Why Is This Night Different? (A Sermon for Maundy Thursday)

Why Is This Night Different? (A Sermon for Maundy Thursday)
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church (Cypress, Texas)
Exodus 12:1-14
April 13, 2017

Why is this night different from all other nights?  This week, on the first night of Passover, this question was asked in Jewish households and gatherings across the globe. By tradition, the youngest child poses this ritual question, but I would invite us to make it our question tonight.  Why is this night different from all other nights?

We have begun the annual marking of the Great Three Days, the Sacred Triduum, the Pascha…the Passover of Christ. We have begun what is, in essence, one story in three acts. One liturgy with many parts, beginning tonight and culminating in the Great Vigil of Easter on Saturday night.

During these three days, there is a bewildering combination of images that don’t seem like they ought to go together. There is hospitality and betrayal. Servanthood and leadership. And even life and death.

During these three days we will tell stories, sing songs, pray prayers, and keep vigils that we tell, sing, pray, and keep only once a year.  It’s rather like being on the roller coaster of our salvation story: the joyous wine of the banquet mixed with the bitterness of betrayal; the shame and agony of crucifixion answered with the unbelievable promise of life beyond the grave.

What makes this night different is that what we have heard tonight are stories of hospitality on the edge, at the end, even at the point of death.  These are stories of radical hospitality.

In the story of the Exodus, we hear that God has reorganized time for the Chosen People:  this month shall mark for you the beginning of months. And a festive memorial meal is given as the marker of this new telling of time. God’s radical hospitality of freedom from bondage continues to be memorialized today.

Tonight is different from all other nights because remember and reenact God’s extravagant, radical hospitality in the simplest of meals. It is this meal – one that we observe at this altar each week – which proclaims the Passover of Christ, the redemptive death of Jesus, until he comes again in glory.

And this night is different from all other nights because we retell, and are invited to participate in, the story of Jesus showing his love for the disciples to the end. The one who, though in form of God, did not deem equality with God as something to be exploited, kneels down and washes the feet of the twelve – even Judas.

This act of Jesus is the hallmark of an abundant life, a life that is gained not by grabbing but by releasing. Not by hoarding but by giving. Not by ruling but by serving.

In our Gospel story, what Jesus is doing for the disciples – for us – is to prepare us for what we will need to know on our own journey to the Garden, to the Cross, to the Tomb – and beyond.  Even at the last, he is concerned that those whom he loves will be okay when he’s gone.  Having loved his own in the world…he loved them to the end.

Like the Israelites in the desert, we find that grace is often found in unexpected places – water from rocks, reconciliation over an extravagant table, eternal life in simple bread and wine, a call to ministry in the washing of feet.

So, just how are we to understand this footwashing thing? Is it simply one of those annual curiosities that we tolerate or politely ignore? I know it makes many of us more than a little bit uncomfortable.

The washing of feet was so menial a task as not to be required even of Jewish slaves. Why, then, did Jesus choose such an act? Perhaps Jesus was moved by the example of Mary at Bethany earlier in the week, when she bathed his feet with costly nard and dried them with her hair.

It’s also important to see that John’s gospel gives no account of the “institution of the Eucharist,” but records the footwashing as THE event of that evening.

Jesus prepares the disciples to be able to understand (in the future) what will be happening. And once more, Jesus turns our expectations upside down.

John wants us to know that this act of Jesus’ radical hospitality was the way he began to say goodbye to the disciples. In the explanation that Jesus himself gives, it becomes clear to the disciples, and to us, that we are called to know God, to love God, and to serve God in others. In other words, life in Christ is life for others: you, also, ought to wash each others’ feet.

This is why tonight is different from all other nights! This is why we practice the footwashing every Maundy Thursday: to remind ourselves in a real, tangible, physical way of Christ’s extravagant, humbling, difficult, radical grace and hospitality to each one of us.  And we remember his call to ministry for the whole Christian people: that you also should do as I have done to you.

I give you a new commandment. That’s where we get the name Maundy Thursday. Maundy is a word derived from the Latin mandatum – mandate or commandment. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Whatever we do because of this day might very well transform someone else’s life as well as our own.

Let tonight be different from all other nights. As we journey together from here, to the Garden, to the cross, to the grave, and beyond, I pray that you might be able to allow Jesus’ love to wash over you and enfold you and change you. That you let these three days wash over you and enfold and change you. And that we then are able to go out into the world forgiven and loved and transformed to love one another.

Amen.

Why Is This Night Different? (A Sermon for Maundy Thursday)