A new commandment (Maundy Thursday)
Homily Maundy Thursday, March 24 2016, St. Albans
We call this evening Maundy Thursday. Maundy isn’t a word we use much anymore, if at all. It’s an old English word, derived from the Latin “mandatum”, or commandment. It comes from the same root as the word “mandate” which is more familiar to us. We call this night Maundy Thursday, because it is on this night that Jesus gave us a new mandate. It is this: “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” It is a mandate that is both beautifully simple and yet revolutionary at the same time. And all the strange things that Jesus is saying and doing on this night that we remember are intended to unpack and to flesh out this simple and yet oh so difficult commandment.
Tonight is a remembrance with deep, deep historical roots. Tonight we will break the bread and share the cup together once more. This is something that has defined us as followers of Jesus, something that we have been doing together for two thousand years now. For over a thousand years before that, and still today, the people of Israel have been sharing the Passover meal, the tradition onto which our Eucharist is grafted. It is a tradition that is received by each new generation and handed on to the next.
Our readings this evening help us to evoke that deep sense of history. The reading from the book of Exodus tells us of the first passover meal in the land of Egypt. Jesus and his disciples in the upper room in Jerusalem on this night two thousand years ago would have read that same reading. The psalm that we just read would have been sung by Jesus and his disciples on this night after supper. This was their Passover meal; in light of what came the following day, we call it the Last Supper.
The Passover was the most important of the Jewish festivals. It was a remembrance and a reenactment of the foundational event of the people of Israel: the Exodus, the liberation from slavery in Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea and the giving of the Law on Sinai. On this night, the Jewish people remembered how God had redeemed them from slavery and formed them into a people. They remembered the covenant that God had established with them, the law and the instruction that could be summed up in a single phrase: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”
This was the tradition that Jesus received, this is the tradition that he evoked that night. But he didn’t simply pass it on to his disciples. Knowing that his hour had come, knowing that this was his one final opportunity to gather and to teach his friends, he took that powerful tradition of meal, sacrifice, liberation and covenant and re-shaped it for us to give it new meaning, meaning which the disciples would really only understand later, in light of the cross and the resurrection which were still to come.
At Jesus’ last supper, the passover lamb is replaced by Jesus himself, the one who will be sacrificed the next day. The bread and wine of the passover meal become the body and blood of Jesus. The reconciliation with God that the Jewish people had thought was obtained through animal sacrifice was now understood to be obtained through Jesus’ death on the cross. And just as the old covenant was sealed with sacrificial blood, the new covenant would be established in Jesus’ blood. The foundational event for the people of God would no longer be the Exodus, but instead the cross.
Now if you find this confusing, imagine the bewilderment and confusion of the disciples as the symbols that had been a part of their upbringing for as long as they could remember were re-shaped and re-interpreted by Jesus that night. What Jesus was doing was invoking the liberation and covenant tradition of the Passover, but telling them that they needed a new liberation and a new covenant.
The Passover had been about liberation from slavery in Egypt. Jesus points his disciples to a liberation which goes even deeper, a liberation from the burden of sin, a liberation from the oppression of injustice, a liberation from the alienation and brokenness in our relationships with each other and with God.
How was this new liberation to be brought about? Not by bringing plagues on one’s enemies, not through acts of violence or revolution, not by withdrawal from the affairs of the world. The liberation that Jesus is speaking of will be brought about through acts of love. Knowing that words will not be enough, Jesus shocks his friends and followers by taking off his robe right in the middle of supper, tying a towel around his waist, dropping to his knees and beginning to wash their feet.
Now in Jesus’ culture, the washing of feet was a gesture of hospitality and respect. When a host received a guest, the host would send his slave to wash the guest’s feet as a gesture of hospitality. But it would have been unthinkable for the host himself to do the work of a slave. Peter’s declaration that Jesus will never wash his feet pretty much sums up the prevailing attitude.
But Jesus insists. He insists on playing the role of the slave. He insists on defying the constraints of culture and tradition. He insists on washing the feet of his disciples in a simple act of humility, service and love. It is a love that is willing to go beyond social convention and constraint. It is a love with no strings attached, no calculation required, no need for reciprocity. It is a love that has no need to preserve one’s own status or position. It is an act of love that is pure gift, what theologians like to call grace.
And it is in the giving and in the receiving of these acts of love that liberation occurs. Burdens are lifted, oppression is relieved, wounds are healed, alienation fades. In acts of selfless love there is a losing of oneself that is freeing, that is joyful.
Most of us have experienced this, if only for rare moments. Do you remember when you first fell in love, how you would do anything for your beloved without a thought for yourself, defying social conventions, offering your love without conditions or strings attached, perhaps even making a fool of yourself? Do you remember the birth of your child, how you would do anything for that little one that you loved, embracing your baby even when she threw up on you, humbling yourself in the babble of baby talk, losing yourself in contemplation of your child?
These experiences are hints for us of the liberation that Jesus is pointing us towards, liberation that comes through acts of selfless love. This is the love that Jesus models for us, this night in the washing of the feet, and the next day in his death on the cross, the greatest of his acts of love. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the utmost. Liberation through acts of love.
The Passover tradition was also about covenant. After the Exodus, God gave the people of Israel the Ten Commandments and established his covenant with them, establishing them as a community, making them his people.
Jesus reshapes this tradition as well. Taking the cup of wine, he tells his disciples that he is establishing a new covenant. A new relationship with God is open to us. And he gives us a new commandment: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. We are not just the recipients of God’s love on the cross, not just the ones whose feet are washed. Nor are we simply to be passive observers. Instead we are called to be agent’s of God’s love in the world, following the example of Jesus, doing what he has done. This is how the new community of God’s people will be established and recognized. This is how God’s people are to be liberated. Not just by knowing these things, but by doing them.
It is the love that Jesus models for us, in the foot washing and ultimately on the cross, that liberates us and establishes us as a community in relationship with God and with each other. And the concrete expression, the sacrament of our communion with God and with each other is the meal that we will now share as we gather together around the table, in remembrance of him.