Thursday, March 28, 2013

Maundy Thursday: A New Commandment

Back in the early 90’s I was rector of a parish in the DC metropolitan area.  I had gotten to know a conservative rabbi through our interfaith alliance there.  We had talked about the festivities of the Passover and its relationship to the Christian Eucharist.  (That is what our readings for tonight are about.)  The rabbi invited me to celebrate the ‘second Passover’ at his home with his family.  He and his wife came from different Jewish traditions:  He was Sephardim—a Jewish lineage from Spain and Yemen and she was Ashkenazy, a Jewish lineage from the Middle European communities.  So in their family ‘first Passover’ was celebrated in the style of the Ashkenazim and the second day of the feast was celebrated in the fashion of the Sephardim.
The welcome to that celebration was incredible.  Rabbi Chaim welcomed us with such warmth. My mother was visiting with me at the time and she was welcomed as a long lost friend.  Also attending were several men from Latin America who were away from their homes on the feast. The conversation was centered on the questions of the youngest child:  Why is this night different from all other nights?”  Not only was it a time to get together, and a time to instruct the children in the story of the faith, but it was also a time of remembering how God had acted in our lives. It was clear that the feast was being celebrated as directed by the Law of Moses, but conversations around the table celebrated how each family represented had been saved by God.  The men from Latin America related how their families had escaped the Inquisition in Spain in the 16th century.  The wife described how her family had escaped the pogroms of Russia and Nazi Germany.  The rabbi described how his family had survived famine in Yemen.  The Passover was not just a tired piece of history that they were reliving.  It was vibrant, immediate and explained how they had survived by the grace of God.  It was salvation history at its most intimate.

That was what Jesus was doing at the last Supper---celebrating Passover with his disciples. His disciples were from every different part of Judaism.  There were Peter, James and John from the Galilee, there were Greek Jews like Bartholomew and Philip and there was Matthew or Levi who was both a traditional Jerusalem Jew but also a tax collector.  They represented those who followed the God of Israel from various different ethnic backgrounds.   They gathered as friends to celebrate the great feast of Passover in Jerusalem and to reiterate their salvation history.  Even in Jesus’ day the Jewish adage—‘next year in Jerusalem’ prevailed.  It was the pinnacle of a Jew’s life to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem in the shadow of the Temple and among other Jews who had been forced into the Diaspora.  All Jews wanted to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem.  Jesus was no different.

There is something so profound about gathering for a meal in the name of God. 
Feasting is a part of the glue that holds communities together.  When we break bread with one another it is a sign of solidarity; it is a sign of peace.  There are many passings of the cup of wine at Passover.   And it isn’t a matter of a quick sip either.  Passover is meant to be lively—not just a matter of remembering that night in Egypt.  The Passover that Jesus wanted to share with his disciples was not a matter of having dinner at the boss’ club, or minding one’s p’s and q’s at the professor’s house.  It was truly a gathering of peers to celebrate God’s presence among them.  And that was what Jesus was inviting his disciples to.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke as well as in today’s reading from First Corinthians, we hear Jesus instituting the Eucharist adding another layer to the remembrance of salvation at the Reed Sea.   “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus says.  However, in
the Gospel of John which we hear in tonight’s Gospel, we find Jesus acting out the love which the Passover was supposed to engender.  During the meal---not before when it would have been customary to wash feet—Jesus begins to wash the feet of his disciples.  This was a common act of a slave in Mediterranean societies.  Like so many of us—we don’t want people who are peers to do such menial tasks.  But Jesus makes it very clear that if humans are so geared to class barriers, we cannot be one with one another. We cannot understand what the breaking of the bread means.
I was serving a parish in California. I had gone there to start a Spanish-speaking mission and had doubled the size of the parish in about 18 months.  One day the men of the English-speaking portion of the parish met to do some yard work on Sunday afternoon.  It was hot, dirty, hard work.  The matriarch of the parish came by and supposedly jokingly hollered at them:  “Hey, why are you doing all that?  Isn’t that what we have Mexicans for?”  It was obvious that she hadn’t understood the Eucharist that we had just celebrated.  I didn’t stay long in that parish. 

How many times have you not allowed someone else do some act of kindness because you can’t stand to be ‘beholden’ to them?  How many times do we fight over who pays the check when we have had a meal out with another?  Being ‘beholden’ is part of the
glue that holds Christian society together.  We cannot play one-up and be a Christian.  That is what Jesus is teaching in the Foot-Washing.  Eating and serving are part and parcel with one another. 

Eucharist and Foot Washing cannot be separated.  If we come to the altar to receive Christ in the Body and Blood, we also have to accept the service of washing our feet.  In order to know the grace of the sacrament, we must also know the humility of receiving the grace.

Part of the reason that Jesus got into so much trouble is that he sets the comfortable pigeon-holes we erect for ourselves on their ear.   All the class lines, all the ways we would control people are nothing in Jesus’ theology.  Love requires equality.  Love requires service.  Love requires a way of seeing the world that turned the whole of society upside down---or as one of my colleagues was fond of saying.  Jesus demanded that life be seen ‘right side up.’

Tonight Jim will wash feet.  I will not simply because I can’t get down on my knees to do it any more.  But I will wash feet in my heart.  I hope you will wash the feet of those you might feel a bit superior to, those who you might supervise, those who you might be angry with, those from whom you are estranged in your hearts.

  I hope when you receive the Body of Christ you will try to remember the ways that God has acted in your life—or the ways that your family has been saved over the centuries by God’s redeeming love.  I hope when you feel the water on your feet that you remember the meals that have glued you together with Christians everywhere. 

What we do here tonight is what reminds us of the incredible love of God ---that love that God has for us and all Creation—the kind of love that Christ mandated 2 thousand years ago that we love one another.  The word ‘Maundy’ comes from the word for commandment. Tonight is the night that reminds us of that Law of Love Christ gave and acted upon.  He acted upon that love not merely by washing the feet of his disciples.  He acted upon it by emptying himself and giving himself up to a death on a cross.  The love that he showed is the kind of love that we are called to---a self-less love.  It is the kind of love that says that there are no barriers between us, no class-levels, no reasons to claim one is Christian over another.  For he said to us:
“For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

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