Maundy Thursday marks the beginning of what is essentially one long, three-day worship service that will culminate in the celebration of the resurrection at Easter. And as I’ve told many people, “You can’t have Easter without Good Friday…” Well…you don’t experience Good Friday without first preparing with Maundy Thursday. Tonight, we will participate in three rituals, each which carry a particular meaning and each which offers an opportunity to enter more closely into this most holy, vulnerable, and ultimately, triumphant time for Jesus and for us.
In a few moments, we will re-enact Jesus getting up from the dinner with the disciples, and washing the feet of Peter. This is another time in which Jesus turns convention upside down. In the First Century Palestinian culture of his day, it was the job of a slave to wash a person’s feet as a way of showing hospitality. But Jesus wants to teach his disciples a new way—one in which the person who is a person of privilege and power—removes the outer garment, takes up a towel, and washes the feet of the lowly servant.
Jesus is baptizing them into the ministry to carry on his mission of a new commandment: “To love one another as I have loved you.” We, too, through taking part in this ritual are also being invited to remember that we are capable of loving one another because God so completely and deeply loved us. It is because of this love that we can carry out the many ministries of this church…from the school…to the Saturday Lunch program and Clothes Closet…and Oak Street Mission…Halcyon Home…A.A. meetings…Kairos…the list goes on and on. And those are just the ministries springing forth from St. Thomas, and don’t account for how any one of us is working every day to live into the words of our Baptismal Covenant: to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. Without love as our starting point for these actions, we won’t be able to succeed.
This brings me to our second ritual of tonight, the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Sunday after Sunday, we come together, shoulder-to-shoulder around the Lord’s Table to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. John’s Gospel places the institution of the words of the last supper elsewhere in his narrative, but the other evangelists make Jesus’ declaration of the bread and the wine as symbolic of his body and blood part of the events immediately preceding his arrest and execution. Again, the disciples must have wondered what crazy thing Jesus was doing declaring bread and wine his body and blood as the blessing over these elements…breaking and distributing in the same way that he did with the feeding of the five thousand. Puzzled as they might have been they all participated in this ritual of the New Covenant…even Judas Iscariot who would betray him and Peter who would deny him and all the others who scattered at his arrest. Flawed, bewildered, and sinful, they were all bound to one another by him, and with him, and in him, through eating and drinking this common bread and single cup.
And here we are, two thousand-plus years later, equally flawed characters, and striving to follow God, also receiving Christ’s body and blood into our own bodies. This bread and this wine becomes the fuel that feeds our ability to love the world…even when the world may not seem to want to love us back. That’s our mission…and we do it no matter what…because God loved us first…with no exceptions or conditions… so that we could pass that love on to others. And God expressed that love through his Son…who said “Take. Eat” and “Drink this all of you.” “Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus is saying: “Every time you receive this communion, this common meal, remember: this was a sacrifice so that you could be liberated through me to love one another as I have loved you.”
Which leads me to our third and final ritual tonight: the stripping of the altar: the final act carried out by our altar guild. Everyone on the team knows their role. They know how to reverently and carefully remove, fold, and put away all of the linens and cushions and brass, leaving behind…an empty table. The first time I was here at St. Thomas, I was struck more by this ritual than I’d ever been before because it was done with all of us staring in silence during the symbolic action of stripping away all signs of God…in the same way Jesus was stripped down to his naked self to be killed. The ripping sounds of the Velcro on altar hangings were a chilling reminder of the brutality Jesus faced from his persecutors and the Roman authorities. If it was difficult for me as an observer to watch, I wonder what it must be for the altar guild as they do that tearing and taking away.
This empty, bare table is the image we’ll be left with for this evening, and it is an unsettling and disturbing one. It raises the idea that to face death…in hopes of the resurrection…all manner of “things” must be stripped away. That’s certainly true of physical death. You can’t pack a bag of your favorite things and take it with you to the Communion of Saints. It is also true of the small deaths we face every day. The loss of a job, for example, not only means the loss of income and maybe health insurance; for many, it can mean the loss of a huge part of their identity. How many of us make small talk with strangers about what we “do” for a living as a way of saying, “This is who I am.” We become the work that we do, and find our self-worth caught up in titles, and various degrees, that when the day comes when we are no longer “doing our job,” we are at a loss about how to “be our selves” without title to set us apart. How do our various labels and identities…and the meanings layered upon them…actually interfere with us fulfilling our mission to truly love ourselves and love one another as God has loved us? What beliefs are we clinging to about ourselves that might be hindering us from entering fully into relationship with God and blocking us from loving people in this fear-filled world?
Whatever impedes us from getting down to that single truth—that we are beloved children of God here to love and be loved—tonight is the time of reckoning and to strip those things away.