Today is Maundy Thursday. “Maundy” comes from the same Latin word as the more familiar “mandate.” Maundy Thursday is so named because this is the night we remember Jesus’ commandment (mandate) to his disciples to love one another as he has loved them.
Maundy Thursday begins the holiest three days of the Christian year. Suffice it to say I still do not know where or if I will worship tonight. It is far to awkward to go anywhere where I am known, and any place else feels uncomfortably foreign to me. I certainly can understand, now better than ever before, why congregations are not attracting new people. Visiting a church for the first time feels like walking into someone else’s family reunion where even the language is strange. But that’s a reflection for another day. .
Today I thought I’d share one of my old Maundy Thursday sermons with you. I have not written much about my faith here. For so many reasons, I simply have not felt able to give expression to the lostness and despair I have felt since having resigned from my last call. This morning I experienced the need to dig through my old sermons in search of something that might speak a word of assurance and hope to me on this holy day. I found it.
This is an old sermon. I think I preached it twice. At least once in both parishes I served. I probably stole the idea from a published sermon resource, so I won’t claim complete originality, but the words are mine, at least those of the pastor I used to be. I sorely needed to read them this morning and I humbly share them with you here.
A sermon for Maundy Thursday based on John 13:1-17, 31b-35:
Peter simply could not believe it. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” he asks. “You will NEVER wash my feet!” And Peter recoils.
We know why. Being washed by another is an experience of great vulnerability. Do any of us really want to have someone seeing the secrets we keep hidden in our socks? Our corns and callouses and ingrown nails? Do any of us really want to be so vulnerable as to have someone else hold our secrets in their hands?
“It is necessary,” Jesus tells Peter. “If you are to be part of me, it is necessary. One day you will remember and understand.”
Think back to the last time someone else washed you.
For some of us here tonight, that memory might be a wonderfully romantic one—a memory of being caressed with a sudsy washcloth held in the hand of the one person you love most in the world—someone almost more familiar to you than you are to yourself.
Others of us might remember a stay in the hospital, being too sick or immobilized to take shower, and needing to be bathed by a nurse. How awkward and embarrassing at first—secret places bathed and rinsed by unfamiliar hands—but, afterwards, refreshment—refreshment and gratitude because, afterwards, you realize how much you had needed that bath.
Others, still, might be trying to remember what it was like to be washed by a parent or grandparent as an infant—squirming and screeching all the while; or, as a toddler, splashing water all over the person who was trying, ever so patiently, to wash between tiny toes and under thrashing arms and legs.
Being washed is almost the first thing that happened to us when we were born, and it will be the very last thing that happens to us after we have died. Washed carefully—tenderly, by someone else. On this very night, all those years ago, knowing he was about to die, Jesus gathered with those he loved to share a meal in an upper room.
John’s gospel tells us that he later rose from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around his waist. He then poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet. We can only begin to imagine the awkwardness and hesitancy in that room.
Here was their teacher and Lord kneeling at their feet, taking their corns and callouses and ingrown nails—all their secrets—into his hands. Judas was there. Peter, too. Jesus washed ALL their feet—carefully and tenderly. Then, Jesus asked them: “Do you know what I have done for you?”
John’s gospel does not record any answers that the disciples might have volunteered. Perhaps they were too afraid of saying the wrong thing to say anything. After all, even all these years later, do we understand any better why Jesus did what he did? —understand what it means to serve?
Like Peter, I suspect most of us would prefer to avoid our Lord kneeling at our feet and taking our secrets into his hands. Perhaps the key to this night lies in the exercise of imagination with which we began. We reached back in our memories for a time when someone else bathed us. Isn’t that (and so much more) what we can imagine Jesus is offering to his disciples and to us this night?
To be close to us as a lover—but one who will never push us away or break our hearts; to be our healer and our nurse—tending to us during the night sweats and the daytime agonies; to be like a patient parent—always eager to welcome us home,even—especially—after our worst tantrums.
Through this simple action of washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus shows us how to let go of our fear and embrace life—including our vulnerability, including … even death—through the One who went ahead of us, and accompanies us even now.
“Do you know what I have done to you? … I have given you an example,” Jesus says.
This night reminds us, that unless we can receive the presence of Christ—in the so-many-ways he comes to us; unless we can dare to become just a little more vulnerable, a little less self-sufficient and overly modest; we can never fully share the life that Jesus is holding out to us.
On this night, dear friends, our Lord invites us to place our terrors and fears, our sins and secrets,to place all of it into his hands; to kneel in confession, to pause in his life-giving presence, and experience the refreshment of the cool waters of forgiveness and renewal that he so wants to pour over us.
Bathe in the wetness of his redeeming love—the love of One who will never push us away or break our hearts; the love of our healer and our nurse; the love of a patient parent always eager to welcome us home, and, finally, the love of our Savior, who will willingly face death that we might have eternal life.
May each and every one of us remember the refreshing dampness of his grace. Forever. Amen.