Maundy Thursday (March 29, 2018)

The Three Days is a single liturgy that takes…three days. It means so much it cannot be acted out in less time. Today is Maundy Thursday, Part One.

These three days stand juxtaposed to the rest of Holy Week, and the rest of the year. One of the ways we enact this is by reading John’s Gospel during the Three Days. On Palm Sunday we read Mark’s account of the Last Supper and the Passion. On Easter Sunday we will read Mark’s account of the Resurrection. On the Three Days, we read those stories from John. Thus the Three Days stand in tension with the rest of Holy Week, just as John’s gospel stands in tension with Mark’s. They are similar accounts—it has been noted innumerable times that for all their uniqueness the gospels agree on most major details. Those differences, though, are important. One in particular affects the way we understand tonight.

All of the Gospels mention a last supper, but in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it is a Passover meal—the one prescribed in the Exodus reading tonight. In other words, Passover was Friday (with the meal coming at sundown on Thursday). In John’s Gospel, Jesus is crucified on the Day of Preparation for the Passover. Passover was Saturday (and anyone having the Passover meal would eat it after sundown Friday). It’s a significant difference. The question of who is “right” is interesting; the question of John’s point is more important for us tonight. By John’s chronology, Jesus carries his cross to Golgotha on Friday as the Passover lambs are being slaughtered. In other words, John presents Jesus as the true Passover Lamb, the lamb whose slaughter marks our freedom from bondage, the lamb we share at the ritual that defines who we are. That means by John’s chronology (and therefore by our chronology in the Three Days), Maundy Thursday is not Passover. Maundy Thursday is the start of our preparation for Passover. Maundy Thursday is the night that Jesus tells his disciples how to live as his people.

He washes their feet and tells them they will keep doing this. Washing one’s feet is important in a world in which everyone walks around in sandals and the streets are swimming with refuse and animal waste. Just as some of us may ask guests to take off shoes when entering, anyone in those days would expect a guest to wash their feet before entering. This is nasty work and you must do it for yourself. Requiring another to wash your feet was so demeaning that the rabbis forbade Jews from requiring their Jewish slaves to clean their feet. Sometimes students would voluntarily wash their rabbi’s feet as a sign of devotion to them.

Jesus undertakes this act of service, this act lower than slavery, a reversal of the rabbi/student relation, a reversal of the god-and-creature relation. They upon whom the universe depends for existence and who holds the universe in their hand has become less than nothing in order that we might live and have fellowship with them. Then, Jesus tells his disciples to do the same for each other. Jesus’ service to us opens a fellowship among us. We are in a community of faith because of him, and we commune together with him when we enact for each other the same service he enacted for us. We see Jesus when we serve our neighbor. If you’ve heard me preach at all over the last couple of years you’ve heard me say it. This is where I get it. On this, Maundy Thursday, Jesus—through his words and his actions—teaches us that we are who we are, free from bondage to sin, because of the service that Jesus performs for us and that we in turn perform for others.