Friday, March 21, 2008

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday 2008

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek

Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, MD

Sir, We would see Jesus!

Tonight we begin a journey through John’s Gospel and the accounts of the Last Supper, Good Friday and the Resurrection. It is too bad that we spread this out over three days since the Last Supper, Crucifixion and Resurrection are properly viewed as a unified whole, one saving event. None of the three parts, very much like our view of God, can exist without the other two. It is only through all three that our salvation, our freedom, is secured.

Similarly, like all the documents of the Bible, John’s Gospel needs to be viewed as a whole, not in little bits and pieces. For instance, tonight’s account in Chapter 13 I believe depends very much on what comes before in Chapter 12 when some Greeks approach Philip and declare, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus!”

I can recall the first time these words made much of an impact on me. I was fresh out of seminary and visiting a Presbyterian colleague in town. He had to attend to something back in his office and left me to ramble around the sanctuary of his church. I walked up to the pulpit, stood behind it, and there, carved into the wood for the preacher to see were those very words, “Sir, we would see Jesus!”

It was a moment that was both humbling and intimidating, for in just those few words spoken to Philip nearly 2,000 years ago, the task of Christian preaching was amply summed up. We all want to see Jesus. Much as the familiar thirteenth century poetry of Sir Richard of Chichester states our desires:

Day by day, dear Lord, of thee three things I pray:

To see thee more clearly

Love thee more dearly

Follow thee more nearly

Day by day


We tend to think, like the Greeks, along these lines. We tend to think this is the order of things: if we could just see Jesus more clearly, we would come to love him enough to really truly follow him.

John with Chapter Thirteen alerts us and anyone else paying attention that in fact life with Jesus is meant to work the other way around. It is a curious chapter to say the least, but one drenched with remembrance, instruction and meaning. We use the word “drenched” advisedly since it is all about water – bathing to be specific. Which is how life with Jesus always begins – being submerged in the waters of Baptism, emerging from the sacred surf drenched with a whole new way of looking at and living life, discovering that, after all, we are God’s Beloved – God is well pleased with us.

But we get ahead of ourselves. The first thing one notices about John’s account of the Last Supper is that it is the longest account of the four gospels: five chapters long, chapters 13-17. Given such ample time for description, isn’t it odd that there is never one single mention of bread and wine, no detailed account like we get of the Passover Meal in Exodus, and no familiar “words of institution” as recounted by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians: “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me….This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Instead we get Fellini! At the supper table, Jesus strips off his clothes, dons a towel and begins washing feet. Oh yes, the NRSV tries to cater to our sophisticated sensibilities by paraphrasing “[he] rose from supper, laid aside his garments…” with the more genteel, “took off his outer robe.” The translators obviously have not had an opportunity to watch prime time TV anytime in the past few decades and somehow feel we cannot bear to imagine Jesus, of all people, taking off his clothes. But that is how John remembers it.

Yet, it is even more disturbing to modern North Americans to think of actually touching the feet of a stranger – it strikes us as awkward at best, disgusting at the very least. For those of us who have Bluetooth phones hanging from our ears, text messaging devices in our hands as we drive, who work Excel spreadsheets while on an airplane instead of napping or reading a book, the experience of kneeling in front of someone not in one’s immediate family - or someone with whom one has had a quarrel or stood in awe or been uninterested – washing someone else’s feet is a fantastic departure, and may only be the beginning of an entirely new way to see one’s own faith in relationship to others.

It surely is a wild departure from a virtual world as the foot washer is immersed in a sensual, unprotected, tactile, personal and life-giving encounter with another person – a real person, not a Second Life avatar, but a real person! The virtual world is disavowed as something real happens in the name of Jesus, who patterns this way of relating to one another as somehow emblematic of what it means to “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.” This is the Maundy, the mandatum, the commandment of Maundy Thursday.

Peter, of course, and as usual, objects. Jesus, as always, puts him, and us really, in his place when he says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share in me,” followed soon by, “you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Now we may try to pretend this was simply a figure of speech. But what if “his example” is precisely what is needed for us to physically, emotionally, personally understand what he is all about? That what he is all about, what loving one another is all about, is servanthood – serving one another – and that the only way to “get it” is to do something that is at once very simple and very hard?

Can we imagine that he wants us to follow him so that we might come to love him, and that in our following and loving is where our seeing Jesus more clearly really begins?

We are told by John that Jesus knew “…that he had come from God and was going to God.” He lives in concert with this knowledge and invites us to live out of this knowledge as well. It is a knowledge that says that moral progress only comes as we begin to acknowledge life as gift. Jesus knows this. Jesus is entwined with a purpose beyond himself. He does not even view self as we do – as disconnected, discreet, competitive, this-world-oriented entities. He is gift for others. He gives himself for others. He empties himself, taking the life of a servant. Our leader is on his knees. He is washing our feet. What does this gift make me? How do I receive such a gift? How does his gift to me reshape my image of myself? What kind of self would I be were I to refuse to give this same gift to others?

Know, my sisters, my brothers, that for God in Christ, you are God’s Beloved. You are a pearl of great price, for which Christ pays the ultimate price to save us and keep us as his own. We need to take time each day in our prayers to reflect on all of this. Give Jesus time to thank you for what you have done for him today. Let Jesus wash your feet. Feel just how good it feels after standing on them all day. Like our Baptism, this foot washing Last Supper is meant to take us beyond our usual sense of “self” to see ourselves in a new light: expansive, responsible, and cared for by the other persons who can see the truth in this new commandment to love one another. Jesus wants us to feel good – really really good.

Like Jesus, we come from God and are going to God. Jesus invites us to live into and out of this reality – this truth. We are to know life as a gift. Acknowledging life as a gift leads us to live life with an attitude of Thanksgiving – eucharistia, Eucharist.

John’s account of the Last Supper means to help us to follow Jesus in a life of service to others so that we will come to love Jesus and out of that love begin to see him more clearly. It’s the only way. It’s His Way. He washes our feet and invites us to make it our way.


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