Sermon - Maundy Thursday (4/18/2019)
Ex. 12:1-4, 11-14; Ps. 116:1-2, 12-19; 1 Cor. 11:23-26; Jn. 13:1-17, 31b-35
“Now before the festival of the Passover, 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.”
Tomorrow night, the annual Jewish celebration of Passover for the year 5779 will begin. For the people of Israel at the time of Jesus, as it was before the time of Jesus and still even to this day, the Passover is the foundational event that defines who the God of Israel is and how the God of Israel acts in the world. To the extent that we have any knowledge of the deep and profound mystery that we call God, to the extent that we can give any definition of who or what God is, Christians will say: God is whoever delivered Israel from slavery, and then raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. These are the actions of God in this world, at specific times and in specific places, for specific actually existing human beings, that reveal to us, to the extent we humans can understand it, the nature of the timeless and remote mystery we call God.
And the people of Israel, the actual historical people who were actually enslaved in Egypt and then were no longer slaves but free, they are identified for God’s avenging angel but even more for one another, by the meal that they eat together on the night before their liberation. Each household is to eat a lamb, together at the table, in haste because they cannot wait for what God is about to do. And if a household is not large enough for a whole lamb, Moses says they must join with their closest neighbor – and Moses makes a specific point that each person gets the same amount of lamb. There is to be no fighting over who gets more and who gets less, for God is freeing this people in order to live together as equals before God, where no one is greater and no one is lesser but everyone is equally a recipient of God’s astonishing grace and mercy, everyone is equally freed from Pharoah’s kingdom of domination and murder not by their own efforts but by the hand of God. So already at this table, Moses decrees, you will give each person the same share of the lamb you will sacrifice, for this is what God is freeing you to become.
But of course, the ways of Pharoah have never gone away. Those at the top of our human pyramids of power have never easily recognized the God who sets people free, and when one individual person with power or privilege stands aside there is always someone who will step up and try to take more food, more money, more glory, more power for themselves. Even in Israel, even in the New Israel of the Christian church, there have always been those who have tried to put themselves in the place of Pharoah: to force others to serve their own interests and needs, to tell others how they must live and how they must love, to reward some and punish others, to rule by spreading fear and mistrust. And they even imagine that, by standing in the place of Pharoah, they are acting as God does, with power over life and death. As a provincial governor in the Roman Empire once put it, “Do you not realize that I have the power to set you free and the power to crucify you?”
But Jesus knew, as Moses knew, that this is not how God exercises power. God’s power is the power of co-suffering love: a love that first burst into the world at Passover when a bedraggled group of recently enslaved people found themselves suddenly and inexplicably on the other side of the Red Sea, a love that God in the flesh demonstrated directly by refusing to acknowledge that Pilate’s power over him was anything compared to the power of a God who can free slaves from captivity and bring the dead to life.
And so, before the annual festival of the Passover, when the minds of all faithful Jews was on the power of God who makes a way where there is no way, who rescues God’s beloved from captivity and frees them to live in peace with one another and with God, Jesus knew that the time had come for God to act once again. And just as God’s people gathered at table the night before God freed them to begin to practice what it means to live as a free people of the living God by sharing a sacrificial meal together as free and equal partners in the mystery of God, so too Jesus gathered at table to share a meal that prefigures life in the new covenant, in the new creation, in the new life that God is bringing.
Just as every time Jesus and his disciples and their ancestors gathered together to celebrate the Passover meal, they did so to proclaim the saving mystery of the God who once delivered Israel from slavery and set them free, so too, Paul writes, “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
As you may know, even in Paul’s time, the “body of Christ” was used to mean at least three distinct but somehow interrelated things. The “body of Christ” is first the actual physical body of the actual human person Jesus of Nazareth, who was born, who lived and taught and healed, who died on a cross and who rose again and now sits at God’s right hand as the living Lord of all creation. The “body of Christ” also is the bread of communion, which – as we have been told from the beginning – Jesus commanded us to do in remembrance of him, and in which Jesus has promised to be just as present here and now and wherever believers gather in his name as he was in his physical body. And the “body of Christ” also refers, as early as Paul’s letters, to us, to believers themselves, who are gathered together in baptism and made into members of Christ’s own body.
And so Jesus not only commands his disciples to return again and again to the table to receive and become the Body of Christ in the bread and the wine, he also commands them to be the Body of Christ, to be the living and embodied presence of God in the world, through our love for one another. Through our forgiveness of one another. Through our service to a world that is still as broken as it has ever been, to people still just as much in need of being freed from fear, just as much in need of being freed from oppression and violence and poverty, just as much in need of being freed from despair and meaninglessness as any ancient Egyptian slave. It was in the body of Christ on Good Friday when God demonstrated God’s forgiving and reconciling love in the midst of the human machinery of misery and death. It is in the body of Christ broken for you and for me that you and I receive when we gather together as Christ’s body where God continues to strengthen us in our faith in God’s unique way of love. It is in the body of Christ that we are sent forth to be in this world where people are to know who God is and who Jesus is, by the love that we have for one another.
And so we come together tonight in this Passover week to begin our Easter celebration in what we call the year 2019. We remember how Jesus demonstrated God’s love for us by doing what no social superior would ever even dream of doing for a social inferior: by washing the feet of his disciples. Perhaps, like Simon Peter, we don’t think we deserve God’s love demonstrated to us in this gesture of humiliation and service. Maybe like Judas, who was also present and who also had his feet washed, we really don’t deserve it. Yet this is the God who was revealed by Jesus of Nazareth at the first Easter: a God who comes among us, who empties himself and takes the form of a slave, who accepts even humiliation and even death on a cross, so that we can be free to live as the Body of Christ, to be embodied signs of God’s love that is not above washing feet, that is not above forgiving enemies, that transforms a broken world and makes real the kingdom of the living God.