Sermon for Maundy Thursday
Trinity Episcopal Church
March 29, 2018 7:00 PM
12 Ὅτε οὖν ἔνιψεν τοὺς πόδας αὐτῶν °[καὶ] ἔλαβεν τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ ⸂καὶ ἀνέπεσεν⸃˸ πάλιν˸1, εἶπεν αὐτοῖς·* γινώσκετε τί πεποίηκα ὑμῖν;* *13 ὑμεῖς φωνεῖτέ με· ὁ διδάσκαλος,* καί·ὁ κύριος, καὶ καλῶς λέγετε· εἰμὶ γάρ. *14 εἰ οὖν ἐγὼ ἔνιψα ὑμῶν τοὺς πόδας ὁ κύριος καὶ ὁ διδάσκαλος,* ⸆ καὶ ὑμεῖς ὀφείλετε ἀλλήλων νίπτειν τοὺς πόδας·* 15 ὑπόδειγμα °γὰρ ⸀ἔδωκα ὑμῖν ἵνα καθὼς ἐγὼ ἐποίησα ὑμῖν καὶ ὑμεῖς ποιῆτε.*
When he had washed their feet, put his outer garments back on and resumed his place at the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done for you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right to say that, for so I am. If, therefore, I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an illustration: just as I have done for you, you should do [this] also.
I was spending the last hours of the excavation season in the apartment of my friend Jamil; but I was a very grumpy guest, complaining long and loudly about the theft of my camera from underneath the stairwell of the American Schools building on Saladin Street in Jerusalem. It had been ever so safely hidden away in my luggage; but that had not deterred the thief who had left my open suitcase behind and my dirty dig clothes scattered all around for everyone to see. Despite the splendid meal and even more delightful company the Abu Eid family had supplied me, my spirits sagged at this unhappy conclusion to the season. I did my best, but I don’t think I was much fun.
After supper, we repaired to the living room for the obligatory fruit course to be followed later on by Turkish coffee. I would have taken a few pictures of the occasion, but, then, I didn’t have a camera, did I? Still, I was framing shots in my mind and noticed in doing so that Jamil was absent.
“Where’s Jamil?” I asked one of his daughters.
She looked back at me innocently, “He went to buy you a camera,” she replied simply.
“He did?” I exclaimed.
“Yes, you were so sad about your camera,” the child said.
I had paid a huge sum of money in the States for my stolen camera, and I shuddered to think of what one like it might cost in the souqs of Jerusalem and was completely horrified to think about Jamil using his hard-earned money to buy me one just because I had been “sad.” So, I tore out of the apartment and caught my friend near Herod’s Gate, finally convincing him after some argument that insurance would reimburse me when I returned home—a prediction that didn’t come true, but I never told Jamil!—and that my momentary sadness wasn’t worth the inflated price he would have to pay for an equivalent camera in the Old City.
Anyone who has experienced hospitality in the Mideast knows that Mideastern hospitality is both a fine art and an utter obsession. Ancient documents witness to a millennia-long preoccupation with the comfort of a guest, preoccupation with the guest’s protection, careful attention to the various culinary delights a guest should consume. Indeed, a host ought to lavish limitless attention upon even the most casual visitor. The caller might and probably should protest all of this attention, but not too much. Only at the risk of making an enemy for life would a guest ever actually refuse a host’s lavish hospitality.
But that’s just what Peter tried to do when Jesus offered to wash his feet. He refused Jesus’s hospitality, refused even to acknowledge that Jesus was his host and that he, Peter, was the honored guest. If you’ve never experienced Mideastern hospitality in overdrive, you might be forgiven for misunderstanding what’s going on between student and teacher in this exchange. After all, washing guests’ feet doesn’t comprise a big part of the hospitality involved in our western cocktail parties or candlelight suppers. In fact, even attempting it might get the hapless host sued. And I confess that nobody ever invited me over to watch a Carolina basketball game and ended the evening by running out to buy me a camera. Too often we read this story of Jesus washing his students’ feet as an object lesson in personal humility as though Peter and Jesus were competing to see which one might be more humble than the other. Or perhaps we find foot-washing slightly distasteful and read Jesus as showing his meekness in performing such a distasteful task for his disciples, a meekness the lively and robust disciple Peter could not abide.
But we would be wrong.
What’s going on at this Last Supper table has nothing to do with how meek and mild Jesus is or how humble the disciples ought to be. It has to do with one vital and soul-saving question, “Who’s throwing this party?” Who’s the host and who’s the guest? Peter needs to figure out the answer to this question right away or nothing Jesus taught him and nothing Jesus ever did in Peter’s sight would mean anything.
Peter and Jesus lived at a time when the honor of the teacher was everything, and both students and wealthy patrons of famous teachers entertained important scholars with elaborate dinners. At these sumptuous meals famous philosophers explained world-shaking ideas and great rabbis expounded brilliantly on the intricacies of the Law. At these dinners, the teacher was always the guest. Could Jesus be any less than they? What could it possibly mean for their teacher Jesus to turn the tables on his students by challenging this long accepted custom?
When Jesus asked the disciples whether they understood what he had just done for them, the Gospel of John records no answer from the neophyte scholars at table. Of course, they didn’t understand! How could they? They had to be dumbfounded. The school of Jesus didn’t operate by the rules at all!III
The Passover dinner that night had another meaning that had escaped the disciples’ notice, finding themselves already in deep shock at their master’s ungentlemanly usurpation of the host’s role that rightly belonged to them. That other significance of the meal insured that the disciples had to be the guests and Jesus had to be the host. The prophet Isaiah had written about a feast that would take place here on this holy mountain and would include a guest list unlimited by race or nation or religion:
And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people
A feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees,
Of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.
And he will destroy in this mountain
The face of the covering cast over all people,
And the vail that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death in victory;
And the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces;
And the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth:
For the Lord hath spoken it. (Isaiah 25:6-8, Authorized Version)
The disciples were guests at that feast of God on this holy night in Pilate’s Jerusalem on the holy mountain of which Isaiah had prophesied. Did they not understand that? The host was the God who had brought them there and had brought with them all the peoples of the world to whom these young men would proclaim salvation. God had brought them there to lavish upon them God’s limitless hospitality. God. the host, would take care of the guests’ needs. God would feed them with gourmet food and make them dizzy with vintage wine; and if any of them had come to the table weeping, then the host would do whatever was necessary to make those tears disappear. I suppose a single-lens-reflex camera would have been a small price to pay for such a host.
Yes, they would eat this meal together often again: in the shadow of Rome’s coliseum, in Alexandria’s house churches and in Byzantium’s Hagia Sophia. They would all be hosts to each other and wash each other’s feet there; but on this holy night and in this holy place, God would be the host, and God’s only Son would wash away the dust from their feet. For they were now people of the promise, people of hope, people cherished and beloved. The Beloved, that would be their name; that would be what people would call them, the Beloved, the cherished.
Even here in Mt. Airy by the shores of the Ararat River in the County of Surrey, you and I continue this feast, continue to be the much beloved, ever cherished guests of our gracious God, living into the mandate, the mandatus our Lord gave his disciples that evening, the mandate that gave this Thursday its name, Maundy Thursday, “Mandate Thursday,” not a mandate to perpetuate a ritual or a mandate to think and feel deep, religious thoughts, but a mandate to love each other, a mandate to love all the guests at the meal, all the beloved peoples invited to dine on our Lord’s rich foods and fine wines on the Lord’s sacred mountain. Our mandate makes us the new hosts, gives us the responsibility for a world shedding tears at our table, gives us the opportunity to feed and protect hungry children who can barely pull themselves up to their places among us. The mandate to love each other gives us permission to educate, to heal, to nurture and adore not only those children but their parents and all the children of God who join us here in one great company at this holy feast on this holy night.
That is our mandate. That is our feast. For this celebration our Lord has called us here and just as quickly sends us into God’s world to greet our guests in the power of the Spirit as our Master has greeted us.