- Parish House
Sermon for Maundy Thursday
The Rev. Patricia Matthews
We don’t always understand things as they are happening. Sometimes, it is only in hindsight that we can see clearly.
Like on that Thursday night in Passover, so many centuries ago. The disciples were befuddled at all the events swirling around. Jesus knew this and tells Peter, as he is washing his feet, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
So on this holy night, we can ask ourselves: Now, some 2,000 years later, do we understand what was going on?
The church’s history is littered with people trying to sort out this very question.The first few centuries of the church were marked by conflicts, councils, and creeds – all attempts to figure out who Jesus was and what his life, death, and resurrection meant.
Our tradition carries good theories about Jesus and agreed upon orthodoxy, but theologians across the centuries have continued to wrestle with and wonder at the deep mystical questions of who Jesus was and what happened on this night.
There are two mystics who stretch our imaginations about this question.
Evelyn Underhill, a 20th century British mystic (echoing a 16th century French writer Pierre de Bérulle) suggests this:
That on this night, Jesus clearly revealed that “Christ, Himself, is the major sacrament.”
If a sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace – then these mystics thought that Jesus is the greatest “visible sign of the nature of the Eternal God”.
In Jesus, we get to actually see, through “a real man, a real life, a real death in time and space”, just what the invisible God looks like. That’s a sacrament.
And on this night, Jesus reveals much of who God is. Jesus shows that God loves extravagantly.
The moment when Jesus bends down and begins washing the disciples’ feet, we start to see this.
In the account of this night in Matthew, Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him three times before the rooster crows – and yet, knowing this, Jesus bends down and washes his feet.
Perhaps, Jesus also knows that James and John are going to, later this night, fall asleep while Jesus prays in the garden right before being arrested. hey are going to let him down and yet, Jesus bends down and washes their feet.
And Jesus says that he knows what Judas is going to do. Judas’ betrayal must have broken Jesus’ heart, and yet, Jesus bends down and washes his feet.
If Jesus is the Greatest Sacrament, revealing the nature and grace of God, then what we learn is that the heart of God loves extravagantly, with no conditions, with no judgement.
This inward grace of God is outwardly revealed through Jesus’ actions on this night, and that grace is given to the disciples – the same ones who will act like they don’t know Jesus, who will let him down when he needs them most, and who will actively contribute to his death. That’s what the heart of God looks like.
And we can be assured, this heart of God has not changed. It is still the same heart – reaching out, trying to wash the feet of everyone in the room. Longing to love us. Longing to be in close contact with us. Even though God knows that we will inevitably let God down.
That’s what we learn about God from the Sacrament that is Jesus.
But there is more.
On this night, Jesus also reveals how God blesses.
Jesus says you ought to wash each other’s feet. You are blessed if you do this.
We may hear that as a rule – to go out and do good things. But what if it isn’t a rule?
What if it is instead an invitation for the disciples – and maybe even for us, the Church – to continue Jesus’ work of revealing the interior nature of God’s heart to the world?
Evelyn Underhill says that in this invitation to wash each other’s feet and to love one another, Jesus is asking the Church to be “His Mystical Body, the organ of His continued presence” and to continue the sacramental work he began.
Jesus is asking us, as his disciples, to keep the sacrament going, to keep showing the world what the heart of God looks like – by washing each other’s feet, which means we continue loving one another as he loved us. In this, we will be blessed – and we will be blessed because this will lead us into deeper communion with God.
Christ seems to have been deeply aware of the fragility and failings of human nature, how our hearts tend to reside in fear or anxiety, disagreements and disappointments. How we have a tendency to align our identities with political factions or cultural forces. Christ knows that there are plenty of competing attractions, longings, and demands for our love.
But he makes this simple and plain offer: that our identity can be as steady and grounded as his – when we know from where we come and to where we will return – into the heart and grace of God. Love as he loved, be one with Jesus, be one with God – and there, we get to rest in freedom.
All these revelations come tonight from the Greatest Sacrament: Jesus.
Jesus washes the feet of those who let him down – exposing God’s extravagantly loving heart. Jesus offers to make us his continuing Sacrament in the world – when we love one another. And Jesus shows us that we can place our whole identity in knowing from where we come and where we will return – into the interior life of God through Jesus.
None of this is a demand.
None of this is a rule book to follow, lest we be punished.
None of this is a way to be perfect, in order to gain God’s love.
But rather, all of this is
a way to find refuge in the heart of God.
a way to know how much God loves us.
A way to continue to share that love with the world.
We can be gentle with ourselves, as Jesus was gentle with the disciples. We can let this love build in us – slowly, over time. Tonight, we don’t have to have a sudden transformation.
But as the altar is stripped, and as we live through the next few days without Jesus’ body and blood, we can wonder about all this – what he offered us, what he revealed about the interior grace of God. And we can realize that the revelations don’t end tonight.
On Easter morning, Jesus will show us even more about the grace of God, about how all things, including death, are taken into God and held there in love. That is where we, too, are held, on this holy night.