Thursday, April 01, 2010

Maundy Thursday Sermon: Community, Service, and Prayer

Delivered at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit; Bellevue, NE; 03-07-10. Maundy Thursday: Exodus 12:1-14 • Psalm 116:1, 10-17 • 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 • John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

The three holiest days of the church calendar are Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Today is not one of those three days, but, as important as Easter may be, the positive can’t happen without the negative. The joy and power of Easter Sunday are impossible without the pain of Good Friday, and the pain of Good Friday cannot be endured without the tools Christ gives us on Maundy Thursday: community, service, and prayer.

I hope that everyone here tonight will come back for one of tomorrow’s services. Like the rest of Holy Week, Good Friday can completely transform the depth of one’s Easter. It’s easy to just gloss over the bunny’s holiday, but on deeper reflection, what Jesus went through that week, the fact that because of it He understands even the deepest pains of our own lives, should not be trivialized. It should cause us deep discomfort, and even pain. We can get over it at the Saturday vigil, but the Easter services are completely worthless if they follow just another Thursday and Friday at home.

My freshman year of college is when I first truly appreciated Easter. It was also when I first saw Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ.” I’d avoided it because I’d heard that it wasn’t completely historically accurate and that it had a number of non-Biblical scenes. There’s nothing wrong with that – the Gospel alone would last maybe 30 minutes, hardly a movie – but Gibson told ABC News that, “Critics who have a problem with me don't really have a problem with… this film. They have a problem with the four Gospels.” And claiming that a 2004 movie showing Satan talking to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was analogous with the four Gospels really bothered me. But, I always feel it’s important to at least see culturally significant films, so on Good Friday 2006 I took a copy into the basement of the Episcopal campus ministry.

And for all my distaste, for all my frustration with Gibson’s arrogance, I couldn’t help but break down. Seeing Jesus go through even half the violence in that movie, and seeing Him go through it for me, all thoughts of Gibson were washed away and the Gospel really did step forward.

It doesn’t matter what your theology is, you cannot truly experience Easter without experiencing Good Friday – and you can’t get through Good Friday without Maundy Thursday. Christ’s goal at that night’s Last Supper wasn’t just to enjoy one final evening with His friends; it was also to prepare them for what only He realized was to come. He prepared them by giving them three tools, tools He also gives us: community, service, and prayer.

The gift of community is seen primarily in the night’s fellowship. Jesus was there to break bread with his friends and encourage them to keep breaking bread after He was gone. We memorialize this scene as the central act of worship in the Episcopal Church: "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me… This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me."

And what do we call that act of worship? Communion, very similar to community. Because for all our squabbles, we are still Christians in the same Body of Christ, and at the end of the day, not matter what happened, we worship together before the same God and the same altar.

Those feelings of unity and peace rarely come alone. They are feelings that come when we’re in the company of God’s other children, of our brothers and sisters. Christ brought the disciples together that night to make sure their community would remain bonded together through Him and in Him even after He could no longer sit at the table. But he didn’t just do this with words – He did it with action. He washed His disciples’ feet.

You might not be comfortable with tonight’s optional foot washing. That’s okay – a lot of people aren’t. Our society is not a particularly intimate one, and there are few things more intimate than the foot, what with that many nerve endings all bundled up in one place. So when Christ touched the feet of his disciples, they experienced not just community, but a powerfully intimate one.

The foot washing, of course, wasn’t just a tool of community. It was first and foremost an act of service. Folks in Christ’s day didn’t have cars or bikes. Their prime means of transportation was walking. But not only did they lack cars, they also lacked tennis shoes. They had to stick with sandals and thongs, kicking up dust everywhere they went. Footwashing isn’t a part of today’s culture – you wear your shoes, you take your shower – but in Christ’s time, it was something you had to be intentional about every single time you walked through a door lest you tracked dust everywhere you went. So servants, if you could afford them, would do this gross but necessary task for you several times a day. Christ took the role of a servant, and instructed us to do the same.

Foot washing is no longer necessary, and thus it’s not really service anymore. But it is a powerful annual symbol that reminds us to look for its more modern equivalents: spending not just money but time on food pantries and soup kitchens, voting with more than just self-interest in mind, helping a friend move. These are the modern foot basins where we can wash each others’ feet.

The third tool Christ gave us was prayer. Elsewhere in the Maundy Thursday Scriptures, He prays at great length not for His own path but for His disciples right there at the table. And then, He led them to the Garden of Gethsemane so that He, in the darkest, most terrifying hour of His life, could pray. His last moment of freedom, and He chose to spend talking to His father. Those are powerful examples, and as I discussed, one way we try to follow them is by turning His words into the Eucharistic prayer.

These three things – community, service, and prayer – are helpful, powerful, and dare I say necessary tools for enduring anguish. If they weren’t, Christ would not have used them to prepare His disciples. But as simple actions, they mean nothing. They must be rooted in something even deeper, something even more powerful – love.

Tonight, Christ is handed over to death. And greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. Love is not just a schmaltzy Hallmark card. It is what compelled the Messiah to beg God to take the pain from His heart, and then to go through with it anyway. And even though it seems impossible, we are called to try and follow that example: “I give you a new commandment, 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.”

There’s a country song that says “love isn’t some place that we fall, it’s something that we do.” Community, service, and prayer are all certainly things that we do, and yet, those lyrics have never sat quite right with me. I prefer the way novelist Christopher Moore defines it, in his book “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.” The book is fiction, as you can no doubt tell from the title, but I think Moore hits the nail on the head when his young Jesus says that we must love “constantly, instantly, spontaneously, without thought or words… Love is not something you think about, it is a state in which you dwell.”

Moore’s book may be fiction, but the real Jesus dwelled in that state. He loved us enough to die for us, and also to prepare us. So for the pain that comes tomorrow, and for all the pains in life, from hospitals to heartbreaks, we have community, service, and prayer. But above all, we have His love. May that sustain us through tonight’s chapel vigil, tomorrow’s crucifixion, and beyond.

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