Sermon for Maundy Thursday - March 29 2018

Sermon for Maundy Thursday, Year B
March 29, 2018
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Jesus speaks of the Son of Man being glorified, and of God being glorified in him.  What does he mean?

Theologian Philip Krey[1] argues that God is glorified in the full act of crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.  These are not singular events that stand alone; they must be read together, held together, and understood together, as a complete unit.  God is and is not glorified in the crucifixion, is and is not glorified in the resurrection, and is and is not glorified in the ascension – no one act constitutes the glorification; all are integral and central and necessary, each to the other.

And you thought this was going to be a simple discussion of Jesus’ act of service in washing the disciples’ feet, that perhaps I would tell you the washing is another form of baptism – all the dirt gathered on sandaled or bare feet is removed through this humble act on his part, just as we are cleansed of sin through his submission to the cross. 

But the two are linked.  God is glorified in service, whether in an act that would ordinarily be the job of a slave, or in an act that would ordinarily be the consequence of a criminal act against Rome.  Small or large, simple or momentous, Jesus’ humility is the common element.  No job is too dirty, no act is too humiliating for him, if humanity is to be saved.

As I promised on Palm Sunday, the topic of the day for this Maundy Thursday is Christian suffering.  How we define what is suffering for the Lord is an important question, because it impacts how we treat those around us.

Are we suffering for the Lord if we are told we can’t deny a marriage license to a same-sex couple if we are the county clerk, or that we can’t refuse to bake a cake if we own a bakery, or that we can’t have a Christmas crèche on the courthouse lawn if we are a church group, or say a prayer over the school intercom if we are a Christian student or teacher?  What about if we are condemned for advocacy for LGBTQ persons, or for ordaining women to preach? 

Some would say yes, that is suffering for the Lord, for our Christian faith.  Others would say, no, absolutely not. 

What does it mean to suffer for Christ?

The first place to look, I would suggest, is to the life of Christ and the apostles and disciples.  Jesus was killed, because his ideas about God were so far outside the mainstream of the Jewish traditions, that he threatened the very structures that maintained them and that they maintained.  He ate with people no righteous person, striving to live as he or she believed would please God, would join at table.  He hung out with the sick, with women, with tax collectors, with crazy people – and all this would make him “impure” by Levitican standards, such that he could not enter into the Temple for worship.  He regularly violated the Sabbath, which the Lord had clearly set up as a day for no work, a day set apart for rest and renewal.  He interpreted the scriptures in new and challenging ways.  And, perhaps worst of all, he was not afraid of those who would enforce the rules.

I think it’s safe to say he was killed because his life represented a faith outside the norms; he was persecuted for the way he followed the Father; he was killed for his faith.

And apostles and disciples suffered martyrdom because they spread the Gospel about Jesus Messiah far and wide, upsetting the status quo, challenging the religious assumptions and the religious authorities, and refused to toe the line with either the Temple or Rome.

Insofar as they were Jewish, they were seen as traitors to Israel; insofar as they were Greek or Roman, they were seen as traitors to Rome.  It did not end well for so many of them.

They were persecuted, suffered, and were killed because they believed that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, come to fulfill the Jewish scriptures, and to cast down the mighty from their seats, as Mary so famously said.

So we can start there and say, quite easily, yes, they suffered for the faith.

But what message did they speak about that?  How did they understand that suffering?  That it was a privilege.  That it was a gift of grace that they were able to suffer as the Lord suffered, to participate more fully in his experience and his life, to feel and to learn and to know what he went through.  They did not seek martyrdom, but they were, like him, not afraid of it, either. 

And here’s a key point: they didn’t fight back.  They didn’t insist that, because they believed Jesus to be the Son of God, they should be immune from suffering. They didn’t insist that because they were faithful, other people should honor them, obey them, or agree with them. 

They knew that the world did not value their message; but they did know the joy of believing it nonetheless.  And it was the message of joy in believing that they shared with their friends and neighbors, and to the extent they were able to do so, with their persecutors as well.

Their martyrdoms were a form of Christian witness.  Their selfless submission, giving up families, positions, fortunes, and their lives, were all a form of Christian witness – a witness to a Savior who gave all for them, and for all the world.  And that witness drew followers, hundreds upon hundreds, upon thousands, and more. 

This is problematic for us – because we are very uncomfortable with the thought that we should simply bow to injustice or persecution; if God loves us, then surely God does not wish us to be subjected to abuse.  We – rightly – urge victims of domestic violence to leave, and to prosecute their abusers.

After all, Jesus stood up for all sorts of people who weren’t living the life that the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, or even Romans thought was right, including women of low repute – women in general, actually.  And tax collectors.  He placed responsibility in the hands of uneducated fishermen, I ask you.  He chastised the rich and called out those who abused their political power. 

But after all that, he also submitted to the cross, falsely accused and condemned simply because he upset the status quo. 

Where is the line drawn between standing against injustice and submitting to it?  For him, I think, he drew it at that dinner with his friends.  He drew it when he took off his robe, wrapped a towel around himself, knelt down and washed their dirt-encrusted feet.

One of my favorite theologians, Bishop Steven Charleston, wrote a reflection from a clergy perspective, about washing feet.  He said, "I have washed the feet of others, both literally and figuratively, through my many years of spiritual life.  I have done so not only as a ritual but as a practice, an intentional effort to both understand and embody one virtue every religion teaches: humility.  To humble oneself is not self-denial or self-degradation.  It is not pretense or subservience.  It is, in fact, a very fine line of being, a perfect balance of servanthood and liberation, where the dignity of the individual is uplifted through devotion to the welfare of others.  The lesson to be learned is that it is not all about me, but in learning it I discover I am part of something even greater.  Humility is an art and a validation."

“It is not all about me.” 

Jesus submitted because, even though he was the Son of God, the Messiah, the promised Savior, the Redeemer, the Word and the Truth, it was not all about him.

It was about God acting, once again, to save the people of God, the children of God, the heirs with him of everlasting life.  It was about God acting, once again, to renew the whole world, all of God’s beautiful creation.

It was and is, an act of service, of humility, by God, towards humanity, because God’s greatest desire is that we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  And it was, and is, an act of service and humility – and a model for what we can offer to others.  However justly or unjustly we are treated; our first obligation is always to love – to love God, and love our neighbors as ourselves. 

It is about humility. Even if it means suffering for Christ.


[1] Philip D. Krey, President and Ministerium of New York Professor Early Church, Lutheran Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA.   Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, David Bartlett et all, eds. © 2008 Westminster John Knox Press.

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