Maundy Thursday 2017

So many things happen on Maundy Thursday that it’s not easy to decide what to share as we gather for this meal.

There is the meal, where Jesus and his followers either eat the Passover as in the Synoptic gospels, Mathew, Mark and Luke or it is in fact, not a Passover meal as in John, and is held on the evening before the Passover. It seems John was determined to depict Jesus, the Lamb of God being killed on the same day that all the actual lambs were killed for eating on the Passover itself. [19:31]

At this last meal we don’t hear a lot about the ceremony of the Passover, but rather that Jesus takes what were familiar things to the disciples, not rare or expensive items but simple bread and wine and transforms them into eternal things. These will be referred to as his body and blood for thousands of years, surrounded by controversy and many different interpretations, yes, but so very holy and special – and received into hands and mouths with reverence and awe.

The breaking of bread and the prayers was really the basis of the early church. And it was much closer in form and content to what we do tonight than what we do on Sundays. The communion came at the end of the meal much as we will do later. 

The liturgy grew up with the Church as more and more people came to follow Jesus. It was a bit harder to organise a meal for a thousand each week than a dozen. So the venues and the form of worship evolved. 

But in essence it has to be the same. We come to share in this holy meal because Jesus said to his disciples, this is my body and this is my blood. We come to be in the presence of Jesus, and to know and to benefit from his life sustaining gift of himself in the sacrament.

We don’t come to Eucharist because of the terrific fellowship or because we like singing or that the preacher is really handsome or because we love the old Church building - although all those things may enhance our time together and we enjoy them. We come because in the sacrament as in God’s word, we come to be in the presence of Jesus Christ, to know his love and forgiveness and to share at his table.

The scriptures tell us that Jesus took the bread and broke it and he shared the cup, on the eve of his death. This sacrament that we share was Jesus gift to us just before he left us. He gave it to his people at a crucial time for them. It would be a way to remember him in a powerful way when he was no longer with them physically.  

When we share the Eucharist, Jesus is with us in a way that we cannot explain. We simply know it and we love that it’s true. And how many times have we shared bread and wine together? Many times. And I can tell you that with all my heart every time I break the bread and pray the blessing over the wine, it is such a great moment for me. Holy, sacred, and full of joy. And I know that for many of you, it’s the same when you receive. And it all began one night at the meal we remember this evening.

Then there is also the foot washing. I always joke a little about this. We all do. Feet are funny – they never look like they should. As we get older they lose youthful soft skin and perfect form and they show the wear and tear of life. 

When I see a new born baby I always check out their little hands and feet – the tiny fingers and the tiny toes. They are just so amazing.

In Jesus’ time attitudes to feet seem to have been much more practical. No worries about showing people your feet. Not so much self-consciousness about them. Feet needed to be washed when you came into someone’s house or you might mess up the place or leave footprints or something worse than that. 

The lowest in the pecking order in a house, a lowly slave usually or a woman would be given this job of washing the feet of guests at a function like this. The exception to this rule was that a wife may choose to lovingly wash her husband’s feet as a show of her tender love for him.

But apparently this night, no one was given that task and no one thought that they should do it. The disciples were happy enough to sit there with dirty, grimy feet and eat a meal with each other.  Not one of them believed it was their role to care for the others by taking up the towel and washing away the dirt clinging to their feet.

A close friend of mine who works at a local school told me recently that even the youngest boys from a middle-eastern background will balk at doing something that they deem to be women’s work. It is a cultural thing – not pretty for us to see – but maybe this is what Jesus was seeing unfolding before him

I say this because you’ll notice that Jesus carries out this task of foot-washing not before the meal as you might expect but during the meal. It may well have been something that, just as with the bread and wine, he always fully intended as something to leave to his disciples to carry on in his absence. That would make sense in the same way as his other gift to them. Remember he says about the bread and wine in the Synoptic accounts, “…do this in remembrance of me.”  And about the foot washing he says “14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

But I get the feeling there may well have been some amount of spontaneity about it. Sitting there eating away, do you think Jesus may just have been waiting for one of his chosen 12 to offer to wash the feet. But no one did. The disciples were not exactly known for their humility were they? They would argue about who was the greatest. Two of them asked for the key positions in the kingdom which they thought Jesus would lead. I can see in my mind Jesus being exasperated to the point where he gets up himself, as I say, in the middle of the meal, (during supper as the gospel tells it) and washes the feet – saying in effect and then with words, “this is how you should treat each other!”

Foot-washing on this night is in the real sense sacramental. It takes us right into the presence of Jesus. So, as I do every year, I encourage you to be brave and take the shoe and the sock off and let a representative of Jesus wash your feet or your foot. And then be struck with the meaning he gave it – this is how we should love one another.