Maundy Thursday: How to Love

March 24th, 2016

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

Welcome to the Triduum.

We have arrived and together we now embark upon this holy journey, this holy walk with Jesus over the next few days. Each year we repeat this dramatic walk together and yet each year it is wholly different because we are different. Each spring we come to this dramatic unfolding, this remembering through anamnesis – that is remembering through participating, by placing ourselves inside the last supper.

Jesus is a dead man walking. He has been singled out and marked by the Romans, by the Jewish authorities who wish him dead, and by Judas his very own disciple who will betray him.

Jesus and the disciples are gathered in the Upper Room gathered around the table, breaking bread together, drinking wine, and sharing the Passover meal. But like many meals with Jesus, I imagine this one was also tense.

When you’re in a tense environment, how do you act? Are you scared or frightened? Do you get angry and shout? Do you cry? Are you more fragile or argumentative? I imagine the disciples could have been any of these this night. Certainly, this Passover dinner was anything but normal because they had finally started to catch on to Jesus’ warning of his imminent death.

The political climate was a tinderbox. The Romans needed nothing to be provoked at this point. And looking across the table at Judas, looking into his eyes, Jesus knew. He could see the deception, the betrayal written across his face.

When children or groups of people are upset and fearful, getting worked up into a frenzy, a calm and capable teacher knows just what to do. Jesus knew exactly what to do. A great teacher gets their attention – not by yelling or contributing to the stress and chaos, but by coming down to their level quietly, right alongside them, and modeling calm, confident presence. I’ve seen this very thing with skilled teachers.

Jesus responds to Judas’ imminent betrayal and their mounting fear with calm, deliberate action. It’s strange, but it’s just the right thing to do. As their teacher, their rabbi, he stands up from the table in the middle of the Passover meal and begins washing their feet – just as we will do later tonight – Doyt and I, we will wash your feet. Jesus doesn’t stand on his chair and shout. He doesn’t lecture or teach. He doesn’t tell them a parable. He doesn’t even flip the table and make a scene, not this time anyway.

As the scripture states, “knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, he got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”

It was exactly the right thing to do in the face of fear, in the face of uncertainty and anxiety. Jesus met fear head on and he met it with love. He met it with tenderness and serene calm.

The loving gesture of foot washing echoes what just happened a week prior in Bethany at the home of Jesus’ friends; Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Around that dinner table, in Lazarus’ home, they were throwing a dinner party for Jesus when Mary was the one who got up from the table. She “took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet and Jesus’ washing of the disciples feet are linked stories. They are both acts of calm love and devotion. Mary knew it was a farewell dinner for Jesus. She could read between the lines and I’m sure she was broken hearted. Her friend and teacher was headed from Bethany back to Jerusalem into certain captivity and ultimately death.

In fact, he didn’t even have time to finish dinner and leave before the chief priests and others came looking for him there. A great crowd arrived at Lazarus’ door demanding Jesus and Lazarus, with the intent of putting them both to death. Lazarus for having been raised from the dead and Jesus for having raised him. Lazarus, by his resurrected presence, threatened the chief priests, simply by having him out there walking around telling his story and so they set a plot to kill him too. But they wouldn’t succeed on that day.

Mary’s act of love and devotion to her friend Jesus was grounding and centering at a time when the world seemed to be spinning out of control. And in the same way, Jesus did a similar thing for the disciples in the Upper Room that night. He calmed them by startling them. Have you ever noticed that when someone is really upset and you put your hand on theirs or put your arm around their shoulder and breathe slowly, they often begin to relax immediately? It works.

Jesus put his hands on the disciples. He touched their feet. He wiped them with a towel. He touched each and every one of them and brought them back to themselves –He brought them back to God. He grounded them in God.

This night is full of meaning, full of action and story, but it always comes back to calm, steady, confident love in the face of fear.

We hear the words of scripture, the music of the choir, the rustling of others near us, we feel the warmish water trickling over our feet, the rough cotton of the towel on our toes, we taste the bread and wine as we recall Jesus’ last meal with his friends, we smell the new wood in this church, the sweetness of the flowers drifting in from the Garden of Repose, and we see the altar being stripped bare, a reflection of our mood and the state of our souls as we steel ourselves for what is to come.

This is a night to feel. It is a night to love. St. Augustine observed in a sermon that Jesus loved each one he had ever met as if there were none other in all the world to love.

Jesus had the capacity to radically individualize the affection he acted out toward others. Instead of never seeing the trees for the forest, as the saying goes, Jesus reversed that and never failed to focus on the particular and the unique in each human being.

This is remarkable because even two thousand years ago, Jesus came into contact with many, many people, and must have been at least tempted to lump people into categories as we are all guilty of doing. Yet, Jesus always held the genuine uniqueness of each human being in mind and while this ideal seems impossible, I don’t believe it is. It is within our grasp as humans to love like this, or at least to strive for it. In fact, it is our duty as Christians to strive for this kind of kingdom love.

And while this kind of love may seem unrealistic, let us not forget Jesus’ great commandment that he leaves us with in this Upper Room. “I give you a new commandment,” he says, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

This radical love seems a mystery and yet it is within our reach because we are made in the image of that extraordinary love. And doing what Jesus did in loving each one he ever met as if there were none other in all the world is at least an ideal toward which we can reach even if it always remains beyond our grasp.

The second point St. Augustine makes about Jesus’ love is that his love was not only incredibly individualized, but that he also loved each and every individual universally. Jesus loved EVERYONE deeply, purely, and uniquely.

Jesus had an incredible way of truly seeing people, never with contempt or disdain. We see it this night, when Jesus meets the disciples’ fear with love, when he confronts Judas’ betrayal, with love. We must never forget that the opposite of love is not anger or hostility but indifference or fear. The opposite of fear is love.

Jesus taught us how to love. He loved each one he ever met as if there were none other in all the world to love, and he loved all as he loved each.

That is Jesus’ great commandment. That is why we live in community. Love; that is why we break bread together, love – share our lives together, love, why we gather in this place week in and week out. Love. That is why we walk this holy walk together; because we love one another just as God loves us.