A sermon for the beginning of the Paschal Triduum on Maundy Thursday based on John’s Gospel.
The story of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples and his washing of their feet cannot be told without the backdrop of the Passover. The event of the Exodus—the liberation of the children of Israel from the oppression of the Egyptians—is the defining moment in the history of Judaism. Jews from the time of Moses to this present day gather to remember the meal eaten hastily with their bags filled and waiting by the door. They remember the plagues and the passing over of the angel of death due to the blood on the door posts. They remember the joy of finally finally being made free and throwing off the shackles of injustice. And so they gather in the spring of every year to share in the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of the Passover, to remember the beginning of their new life as God’s chosen people.
Jesus and his disciples have the story of Israel’s deliverance in mind as they gather for that Last Meal. They remember.
We gather on this night to remember as well. We remember how Jesus gave that new commandment—the mandautum novum—that his disciples needed to show self-giving love to one another. They needed to serve as he served them. The new life he called them to had at its foundation a deep and abiding affection for each other and for the world that needs to be expressed through their actions.
In a sense, we gather to remember those words and deeds from long ago as they gathered to remember words and deeds from even longer ago. Our collective remembrance through the work of this liturgy must include recalling the message of the Passover too. For Jews, the Passover ushered in deliverance and new start, and as Professor Claudia Highbuagh puts it, “For Christians, Holy Thursday is the beginning of new life in faith.” This evening we recall the change of direction that Jesus brought about when he took a basin and pitcher and began washing his disciples’ feet, and when he shared bread and wine. These symbols and actions propel us to remember the point.
But let’s be clear on what the point actually is. Minister Suzanne Woolston-Rossert writes, “The Passover framework reminds us that what is at stake at Easter is not just a beautiful liturgy or a time of joy, but the very crux of life and death itself. Liberation is the point. Christ wants to roll away the stone upon our chests. What is suffocating and killing us?” She asks this question to rattle us awake from our all-too-familiar spiritual slumber; the very thing that Jesus sets in motion this evening is our utter and complete liberation from everything that keeps us from experiencing God’s love.
The two biggest of those being either our pride—thinking we’re fine on our own, thank you very much—or our shame—thinking that we will never be good enough for God’s love. It’s what keeps people in their seats when it comes to foot washing: “I don’t need to experience this, I know what it means enough already without engaging in the practice,” or “My feet are too ugly or dirty or weird that I cannot let another person wash them.” In both cases we remove ourselves from the power of remembering God’s love for us, of Jesus’ call to love one another.
So let me ask that question again, “What is suffocating and killing us?” What is keeping us from truly engaging in the life that God has for us? What do we need to be delivered from?
For the Israelites it was easy to determine this: the oppression stemmed from Pharaoh. But even in the simple naming of it, they couldn’t become free on their own. They needed divine intervention.
As do we. Tonight we remember the last meal shared by Jesus and his followers. Tomorrow we’ll watch as his life is taken from him. God’s plan for deliverance costs a great deal, but it finds its meaning in a deep and profound love. Pastor Woolston-Bossert asks, “What would it mean for us to finally understand that God’s longing for us is so great that God will do anything … to wrest us away from the suffocation of our slavery?”
What is keeping you captive? What occupies your heart and mind pushing you away from God’s grace and deliverance? What will it take to recognize Jesus’ love for you? Is it in taking off your shoes and padding down this aisle to both wash and be washed by another? Is it in receiving bread and wine—Christ’s body and blood—while recognizing the great cost God experienced in order to set us free? Whatever it takes, I hope we all will remember what this day is truly about, because there is life, grace and forgiveness to be found. Amen.