|Sermon by: The Rev. Michael Merriman
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
April 13, 2017
Maundy Thursday – 7:00 p.m. Eucharist
What a strange and awkward dinner it was! Here it was, Passover season, when they remembered God’s mighty acts at the Red Sea in liberating his people from slavery. Passover when all hoped, as Jews hope every year, that this would be the Passover when Elijah would usher in the Messiah; bringing the liberation of Jerusalem and the Jewish people from all that oppressed them. It was Passover season, and they gathered to eat dinner with Jesus, the Messiah. He had arrived in Jerusalem to set up God’s Kingdom four days earlier. Tomorrow would begin the first day of Passover and no doubt it would be the day when his identity was unveiled and, with God’s angel army, he would set his people free. What a night for feasting and rejoicing!
But Jesus was a terrible host for such a party. Something was bothering him. He’d been saying strange things for days that seem to be at odds with what they believed he was to do. Just last Saturday night, having dinner in Bethany with Lazarus who he had raised from the dead a few days earlier, Mary, one of Lazarus’s sisters, had anointed him with fragrant ointment as kings and priests were anointed, he the Messiah, the anointed one. But then he said she was anointing him for his burial!
That, again! For some time, he had been making enigmatic remarks that his work was to go to Jerusalem, not to be crowned as conquering king, but to be rejected, condemned, tortured, and put to death.
Like you and me and all humans, they were doing their best to ignore those ominous remarks, for surely their best and greatest hopes were now to be fulfilled. Surely this strange dinner would soon turn into a celebraton.
But John, the Gospel writer, looking back decades later, tells us this, “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.” And it’s there I want to direct our attention.
Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
For Jesus, this was a farewell meal; he knew that one of his closest followers had betrayed him; he knew that no matter how much he tried to prepare all of them for what lay ahead, their messianic hopes for him could not be changed until it happened. All he could do this night was to try again to impress on them what his work was and how they were to go on with his work after he was gone. Can we imagine for a moment? You’re giving a dinner party and your guests are all dressed up, there’s food on the table and lots of wine (after all everyone’s going to drink at least four glasses during the meal). Everyone is excited, so excited they don’t notice how subdued you are. They don’t realize that you are saying goodbye because you know that you will die tomorrow. And right there amongst them, there’s another who is subdued because, as you and he know, he is planning to lead your killers to you.
But you go ahead because this is your last chance to share with these people who you love so dearly the most important message you have and it needs to be strong enough that they can hold on and remember it after you’re gone.
Having loved his own…he loved them to the end. So he knelt down on the floor and washed the muck of the Jerusalem streets from their feet – even Peter with his protests, and even Judas the betrayer’s feet.
Then he explains what he has done and that they are to do the same for others. , “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, 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.”
Such love! But here’s another part of that love that is omitted from tonight’s reading. Jesus then told them that one among them would betray him. Imagine the shock! Everyone starts looking around the table to figure out who it is. Murmurs, sidelong glances. Finally, the disciple closest to Jesus asked him who it was that would betray him and Jesus told him it was the one he would give a piece of bread to, and Jesus then gave that piece to Judas. More love here; for in that culture, the way to express special love and favor to one of your guests was to give them a piece of food from your own plate. Jesus loved his own, even Judas, to the end.
And Judas went out, and, John tells us, “It was night.”
But having loved his own, Jesus loved them to the end. And the meal went on. No doubt Jesus’ subdued, even grieving manner made it a quieter and still awkward time. He then taught them, and you and I can still read the Gospel writer’s summary of that teaching in the rest of Chapter 13 and on through Chapter 17.
Then to the Garden where Jesus prayed and they drowsed; confused, perhaps a little woozy, since some probably had more wine than was good for them in an attempt to drown their sorrows and confusion.
Now, this Jesus is, as Paul wrote, the image of the invisible God. All the fullness of God dwelt in him. “The Father and I are one.” Jesus had said.
My friends, this is God from God, Light from Light, true God from True God, one in being with the Father, facing death, God loving his own to the end. How to explain?
We can’t. But what I believe and hold to is that here we see God face to face. Here we learn, as we sang at the beginning of tonight’s service, “God is love…God who laid the earth’s foundation, God who spread the heavens above, God who breathes through all creation: God is Love, eternal Love.” Love, the hymn says, “enfolds us [and] every child of every race, and all the world in one embrace. Love: when human hearts are breaking under sorrow’s iron rod, we find that selfsame aching Love deep within the heart of God. Sin and death and hell shall never over us final triumph gain; for God is Love, so Love for ever over the universe must reign.
John doesn’t bother to describe the sharing of the bread and wine and Jesus’ words at that point because for his readers it was an old story already written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul. But as C. S. Lewis wrote once: Jesus at that moment ‘His body still unbroken and His blood unshed, he handed them the bread and wine, saying they were his body and blood.
Having loved his own, he loved them to the end.
Humans have tried to describe God in many, many ways throughout history, and even, or especially, in the Bible. Judge, warrior, betrayed husband, nursing mother, rock, bear, eagle, angry father, grieving father, forgiving father, death dealer, loving husband, welcome guest and more and more.
But on that night and once again here, tonight, God is unveiled fully and we see God as God is; Love, eternal love.
God made flesh washing our feet with the hands of one another here tonight, feeding us with his life, giving us the on-going sign that over all, God is Love.
Having loved his own, he loved them to the end. Tonight each of us can be the loving Christ washing the feet of others. Each of us be disciples whose feet are washed by Christ as he is embodied in the hands of one of our fellow Christians.
For when we respond to his call to follow him, we become the means by which Jesus continues to love his world and all its people even to the end.
For God is Love, eternal Love, and loving his own, he continues to love us and all people: and to love all people in and through us who are his living Body and Blood. So come and be washed and wash others. Then come bring the gifts of bread and wine that are yourselves. Be transformed once again into the Body of the living Christ in the world. Come be the means by which, here and now in our own day, Jesus loves his own even to the end, and into the life that will never ever end.