The brief that my training incumbent gave me was for an explanatory sermon of what the service on Maundy Thursday includes, which at St. Mary’s follows from the sermon with the foot washing, continues through the Eucharist and the ‘stripping of the altar’ to process with a single reserved ‘host’ to the ‘Garden of Repose’ set up this year in our Chapel. In the ‘Garden’ a second Gospel is read, which I anticipated being Mark 14:26-end (however, I think I got that wrong but I think the sermon still made sense of the service a bit).
Tonight we are remembering three significant actions of Jesus in the last day of his life, actions that are both firsts and lasts, the significance of which are summed up for us in the new commandment that he gives to his confused disciples who will form a fledgling community of those who accept him as the Son of God. “Love one another” Jesus says. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
The Gospel reading we have just heard, focuses largely on Jesus’ washing of his disciples feet. In the dust and grime of what we now call the Holy Land, the washing of feet before meals where people reclined against each other to eat, was a hygienic necessity. Who wants their neighbour’s grimy feet near their face as they pick through the variety of dishes on offer?
Knowing that he had only a few hours of life ahead of him, it was Jesus’ last chance to feel clean before the torture that was to come. He would have been well within his rights as their “Lord and Teacher” to have asked others to wash his feet. Yet his needs are never mentioned as he himself kneels at the feet of his friends.
Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet communicates Christ’s “self-sacrificial humility” and points clearly toward his “ultimate sacrifice on the cross”*. The washing of feet was the daily action of servants and slaves, and we sense here that perhaps Jesus’ expectation was that such acts of service were to be practiced daily by his followers. Yet, as Christians today, the symbolic act has become for us, at best, an annual event on Maundy Thursday for those willing and able to bare their toes.
On this of all nights, we may feel as confused, ashamed, and uncomfortable as Jesus’ disciples in the presence of our servant-Master, but our first and hopefully overwhelming calling as Christians is to make our daily lives as near a living testament to his example as we possibly can, remembering that like Jesus, our actions – especially the unexpected or challenging ones – will often speak louder than words.
But it is the words that we will hear, ones that may be incredibly familiar to us, that speak of the second of the firsts and lasts of tonight. As we gather to receive the bread and the wine, we hear the Eucharistic Prayer, the words of institution that Jesus also asked us to repeat with actions, in remembrance of him. The Passover meal that Jesus was celebrating, was only an annual event for Jews, but he turns it, through the connection he makes to his own body broken on the cross for us, into a sacrament that for many is a weekly necessity.
We know it, particularly tonight, as the Last Supper, the final meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. Yet, in many ways it is the first meal of the new community that Jesus is setting apart for self-sacrificial service to others, and that challenges us to consider its impact on how we think and act. By being reminded of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice every time we share in the Eucharist, we are fed, strengthened, and given the impetus, to do as Jesus did. But to what extent do we feel like a community bound together by that meal, expressing our love for him in our service to and love for others?
Sometimes we know that serving the needs of others means that we have to sit quietly, watch and wait, as people wrestle with the pain of some personal anguish. We cannot make their decisions for them, they have to tread their own path, but we can be a supportive and prayerful presence in the turmoil of another’s life. After the church has been stripped bare of its linen finery, this is what we are called to do as we gather in the presence of Christ, in what is often described as the Garden of Repose.
The word ‘repose’ suggests a resting place, somewhere that is a scene of beauty, a place to lay down in our weariness. To an extent, those images are helpful; there is a beauty we encounter in the presence of Jesus. We may feel able to rest our own brokenness in the presence of the one who tomorrow will be crucified bearing the pain of our weaknesses.
Yet, as we stop there and listen to our second Gospel reading, it will become all too obvious that there was nothing restful about the Mount of Olives, and the garden of Gethsemane that night.
Jesus prophesies one last time over his disciples, a prophesy of desertion. One last time, Peter will try and argue with Jesus, that he of all people, will not, could not, will never, be so unfaithful to his Master as to walk away; only to be given the most specific prophesy of them all. Whilst it will become Judas that finally hands Jesus over to the authorities, one way or another, the remaining eleven disciples will likewise betray him.*
Just as we will. We will all walk away tonight, too tired, too sore, too much in need of our beds, to stay for long and pray for and with Jesus in his “distress and agitation” at the “prospect of what he had to do”. After sharing in that Last Supper with Christ, this may feel like our first defection from the way of self-sacrifice to which he has just called us by command and example because we know our own failings and inabilities.
Yes, “like the disciples, we will stumble”* in our attempts to follow Jesus and build a community based on the principle of seeking to “love one another”. Yet, our walking away need not be a sign of failure. Jesus turns from his anguished prayer, and his frustrations with the inadequacies of his friends and says: “Enough, let us be going!” He sets his face toward the will of his Father, the kiss of Judas, and the cross. This is not failure, it is obedience.
As we walk away from Jesus tonight, let us do so as obedient servants rather than dwelling on the probability of failure. Let tonight fill us with a hope that, in the midst of our weekness and poor efforts to follow his example of true love and self-sacrifice, we will be brought to a more comprehensive understanding of what it means to live as a community of his followers and love as he loves us.
*With a lot of thanks to Paula Gooder and her book ‘Journey to the Empty Tomb’