A Sermon preached on March 24th, Maundy Thursday, at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenExodus 12:1-14, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Tonight is an evening full of symbols in a week, Holy Week, which is already rich in symbolism. What did we do or what will we do, and what ideas do our actions represent?
We already had supper together, though the main element of our meal tonight, soup, was not very scriptural, but I fear our neighbors might not be happy if we roasted a whole lamb over an open fire outside in the garden. I know for sure that the Denkmalschutz, the monuments’ commission, would not be happy if we started splashing blood all over our recently renovated sandstone portal. But our shared meal is still, just like the meal the Israelites had before the Passover of the Lord, a symbol of being ready and prepared for a journey and a sudden call. That is why they had to eat it with their loins girded, with sandals on their feet, and hurriedly.
Our next symbolic act will be the foot washing right after the sermon. While it was often something that happened after a long, dusty journey, in the context of tonight’s service it is a sign of loving, humble service. I only recently learnt that for many churches in the Anabaptist or Mennonite tradition foot washing is an important sacrament and is celebrated more than once a year for that very reason.
Then we will have a second, even simpler meal, the one we share every week in the Eucharist: just bread and wine. This meal, Paul tells is, is a sign of Christ’s death on the cross: as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death.
Then at the end of the service we will strip the altar, all decoration will be removed, all the hangings taken down. We will make the space as bare as possible. In doing so we are reminded of how Christ stripped himself of all that was divine to become a human and to share our lives with us and of how he was stripped of all his clothing before his painful execution on the cross.
Finally, after the service we have a symbolic all-night vigil as we watch and wait with Christ, just as he asked the disciples to watch and wait with him during that long night between his sacrificial meal, and his real sacrifice.
However, symbols are more than just reenactment. If they are to have meaning, they must also be a means of participation and transformation. If they are not to be empty rituals then we must be able to make the symbol part of our lives.
So what is the deeper meaning of the two meals and the foot washing that we heard about in tonight’s readings, and how can we make that meaning part of our lives?
As I said a moment ago, the Passover meal is a symbol of being ready and prepared for a long and arduous journey – a 40-year journey of liberation. Celebrating Passover is a way in which each successive generation of Jews, however comfortable their existence might have become, could participate in the first escape from oppression and tyranny. As we know from history however, far too often the existence of our Jewish brothers and sisters was anything but comfortable, for which we Christians have frequently also been responsible. So the Passover meal continued to be a meal of hope …… of liberation and of release from the current version of persecution.
Why should we “proclaim the Lord’s death” as Paul writes to the Corinthians? What is good about his death? Well, both his death and the Communion meal in and through which we remember it are an act of liberation. In Communion, we participate directly in Jesus’ sacrificial death, the giving of his body and the shedding of his blood. Jesus’ death defeated the powers of sin and death for all time. Oppression, tyranny, abuse of power, and terror are still around of course and death and fear are their chief weapons. But Jesus’ sacrifice has conquered both: we do not have to fear death anymore and without that fear, we are free from the slavery to sin.
Then, after two passages and events that have liberation as their core theme, in the Gospel we hear how Jesus slips into the role of a slave to wash his friends’ feet. Not only that, this act of is one we, like the disciples, should follow: “For I have set you an example; that you also should do as I have done to you.” (13:15) Isn’t this a bit strange – why should we make an act of slavery the center of our worship, why should we relive the foot washing? Because it is also an act of liberation. Washing someone else’s feet, a very intimate gesture, is a sign of humility and of personal liberation from all that keeps us from fully loving God and the other: from exaggerated self-importance, the illusion of complete self-reliance, and the desire for control.
Jesus’ action is symbolic of his coming sacrifice and of the love he embodies. He is proclaiming by doing. No one is greater, no one is above loving service, not even the Son of God. If we want to make this symbol part of our lives, then we have to follow the new commandment he gives the disciples: “That you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (13:34)
The Passover event and Paul’s account of the Last Supper remind us of God’s liberating power. God has liberated us from death, and from the fear of death, and from all that stands between us and God. In Jesus, we have received God’s greatest gift, God’s Son – as our Lord, our Teacher, our companion, and our example. Finally, the Last Supper and the Foot Washing remind us that the example we follow, through simple acts of sharing and service, is self-giving, sacrificial, all-inclusive love: nothing more and nothing less.