrifice conducted by priestly intermediaries for G-d to hear their prayers, who teaches that G-d makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike – that kind of prophet could be dangerous.
The members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing council, depicted in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar say it well:
Tell the rabble to be quiet, we anticipate a riot. This common crowd, is much too loud. Tell the mob who sing your song that they are fools and they are wrong. They are a curse. They should disperse.
Sanhedrin, Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
But Jesus does not tell them to be quiet. The crowd does not disperse, it grows ever larger. And the Sanhedrin are not the only folks who are worried.
The Roman guard is on red alert, aware of the Jewish legend that if the Messiah is going to appear at any point, it would be at Passover. Jesus of Nazareth is hardly the first such candidate to appear at this time. But, unlike other would-be Messiahs, he has a large following. Perhaps more importantly, he does not appear to be afraid to die for this Kingdom of G-d of which he preaches. The Roman guard readily agrees with the Sanhedrin: He is dangerous. And like the Sanhedrin, they have everything to lose if the status quo of this Judean colony of the Roman Empire should change.
Within 24 hours, Jesus will have confirmed the worst fears of both of these groups. He will go into the outer courts of the Temple and disrupt business. Not only does he turn over the tables of the money changers who make purchases of animal sacrifices possible, the Roman tax collectors will also run scurrying for safety in the wake of Jesus’ outraged response to this business as usual on the Temple Mount. If you want an analogy to today, consider what would happen if someone set off a handful of smoke bombs on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange doing no real damage but shutting it down for the day. What impact on the American empire would such an event have? And what would we do with the person who created such a disruption?
What the Romans end up doing is hardly surprising. It is the Roman way to use any form of visual display as a means of propaganda. That includes the use of human bodies. Jesus will be nailed to a cross in a public display, his nakedness the element of shame added to the physical torture of crucifixion. And over his head, a cynical inscription will bear the words Here is Jesus, who says he’s the king of the Jews. The unspoken portion will be even more powerful: And this is what happens to anyone who thinks he’s a king in Caesar’s empire.
Emil Nolde, Crucifixion (1912)
So that’s the context in which tonight’s events take place. Knowing what is coming, Jesus gathers his followers for a common meal. But the meal this night will prove to be anything but common.
This day is called Maundy Thursday in liturgical traditions. The word Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, meaning to order someone to do something. We can hear the Latin root in the word commandment. And on this night a Jesus who knows he is going to die very shortly will leave his followers with a new commandment to follow in his absence: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples….”
Of course, this new commandment is not terribly new. It is essentially a restatement of the Great Commandments of the Hebrew tradition: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. Similarly, it is a restatement of the Golden Rule found in the wisdom tradition of every culture around the world: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
What is new about Jesus’ commandment is that he gives us two refinements of these ancient principles of his Hebrew tradition. First, he gives us his own life example as the standard of how to live into this commandment: Love one another…Just as I have loved you. Second, he reminds us that it is not what his followers say they believe that will convince others that they are followers of Jesus. It is only when they actually live into the examples Jesus sets for them that they will demonstrate to others that they follow the Way of Jesus: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.
Clearly Maundy Thursday is a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus. It is also a seminal moment in the development of what will become the Christian tradition. Even as Jesus is commanding his followers to love one another as he loves them, he demonstrates two ways of living into that commandment.
Mary Jane Miller, Last Supper, India
The first is the eating of a common meal. Eating together is one of the greatest pleasures human beings know. It is difficult to eat together when one is angry with their fellow diners as anyone who has ever made the foolish error of bringing up politics at Thanksgiving readily knows. Eating together bonds people together and sharing wine together is often the mark of joyful celebration.
In all honesty, we have little reason to believe that any of the Gospel accounts of a last supper are historical. Indeed, tonight’s Gospel from John describes only a common chabburah meal, not a Passover Seder. John simply says they ate dinner together. So how does a common meal with friends become the ritual we call the Eucharist?
It is from St. Paul’s description of the customs of the early Jesus community that we begin to see this practice as a way of their remembering a time when Jesus was present with them: He took bread, gave thanks for it, broke it and gave it to them. Clearly from the very beginning a common meal was important to the way of Jesus.
In moments, we will enter into that tradition once again ourselves, offering the gifts of G-d to the people of G-d here at this altar. And because all of Creation comes from G-d, that means that all who are created by G-d are welcome at this feast. We who stand at this altar are never the guardians of sacred property charged with ensuring that only the holy receive it. We are agents charged with distributing the gifts of G-d’s graciousness entrusted with seeing that all people of G-d receive them if they choose.
Mary Jane Miller, Last Supper, Turkey
Jesus also provides a second means of demonstrating our love for one another on Maundy Thursday. The washing of feet in an honor/shame culture was always a visible reinforcement of class and status. The lowly washed the feet of the higher born and foot washing was a social obligation, a sign of hospitality. In John’s Gospel, it is Jesus who takes the servant’s role, washing the feet of his disciples who are none too comfortable about this reversal of roles. But there is a message in this symbolic action: It is precisely through our humility and our willingness to recognize the dignity of every human being that we reveal ourselves as followers of Jesus.
Before this night is over we will strip our altar of everything which would suggest
the presence of Jesus. For he will be gone, headed to trial and a painful journey ending in death down the Via Dolorosa, the Latin name which means the Way of Suffering. Even here Jesus is teaching us something important.
The Way of Jesus, with its commandment to love one another, to make a place for everyone in our communal celebrations and to engage others with a humility that respects their dignity, runs largely counter to the values of our own culture just as they did in Jesus’ time. Conventional values of empires are always centered on wealth gained through exploitation, order kept through the use of coercive force and status rigidly maintained by those of higher rank looking down on those they presume to be beneath them.
Marc Chagall, Crucifixion (1938)
These are brittle values reflecting a fragile, top heavy society. There is little tolerance for those who would challenge the values of such a culture, those who would call us to listen to our better angels as Jesus did. As the Sanhedrin and Roman guards so quickly recognized, this Way of Jesus is dangerous to the status quo. There is a reason that Jesus tells his followers if you would come after me, let go of all you love, pick up your cross and follow me.
So let us prepare ourselves to follow Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane this night enroute to the cross on Good Friday ever holding out our hope for a resurrection at the end of this Holy Week. But before we go, let us be present with Jesus this last night before his passion and death. Let us live into his new commandment to love one another as he loved us. It is Jesus of Nazareth who calls you to enter into the humble devotion of washing one another’s feet this night. And it is Jesus of Nazareth who invites you to come to this table, to share this common meal we have come to call the Eucharist.
For it is as true this night as it was on that first Maundy Thursday: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples. AMEN.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)