April 9, 2020
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
On this holy night, we gather in our homes to mark this solemn occasion. And the isolation we feel, the loneliness, the separation is the perfect setting for Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. For it feels as if something has been taken away from us, too.
Maundy Thursday is usually one of those nights at church that is quite busy. Foot-washing, holy communion, stripping of the altar, leaving the church in silence, gathering all night for vigil and prayer. The choir is singing, the Altar Guild is on overdrive, I’m cranking out sermons left and right. But not this year. This year we linger in solitude in our homes. The night is growing darker and all that we were used to doing is not being done.
We can draw a lesson from this. For perhaps we were doing too much. Perhaps we were doing too much church work, too much busy-ness. Perhaps our hands were too busy to feel the power of this holy night. In reflecting upon this lesson that you just read, in which Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, William Temple said something that shook me to the core. He said that so often as Christians, our first thought is, “what can I do for God?” What can I do for God? But in reality, he says, there is nothing you can do for God. If God is who we say God is, then God does not need us to do anything. God is God whether we worship or not, whether we pray or not. God is God whether we are together in the Church on this solemn occasion or whether we are apart in our homes. Tonight, we must put away our thought of doing for God. Temple then says that our first thought ought to be, “What would God do for me?”
Strange, I know. We are accustomed to humbling ourselves before God. Of asking, beseeching, praying for this, that, or the other from God. But on this holy night, we learn the first truth of Christian discipleship – Jesus Christ came to serve us. Imagine that, that the Lord God would become human, would fill the Virgin’s womb, would be born in a manger. Imagine that, the Holy God would seek and serve us, give sight to the blind, mercy to the sinner, food to the hungry, good news to the poor. Imagine that, the creator of the cosmos, the holy one who transcends time and space, the Lord God Almighty is the very one who kneels before his followers and washes their disgusting, grimy, nasty feet. Imagine that, the God of all power and might would give of himself upon the cross. It’s not what we can do for God, it’s all about what God would for us. And what would God do? God would stoop to where I am and humbly, graciously, wash my feet, my hands, my head, and my heart.
William Temple goes on to say that to accept service from someone else is to acknowledge your dependence upon them. All too often we say that we do not want to burden someone else, we do not want to impose. That only shows the hardness of our heart, our pride is getting in the way. Humility, Temple says, does not begin with giving service. Humility begins with the readiness to receive service from another. To accept this service from Jesus, to accept grace, to allow the Holy Spirit to wash over us in waves of mercy and love is to acknowledge our dependence upon him. We might not be doing much for God right now, but perhaps we are relearning this critical lesson. That God is doing everything for us.
And so tonight, on a night that we are accustomed to getting the church ready, busying ourselves with the business of serving each other, we are forced to stop and to receive service from God alone. Now, in a few moments, I am asking you to do one thing. I am asking you to remove or put away or cover all the Christian icons, images, and symbols in your home. At the sacred space that you have created in your own home, you may choose to veil the cross or to simply take everything away from it. Leaving it empty, reminiscent of the emptiness we feel on this night.
As you are doing this, though, remember that you are not doing it for God. You are doing it to remind yourself of what God has done for you. As you cover those crosses and take down those icons, remember, remember that Jesus Christ gave himself away perfectly, for you. Remember, that God has washed you through and through, God has stooped down to your level and befriended you. In the midst of all your doing, remember what God has done – God has loved you as one of his own, even to the end.
*All quotes and paraphrases taken from William Temple, “Readings in St. John’s Gospel,” 210.