... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Maundy Thursday
Message April 02nd, 2015

Maundy Thursday: Two Sacraments One Covenant

Text: Exodus 12: 1-4(5-10)11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

While the Sunday of the Passion marks the transition between the preparatory days of Lent to the week of greatest solemnity in the Christian year, Maundy Thursday is the cusp of the bittersweet of the three days known as the triduum – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. From one generation to the next, the story of Easter begins with the events of the Thursday evening and the institution of two of the important signs of the renewed covenant God made with humanity – the washing of feet and the Last Supper.

Most of us know the import of the Last supper as the institution of our Eucharistic celebrations but few realize the import or importance of the washing of feet. And for many this small and often overlooked ceremony has been relegated to the trash heap of lost symbolisms having little relevance for modern society or for that matter modern church. To illustrate this point the news articles concerning Pope Francis’ “washing of feet” for the past couple of years has seldom made it into the news stories of the big media networks. Yet each year the Pope goes to various places such as prisons shelters for the homeless and nursing homes to do just this – wash the feet of the poorest of society. It is this humble and humiliating act which at its core represents what God has done for humanity.

To understand these two great signs of Christianity the authors of the revised common lectionary selected the four readings we heard this evening. Thus we should look at them in light of the celebration of Maundy Thursday.

The Exodus passage tells of the final plague upon the Egyptians and the event which heralded the leaving of Egypt to journey to the Promised Land. The hard heart of Pharaoh has led to the death of the first born of every animal and human in Egypt with the exception of the chosen children of Israel. Their deliverance is assumed by God and as a sign that the households of the people will be spared a great feast is to be had – But unlike ordinary feasts this is to be eaten in haste and the blood of the lambs is to be placed upon the door posts and lintels of the houses. In this act and in the night God renews the covenant with Israel, delivers them from tyranny and ensures that the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will be fulfilled. And to make sure that this is never to be forgotten each generation is to re-enact the Passover meal. Laid out as it is in the Book of Exodus the blood on the door posts, the meal prepared in detail and eaten in haste is the symbol of sacrifice, the emblem of safety and security and the sign of God’s protection. The covenant of the Lord is sure trustworthy and alive in the lives of the people!

The last supper is in itself part and parcel of the Passover remembrance. However in Christ Jesus a new meaning is given to the covenantal agreement – the meaning of a ceremonial bonding with Christ. The Passover meal honours the deliverance of the children of Israel from the Egyptian bondage, but in Christ the meal also becomes the remembrance of God here among us as the Messiah. The Last supper is both the last Passover celebration and the first Eucharist celebration. It is the renewed covenant between the Divine and the human; between Christ Jesus and those willing to follow in his steps.

The communion that we will celebrate this evening is the connection between the present Christian community and the past event of Christ’s covenant of remembrance with his disciples. In this sense it keeps fresh and new the bond between Jesus and his disciples of those days, and the disciples of each new generation.

The washing of feet, in its own way, also serves the same purpose linking the events of that particular upper room meal to how we should be in our lives today. As we hear the story of Jesus taking off his outer robe, tying a towel around himself and then washing the feet of the disicples, many of us like Peter are appalled by the thought let alone the act. For the host to wash the feet of the guests was unheard of. Even slaves and the lowest rank of society would not be expected to wash someone else’s feet. In fact in Jewish culture it was expected that one washed one’s own feet. Yet Jesus does the unexpected and Peter recoils saying, “You will never wash my feet.” To this Jesus answers, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

From this somewhat obtuse dialogue we might glean that this particular washing was much more than a cleansing of feet or a ceremonial act of humility. It is a form of a covenantal agreement in the Old Testament tradition wherein a seemingly odd act carries with it a profound meaning and a bond of commitment for the future. As such the washing of the feet becomes the sign or symbol of a sacramental cleansing and a willing commitment to submit to God in and through Christ Jesus.

This willingness to submit to God carries with it something more profound for us than a once-yearly re-enactment of the washing. What Jesus did was to turn accepted norms upon their heads. He re-defined not only hierarchical structures, but changed human understanding of relationships. Jesus’ taking on the role of foot washer placed himself on the ladder of human hierarchies below the lowest rung. He challenges our concepts of class and stratus, he throws the gauntlet down in the midst of prejudices and injustices, and in the face of pride and arrogance. He tells his disciples as he has done for the least, so they are to do and to do for one another. The one who might lead must first be one who serves, and the one who is chief among you must be like the one who is least.

Humans have a penchant and a demand for hierarchy – a pecking order. I helps us determine who’s who and keeps in place a convenient social stability as well as a protection for power. Jesus’ actions demand a re-thinking of such institutions and challenge his followers to find a new type of parity. History shows that we as a human race have been slow to grasp Jesus’ challenge or to learn his lessons, be they race relationship, gender equality, social stratus or our own personal ambitions. To love one another as Christ has loved us calls us to serve one another, to empty ourselves for the other, and to seek the best that will give glory to God and advance the will of the Kingdom and the success of the covenant.