Sermon for Maundy Thursday. April 13, 2017.
Readings: Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
We returned to our homes last Sunday after our Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday services and were horrified to learn about the explosions at two Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt. Two suicide bombers detonated explosives that killed 45 and injured more than a hundred worshipers. ISIS claimed responsibility and threatened more attacks on Christians. This has happened before in Egypt, and elsewhere. One of the explosions was set off at the patriarchal church of St. Mark in Alexandria with the Coptic Pope Tawadros II inside celebrating the Divine Liturgy.
One positive note is that Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of Egypt’s Al-Azhar — the leading center of learning in Sunni Islam — condemned the attacks, calling them a “despicable terrorist bombing that targeted the lives of innocents.” There has been some mutual support between Christians and Muslims in Eygpt. Coptic Christians formed a protective ring around Muslim protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo as they prayed during protests several years ago. Then, following threats against Christian churches by Islamists, Muslims guarded the Coptic Christian Church of St. George in Cairo during the liturgy. (See Frank Answers About Whether Jews and Muslims Are Brothers in the Faith.)
These events remind us that gathering for worship can be a dangerous act. Jewish and Christian liturgies originated during nights of great danger. We heard read the story of the first Passover when Jews gathered in houses whose doorposts had been smeared with the blood of a lamb. This was their protection when the angel of death passed over Egypt killing the first born of every family and of every flock. Jews who were gathered for their Seder must have heard the cries of those who lost sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers.
Passover Seders have not been safe for the Jews either. Down through the centuries they became times of persecution. In Europe during the Middle Ages Jews were accused of eating Christian children at their Seders. The riskiest Seders occurred in the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland. These nights of terror are also a part of the Passover tradition and I believe it is sacrilegious for Christians to think they can celebrate Jewish liturgies and ignore this history.
But the night on which our Lord Jesus celebrated a supper with his disciples was also a night of terror. Jesus apparently had his suspicions that Judas was arranging to have him arrested. When we recite the text of the Words of Institution, it usually begins: “On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus took bread…” A disciple’s betrayal is built into our Eucharistic memory.
The synoptic gospels say that Jesus held a Passover Seder with his disciples; the fourth gospel disagrees. John says this last supper was before the Passover. In the chronology of this evangelist Jesus was hanging on the cross, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, at the hour when the lambs for the Passover were being slaughtered in the Temple. Christ’s own Passover from death to life occurred as the Jewish Passover was being celebrated.
We hear the narrative of the institution of the Lord’s Supper from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. He brings the tradition of the institution to bear on the disordered Lord’s Supper celebrated by the Corinthian congregation. For them the sacrament of unity had become an occasion for disunity between different classes of people in the congregation, who weren’t even served the same menus. And the slaves who arrived late at the meal liturgy got nothing. Paul ominously warned those who failed to “discern the Lord’s body” that they “eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason some of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11:29-30). The zone of holiness around this Table can be violated only at our peril.
Some have thought that these social issues were the reason the sacramental meal of bread and wine, received as the body and blood of Christ, were separated out from the agape meal. But that’s not likely the case. It is more likely that the gathering of Christians for their evening meal in the home of a member or in an inn rented for the occasion fell under an imperial ban on all supper clubs in the early second century. Apparently the Roman government felt that subversive discussions could take place at the meal symposiums. And Christians were at least as subversive in Roman eyes as critical Greek philosophers or scheming Roman politicians. So Christians began celebrating their Eucharist in the morning with just the bread and wine. It was too dangerous for them to meet in the evening, except in the cemeteries, since Romans respected burial and cemetery customs.
Gathering for worship is risky business. It may not seem so for north shore congregations. But here’s a piece of liturgy that is risky for us: the foot washing that gives this Thursday its name—Maundy, an old English corruption of the Latin “Mandatum,” “command.” “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus said to his disciples, “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, if you have love for one another.”
As this ancient rite has been revived in recent years, some worshipers have found it awkward, even distasteful. Some have substituted hand washing in place of foot washing—although some worshipers might recall during Holy Week that Pontius Pilate washed his hands to show that he bore no responsibility for the execution of Jesus. No hand washing. We are invited to wash one another’s feet. And I’ll tell you, it can feel real good. Many of us have been on our feet all day, feet bound in shoes. How good to feels to take those shoes off and put our feet in warm water and have someone wipe them, maybe with a bit of massage thrown in.
Let me tell about a church that does this every week. Central Lutheran Church is a huge neo-gothic stone structure in downtown Minneapolis and every Monday members serve a hot meal to street people. In the Restoration Center they also provide some basic health services. And some of the guests who have been out walking all day long get their feet washed. Church people get down on their knees in front of street people and wash their feet, enacting what it means to be a servant church.
Maundy Thursday gives us the freedom and grace to become the kind of community Jesus envisioned: not one centered on liturgy that remembers things done in the past, but one centered on liturgy that leads us to act in the present—even to risk getting out of our comfort zone. As we contemplate the way Jesus showed his love for us on the cross (which we might do while keeping watch later tonight), we might also be prompted by the Spirit to leave behind things that bind us: fear of the unknown, distrust of those who are unlike ourselves, maybe even our own feelings of inadequacy.
When we are called by the new commandment of Jesus to love one another, we are given liberation from those fears and the strength to respond. Whatever we do because of the experiences of this night will transform someone else’s life as well as our own. Whatever action we take to love another person in Christ may move that person closer to redemption. Whatever we risk of our own comfort and tranquility will be used by God to restore others who are lost and broken. When we’re talking about love, it’s not about us; it’s about those who need to be loved.
Yes, gathering for liturgy can be a dangerous thing. And no liturgy is more dangerous to our status quo than the one we participate in tonight. Amen.
Pastor Frank Senn