He Loved Them Until The End | A Maundy Thursday Sermon
You may click play above to listen to this sermon (which follows the Gospel reading) or read the text below.
On Maundy Thursday, we gather together to remember. Our readings on this most sacred day require it of us.
Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
On this night, we are called to remember the night that Jesus sat down around a table with his friends and had a meal.
On this night, we are called to remember the night that Jesus stood up from the comfort of the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.
On this night, we are called to remember the night that Jesus’s knees hit the earth before his friends, that Jesus’s hands met water and then lovingly caressed the calloused and dust caked feet of his disciples.
On this night, we are called to remember the tender, yet challenging words that left the lips of Jesus our Christ that night: Where I am going, you cannot come. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
Yes, we are called by our scared text, a collective recorded memory, to the gift of remembering. We are called to the joy of it. We are called to the pain of it. We are called into the fulcrum of its promise and its challenge. We are called to remember.
Every week, our observance of the Eucharist calls us to live into this memory. Through the ritual of the bread and the wine we remember the body and the blood of Jesus the Christ.
Tonight though, tonight is something different. Tonight calls us to remember more fully and more deeply. To examine where we place ourselves in the remembering. To sit and to look at the parts that make us squirm. That make us angry. That make us afraid. That make us want to look away.
My friends, on this night, we are called to remember that among those friends dining with Jesus that night was Judas who would betray Jesus. And, Jesus knew this. And he loved him to the end.
On this night, we are called to remember that when Jesus reached for the feet of his beloved disciple Simon Peter he was met with misguided denial: You will never wash my feet. And Jesus heard this. And he loved him to the end.
On this night, we are called to remember that, after washing the feet of his disciples, clothing his body once again with his robe, and returning to the table to sit among his friends, Jesus asked: Do you know what I have done for you? And Jesus knew the answer was no. He knew they couldn’t understand. And he loved them to the end.
Every week, we remember this night through the liturgy and the Eucharist. We take the bread and the wine into our mouths and we remember that on the night when he was betrayed Jesus took a loaf of bread. And when he had given thanks for it, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also.”
Of course we remember. We are Christians. Episcopalians. And the Eucharist is the heart of our weekly service. We could never forget.
Oh, but we do. We do forget. We forget to live it. We forget to feel it. We forget to examine it and to allow it to examine us. We forget that this isn’t just something that we remember on our tongues and in our mouths. This is a memory that demands embodiment. That is why we have ritualized it in the first place. Because we are a people prone to forgetting.
We always have been.
In our reading from the Old Testament, The Lord said to Moses and Aaron.This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb.
What follows are liturgical instructions for the Passover, which commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites from decades of slavery and oppression in ancient Egypt. It is a story marked by fear and obedience, hope and blood, violence and liberation, lament and praise. The instructions concerning the lamb are just detailed enough and just long enough to suggest that just skimming them while reading is probably forgivable.
But then, from our disengaged skimming, we are plunged into a traumatic scene. Warm blood is smeared thickly onto doorposts by the same hands that tie sandals hurriedly onto bare feet. Lamb is eaten quickly in the night as the Israelites frantically prepare themselves to depart at a moment’s notice. To leave everything behind. Tonight, all the firstborn of Egypt will fall to the plague. In the midst of this death, the Israelites will flee with only the clothes on their back and fear mingled hope in their chests.
This is a night they will never forget. And, yet, they are a people prone to forgetting. Perhaps this is why the instructions ritualizing the passover event precede the actual event itself. This is why the instructions about how to prepare the lamb are first, front and center, and the horror of the event itself is almost an aside. What would otherwise have been the plague of death of the firstborn becomes, through these detailed instructions, the Passover of the Lord.
God knows we are a people prone to forgetting. To distancing ourselves. To moving forward and moving on. The pain of the event, no matter how traumatic, seems to dull over time. Memory fades and as much as it frightens us that we could forget, we also welcome the haze of forgetfulness. The rituals of the church, meant to help us to remember; even those can fall victim to the pressure of our need to normalize, to disengage and to forget.
Every week, we are called to remember through the Eucharist that Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. That statement is about as loaded as it comes. To remember each time that we approach this table the traumatic events of that night in ancient Egypt when the firstborn died and the Israelites fled may be too much to ask. To remember the connection between the blood of the lamb and the innocents in that ancient time and the blood of our own Christ shed for us, for our freedom, may be damn near impossible.
Jesus tells us Do this in remembrance of me. The term remembrance in its original Greek is anámnēsis. We are not being asked to recall the details of that night or to make all of the connections between that night and the night of the passover. We are not being drawn towards sentimentality, or a certain emotional response or empathy for a situation long past. No, we are called to act in anamnesis — we are called to a deliberate recollection so that we might better appreciate the effects of what happened. So that we might be changed. So that we might be the change.
On Maundy Thursday we are called to engage. To confront. To be a participant. We must be willing to read ourselves into the words we hear tonight and to know how we read it today will not be how we read it next year or the year after that. Where we place ourselves in the drama of Holy Week has everything to do with our present context. That is the mysterious power of it. Just when we think we have a handle on what the text is trying to tell us about God and about love and about justice and about servanthood it shifts and becomes something all together new. Beautiful.
On this night, we are called to remember the night that Jesus sat down for a meal with his friends. We are called to remember that one of them would betray him, that one of them would deny him, that two of them would be unable to stay awake and pray with him, that none of them would understand. And Jesus knew. And what did he then do?
He loved them to the end.
Knowing that we are a people prone to forgetting, Jesus poured water into a basin and begin to wash the disciple’s feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
And he did these things not because his disciples deserved it or had earned it. This is not a grace that we will ever deserve nor is it a grace that we can earn. And he did these things not so that his disciples would understand. They wouldn’t. Perhaps they couldn’t. He did it to show them that to love is to serve and to be served. So that they would remember.
Jesus brings his knees to the floor, bends his back, and reaches for their ugliness and fifth and shame. He takes it in his hands and he washes it clean. Remember.
Tonight, we are invited to wash each other’s feet. And to have our feet washed. In this Maundy Thursday ritual, we are called to remember the commandment of our Lord, Jesus Christ — Love one another, just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
Please pray with me.
On this, a night to remember, give us strength Oh Lord to go from here, take up your towel when and where we can, and bathe the world’s wounds in the name of your son, Jesus Christ, who loved until the end. Amen.