As I was writing the sermon for tonight, I realized that maybe we have structured our evening all wrong. We actually started off on the right foot. We gathered over a common meal, assembled by dishes from each of our homes (or from the deli you swung by on the way here). Our meal was a feast made by many hands, and completely organic – shared out of the varying gifts we bring. In fact, we even did things in a way that was more in line with what Paul wanted for the Corinthians. The passage that we read tonight from First Corinthians is mostly just the familiar text that includes Jesus’ institution of Holy Eucharist. But in the verses before what we read tonight, Paul admonishes the Corinthians. Instead of a true Eucharistic meal, where bread and wine are shared equally and intentionally, the Corinthians have gotten into the habit of having communal meals, but everyone fends for themselves. In other words, their meal would be like if Kathleen had made a homemade casserole, Kim had grabbed Chinese takeout for her and the kids, Lois had brought the finest filet mignon with a glass of wine from a local fine dining establishment, and I showed up empty-handed. Except in Corinth, you eat what you bring. If you show up empty-handed, you leave hungry. Unlike the Corinthians, at least we got that part right tonight.
But if I had been thinking, instead of coming up here to our beautiful worship space, we would have stayed downstairs. Mid-meal, I would have taken off my jacket, rummaged around for a towel and bowl from our kitchen, and started washing your feet. As I moved from table to table, we would have talked about what I was doing, and why Jesus did the same for his disciples. You see, tonight, we hear the story that is only found in John’s gospel about how Jesus teaches the disciples to love and serve one another and their neighbors. In order to love, which is going to be their primary mission, they will need to be able to get down on the floor among the crumbs and the remains of the festivities, and tenderly care for one another.
And further, had we been feeling really countercultural, I would have grabbed a loaf of bread that someone got at Stop-N-Shop, and some wine sitting on the beverage table, and we would have talked about how on the night before Jesus is betrayed, he breaks bread with his friends, telling them that the bread is his body, and the wine is his blood – given for them. We would have passed the loaf around, tearing the bread into bite-sized pieces, dropping blessed crumbs everywhere, and looking into each other’s eyes as we pass the bread, reminding each other that this is the body and blood of our Lord.
If I had been thinking, that is what we could have done tonight – because that is what happens on this last night for Jesus: a downhome, shared, messy meal, with uncomfortable, intimate moments, and a meal that does not necessarily feed our bellies but feeds our souls. But Jesus’ words and experiences that night are not just for the disciples. His words are words for the future. He knows his death is coming. In the face of death, he longs to remind the disciples what they will need to do after his death. This last night is all about Jesus’ final instructions to the disciples.
That is why we call this day Maundy Thursday. Maundy comes from the Latin word for mandate. On this night we remember Jesus’ mandate to love one another as he has loved us.[i] We remember Jesus’ mandate to serve. And we remember Jesus’ mandate to eat together, feasting on the holy meal. Where we remember that mandate does not actually matter – whether we remember among the old stones of a Cathedral, in the cozy, board and batten sanctuary of St. Margaret’s, or in the bustling, laughter-filled, sometimes messy Undercroft. The location matters much less than the intentionality with which we listen to Jesus’ words.
Tonight I invite you walk through the last night of Jesus experiencing the tangibility of this night: a meal with fellow believers, the washing of feet, Holy Communion, and the stripping of the altar as we head into the night watch. But I also invite you to remember Jesus’ final mandate: to love as he has loved us, to serve others, and to sustain our work through the holy meal. The actions of this night are important, but even more important is the way that this night changes us tomorrow. Amen.
[i] Mike Graves, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 271.