1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Once again this year I was surprised to discover that the readings for Maundy Thursday are the same every year. Aside from reflections on what it means to have a failing memory, I wondered what it would be like to prepare a sermon on these lessons for the 20th time? And then wondered what it is like for you to have to listen to a sermon on these lessons for the 20th time! Or 40th time!
So, let me start with a reminder. The reason we have only one set of lessons seems to be this. In the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the last supper happens on Passover and they tell the story of Jesus instituting the Eucharist on that night. In the gospel of John, the last supper is not the feast of Passover and there is no institution of the Eucharist, but instead the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
To bypass this discrepancy and yet to include it all in this day’s worship, the writers of the RCL use the passage from Corinthians to recap the stories from the synoptic gospels and use the Exodus lesson to make plain the connections between that story and the Eucharist.
It’s fairly easy to see that if either part, Eucharist or foot washing, were left out, the day would not be complete. And the Exodus story amplifies the Eucharist so that all three stories have great significance.
In asking us to remember him in a ritual of bread and wine, Jesus not only calls to mind the Exodus story, but also revises it in significant ways. In traditional theology, he becomes the sacrificial lamb, while the bread and wine represent his body and blood. The theme of moving from slavery to freedom from Exodus is still present. In preaching forgiveness of sins and in giving us the ritual of communion, Jesus gives us recurring opportunities to find new life and new freedom.
What hit me this year is this realization: in the sacrificial system of Judaism, as in most religious traditions that require sacrifice, people are required to feed God. They kill animals or even people to feed God; they bring their crops to the altar to feed God, or they set part of each meal out in the woods for God to have. They do this in the hope of keeping God on their side. It’s basically a system of bribery or quid pro quo. I’ll feed you if you’ll take care of me.
In Christianity God feeds us, as he fed the Israelites in the wilderness. We come to the altar not to feed God, but to be fed by God. In our tradition the priest blesses the bread and the wine, which human hands have made from God’s creation, so that they are made holy. That’s so that in eating and drinking we may also be made holy, made whole, re-made in God’s image, healed, forgiven and reminded who we are, God’s beloved children.
That’s why I sometimes say before communion that the altar is God’s table and all God’s children are welcome to the feast. This is an Episcopal church, but the altar belongs to God, and so do all of us.
Both Jesus and many of the prophets make clear to us that God does not NEED anything from us – not burnt offerings, not crops, not money, not even prayer. But if we recognize who we are, and recognize God as our higher power, then our gratitude will result in both personal sacrifice and service.
Remember the words of Micah? “He hath shown thee, O people, what is right: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” And remember the commandments of Jesus to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Notice that there is NO mention of giving any stuff to God here.
The money we give to church, especially what is given from our own substance and not just given from what’s excess, is given to maintain the community and to reach out to the wider community in God’s name. It’s not a bribe or a quid pro quo, but it may indeed be a personal sacrifice, one we’re willing to give in response to God’s love for us.
The Gospel story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples reminds us of how important it is to serve others. It is the other side of the communion coin, so to speak. It takes both worship and service to build a Christian life and to build the kingdom of God. The worship, especially the worship in a community, build us up to do our work in the world.
I know many people who do great work in the world and do not go to church. I admire them a lot and suspect they find their strength and encouragement in other sorts of communities. I am encouraged by other communities as well, but only church provides the faith, the courage, and the rational for me to keep going, to keep trying, to work for transformation both of myself and the wider community.
The lessons of Maundy Thursday remind us forcefully that worship without service is meaningless and service without worship may be hollow. By that I mean that Eucharist constantly reminds us of our opportunities for re-birth, for transformation, for progress in becoming the person God meant us to be. That in turn drives our desire to serve others, so that our acts of service rise out of an authentic attitude of selflessness. We all have had experience with service that is not like this, but rather springs from selfish desires of one sort or another. That sort of service may still accomplish something in this world, but it probably will not help to build the kingdom here on earth.
The key to Christian service is that it arises from love, both love of God and love of others. John’s Gospel highlights this when Jesus commands his disciples to love one another. That’s one of the ways the early church grew – because the members loved one another and that drew others to them.
Service arising from love is what builds the kingdom. There’s a worship dismissal I’ve heard several times that goes something like this: “Our worship is ended. Now our service begins.” I really like this because it makes such a direct connection between the two activities that are the mark of Christians.
Our worship is ended. Now our service begins. Thanks be to God