April 5, 2012 Maundy Thursday
John is a very interesting Gospel in a lot of ways and on Maundy Thursday especially. In John’s Gospel, there is no story of Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, Holy Communion. In John’s Gospel Jesus never says, “This is my body,” or “This is my blood.” He doesn’t say, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
There is a last supper, but it is a supper like any other shared between friends who are saying goodbye. At this last supper, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet.
Instead, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Passover lamb. He is nailed to the cross and killed on the day that the lambs were sacrificed in the city of Jerusalem. Being a vegetarian, I hate to dwell too much on the slaughter that day. Even meat eaters would probably prefer not to think of how that meat came to be on their plate.
Remember the Passover was celebrating God leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and safe through the Red Sea. The blood of the slaughtered lambs was spread on the doorposts so the angel of death would pass over that household and not kill the firstborn of the Israelites. The practice also goes back to an ancient ritual in which all the sins of a tribe or village would be placed somehow on a goat and this scapegoat would be driven out of the village or sometimes over a cliff so there could be a kind of starting over. So now Jesus becomes the scapegoat in John’s Gospel. His blood is on our doorposts so that God will pass over us and our sins and spare us.
Some of the pastors were having a debate about whether we could consider it forgiveness if God demanded that his son pay the price for us instead. If I owed a debt to you and someone else paid it for me, that wouldn’t be forgiveness. That would be somebody else paying my debt. None of us was too fond of the idea of God demanding payment and sacrificing his Son in an abusive, cruel way.
The Passover started out as a way of the Israelites marking their doors to distinguish themselves from the Egyptians. It was a way of saying who you belonged to—that you belonged to God. It was a way of getting God’s protection.
Then later the Passover became a meal of remembrance. It was a time of remembering and celebrating God’s saving action. God could bring the Israelites through that time of slavery into freedom. God is powerful and continues that saving action. It is a way of remembering the kind of God we belong to. It is a time to thank God for saving the people.
So this evening we are thanking God that we are saved. Betsy Belles asks this question about being saved: “Saved from what?” Are we saved from disease, trouble, betrayal, hell, or death? No. We still have to face those things. We aren’t going to have less troubles than other people. In fact Jesus invites us to go toward difficulties—to speak truth even when we’re ridiculed, to be with the hungry and imprisoned and sick. Jesus asks us to take up our cross and follow him into death. And Jesus even went into hell, according to the creed. We, too, may find ourselves in hell, as we go out to the most dismal places and meet with people who have no hope.
Instead, maybe we could ask on this Passover night, what are we saved for? If God saves and frees us, why, what for? The Gospel speaks to this quite clearly. We are saved to love and to serve. We are marked to love and to serve.
We are to love. We read this night that, “Having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end.” He loved them so deeply. He wanted to show them how much he loved them. He wanted to show them tenderness and care. He wanted to take time with each of them. And he wanted to show them how to love and care for one another as you would yourself.
Washing feet is very intimate activity. It is something you only do with those you are most intimate with. I wash my own feet. Nobody else washes them for me. And I wash my baby’s feet. I’ve never washed someone else’s feet so often and so thoroughly. I know his toe jam better than I know my own. I clip his toenails more often than I clip my own. What new mom has time to care for her own feet? I know each little piggy. I play games with his feet. I blow raspberries on the bottoms of them, eliciting squeals of delight. I doubt the last supper was anything like jammie time at our house. But there is a sense of intimacy—of closeness that only family shares.
We are to serve. We are to humble ourselves to handle the feet of our friends and neighbors—to take the lowest job, to be last in line, to know every wrinkle and callous and bunion and toe hair and ingrown toe nail. Jesus had feet just like we do. The previous week he gets his feet washed with perfume and dried with Mary’s hair. He humbles himself to learn from her what will be a fitting goodbye gift for his disciples. He listens to their stories. He looks in their eyes. He gives them a pedicure. He knows the texture and contours of their skin with the touch of his hand. He came as king, not to rule, but to serve and to show us how to serve.
So this night is about history—God’s history of saving the people. It is about thanking God. It is about remembering. It is about letting God claim us and touch us and transform us into servants of one another so that the Kingdom can come and bring hope to this world.