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Maundy Thursday Sermon: As He Loves Us. April 1, 2021

April 1, 2021

Today’s Dispatch is the sermon I preached for Maundy Thursday at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL. The preaching texts were John 13:1-17, 31b-35 and Exodus 12:1-14. You can view the service and the bulletin. As we continue in the Great Three Days, you are invited to join us for worship tomorrow at noon for Adoration of the Cross. The image is Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, Ford Madox Brown, 1852-6 (public domain). Be well, friends. You are loved.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace this day in the name of God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. We were gathered in a small upper room, of course. The upper room above the Bible camp chapel in central Wisconsin, to be specific. It was the final night of an intense two weeks of discipleship training for high school youth. I was one of those kids. One of our counselors wanted to commission us for service as we prepared to return to our everyday lives. Encouraging us to serve and love others as Jesus loves us, he told us he was going to wash our feet. He read the same reading from John’s Gospel that I read a few minutes ago, took out a bowl of water and some towels, and knelt down. I was not alone in protesting; this didn’t really seem like a good idea. I wasn’t worried about myself or my level of comfort. No one was forced to participate in anything that made them uncomfortable. No, I simply felt bad for this counselor, wondering whether or not he knew what he was getting himself into. I mean, had he bothered to look at our feet? We had been living in the woods for two weeks, most of us walking around in flip flops the whole time Ours were not the clean feet of suburban youth, but the dusty, dirty feet of those who’d spent two weeks communing together with God in nature. He insisted. While I can no longer recall exactly what he said, his words carried this meaning: “Of course your feet our dirty. They need washing. That’s why I’m doing this: to serve you.” Over our objections, he insisted on doing for us what Christ had done for his friends, even for objecting Peter and betraying Judas, in that upper room so many years ago.
  2. For the second Maundy Thursday in a row, we gather for worship stripped of what are usually the two main actions of this night: the sacred washing of feet and the sacrament of Holy Communion. In both the foot washing and, especially, the supper, we are encountered by the God who gives Godself to us over our objections and in spite of our sin. But make no mistake: Even apart from these holy, sensory encounters, tonight we are met by Jesus, the Christ who insists on giving himself to and for us. The Word of God is sufficient to convey Jesus Christ to us, even though we are physically disconnected from one another.
  3. It is no accident that the hour of Christ’s glorification occurs within the context of Passover. This festival stands at the center of Jewish identity, then and now, a time to remember that they worship a God who would not let them languish any longer, who insisted of liberating them from bondage in Egypt. Where once the people waited, now they hurried, eating quickly that they might follow their God to freedom. As they depart their slave quarters for the final time, they do so through doors marked with blood. On lintel and doorpost, from lambs unblemished, glistens the blood that promised life instead of death. Nourished by a simple meal of lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs, the people are delivered by the God who had not forgotten them.
  4. Now, a new thing. Jesus takes bread and gives thanks, breaks it and passes it to the disciples. He takes the cup and declares a new covenant. He tells them that in eating and drinking, they proclaim his death until he shall come again. His death, after all, is where this night is headed. Jesus wants to be certain that we do not miss the point: He is the Passover Lamb who is slain. His is the blood that ushers us into the Promised Land beyond sin and suffering, breaking the bonds death. His is the love-offering that shows how far our God would go to be with us. In a world where the Roman elite could climb the cursus honorum, or “ladder of offices,” Jesus chooses another way. So it is that before he is lifted up on the cross, he kneels at the feet of his friends, and his at the feet of his enemy, and washes them clean. In a world where we are told to constantly climb the ladder, ever upward, we see the Lord of heaven kneeling in love before us. No dirt or grime, no sin or pain, is too much for him to deal with, his kind eyes tell us as they look into ours. He washes us. He feeds us. He dies. He does all this to show that true power and glory look like love, service, and sacrifice. Jesus insists on giving himself to us and then, in the mandate for which today is named, insists that we participate in this mission of loving service. How else will this world learn of Christ and his love if we do not follow his example?
  5. Perhaps you heard, at the start of this Holy Week, the new data revealing that, for the first time since such data has been tracked, fewer than half of all Americans belong to a house of worship. We could, I suppose, wring our hands and wonder what’s gone wrong. We could pine for the good old days and complain about losing positions of power or influence. I suggest a different response, and I do so because it is what Christ commands on this night. Our job description as followers of Jesus has nothing to do with how many of us there are. It is simply to love as Christ loves us, and to do so by kneeling at the feet of those in need. As Christ gives himself to us, we, for the sake of Christ, give ourselves to the world.
  6. Goodness knows the world needs Jesus and his church as much as ever. There is so much hurt we hear of when we wake, so much oppression around us as we go to sleep. So, what do we do? We love, we serve, we witness. In the face of an increase in gun violence, we strive to be peacemakers. In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, we work to bring health and safety to those around us. In our ongoing struggle with racism, heightened now by the Derek Chauvin trial, we seek reconciliation and equity. In a world where so many go without, we provide for their needs, just as Grace members of all ages did this past weekend when they made more than 100 sandwiches for people struggling with hunger and homelessness. When we see a need, we kneel in loving service. Knowing Christ’s love, we go and we do.
  7. This morning for school chapel we worshipped via livestream, as we have throughout the school year. But throughout the day, we found each student in person. Pastor Troy or I set a time to visit with each grade, in their classroom or the church library, in the atrium or here in this sanctuary. We made a point of finding each and every child, so that we could lay our hands upon their head and speak words of absolution and blessing: “In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.” And, a coda: “You are a child of God.” While I cannot lay my hands upon you tonight and speak these words of forgiveness, know that they are for you. The King of creation kneels, washing you clean. The Lamb of God gives himself to you, marking you by blood for redemption. The Son of God, betrayed, goes out to face his death that you would receive the gift of life. All of this is for you, the gift of Jesus who insists on giving himself for you. This same Jesus calls you now into a community of love that gives itself in service to the world. Just as Christ has loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are disciples of Jesus the Lamb, if you have love for one another. As we enter these Great Three Days, let us stand in wonder beneath the cross of Christ, the Son of God who loves us this much. Amen.

And now may the peace that passes all human understanding keep you hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

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