Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2021
“If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
The easiest part of being a Christian is studying about Jesus.
Reading Jesus’s words in the gospel; reading what others like Paul and Peter and James and John had to say about Jesus; studying the Old Testament passages that the first Christians used when they spoke about Jesus; analyzing the creeds to understand how the early church defined who Jesus was…that is the easy part.
Sure, lots of people struggle with those things. People are forevermore misquoting Jesus or saying that he said things that he didn’t say. The scriptures aren’t always straightforward. They can be confusing. And there are references and place names and words that you may not understand. Maybe you don’t understand every part of the creeds or why they were written, but you can study those things. You can learn them.
Studying about Jesus might seem like a chore, but that’s the easiest part of being a Christian. Doing what Jesus said….well, that’s another story.
That’s the hard part: following Jesus. Listening to what he says AND doing it, actually doing it with your own hands and your own feet and your own mouth; that is where people stumble. There are tons of people in the world that know ABOUT Jesus, that have heard his teachings; there are plenty of people that have the ability to recognize that he was a good teacher; there are plenty of others who may even have the faith to proclaim with the church that he is the son of God. But how many are willing to actually do what he commands? How many are willing to follow his example when it involves humiliating yourself, or doing something unpleasant, or giving something up, or suffering? That number will always be fewer, because that’s the hard part.
It is easy to want to be a Christian on Easter Sunday. When we are talking about the glories of being a Christian, or God’s promises and gifts to us; when we are talking about the resurrection from the dead and the promise of eternal life with those we love, we all want to lift our arms and shake a tambourine. Amen. Sign me up. I want to be forgiven for my sins. I want eternal life. I want healing. I want to be blessed by God. Give me flowers and happy hymns about feasting at God’s table; I’m here for it. Those things are all real, but they are the easy part of being a Christian.
The hard part, is actually following Jesus.
This week in the life of the church is an important reminder that Jesus’s life was about more than comfortable words and eternal promises. Jesus did things, very difficult things; and he asks us to do them too.
Now let me be clear, there are some things that only Jesus can do. Part of the church’s proclamation is that he was NOT just a good teacher, or a wise man, he was the incarnate son of God. He was fully God and fully human. He was the saviour of the world and only he can save it. Let’s be clear about that. The sacrifice that Jesus makes for the sins of the world is not one that we can repeat. None of us has any right to eternal life, we cannot achieve it on our own; it is given to us through and by Christ, and it is given as a free gift. There are some things that Jesus does for us that even he is clear, we cannot do for ourselves. He goes places that we cannot go; he knows things that we cannot know.
But if we are going to take Jesus’s promises seriously, then we also need to take his commandments seriously. If we are going to take him at his word when he proclaims “this is my body” then we need to take him at his word when he commands “love one another.” If we are going to obey him when he holds the chalice and says “do this in remembrance of me,” then we need to obey him when he says “wash one another’s feet.” For both of those commands came from the same Jesus, at the same supper, on the same night, with the same disciples. Maundy Thursday can be a tricky night to preach, because a lot of preachers, myself included, feel torn between preaching about Jesus instituting the sacrament of his body and blood, which happens tonight, or between preaching about Jesus washing his disciples feet and commanding his followers to do the same, which also happens tonight. We can sometimes feel pulled to talk about one OR the other, as if they are unrelated events. As if it weren’t the same Jesus making both commandments. But it is the same Jesus.
Yes, there are wonderful, miraculous things that Jesus does for us that we cannot do for ourselves. Yes, our God in the person of Jesus Christ, saves the world, and humanity, which cannot save itself. But Jesus willingly and knowingly gave his disciples instructions and examples of behaviour thatb he very clearly expects us to follow. That is the hard part of being a Christian: not believing in what Jesus said, but doing it.
Feet are not always the most pleasant part of the human body. If everyone’s feet were just gorgeous and beautiful it wouldn’t be like pulling teeth to have people come up and get their feet washed. Feet take a lot of abuse. They get misshapen. You get veins and bunions and scars from surgery. There are some things even the best pedicure can’t make look pretty. Sometimes they smell. They get dirty very easily now, can you image how dirty they would have gotten in Jesus’s day? But without the feet, the head can’t go anywhere. Jesus, who was the head of this little band, was not above getting on the floor and washing its feet.
“You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. Knowing about Jesus is one thing; doing what he says is quite another. We are called to do both. We are called to know the one giving the command; and we are called to follow the command that was given. Jesus did not command us to outsource morality to others; he did not say that compassion and pastoral care and listening to people, feeding people, washing people, healing people and generally caring for others, he did not say that these are just the job of the priest. Nor did he say that they are the sole job of the government, or of doctors and nurses and health aids or social workers or police officers or firemen. Jesus did not tell us to just pay others to do the things that we find unpleasant. The example, and the commandment, that he gave was that love should compel even the greatest among us to do even the lowliest jobs. It is one thing to know that, but it is another thing to do it. Doing it is the hard part.
There is a sign that hangs in our narthex that many of you may have seen. It is a quote from the sometime bishop of Zanzibar, Frank Weston. It is there for you to read as you go back out into the world, hopefully after having received sustenance from our lord in the sacrament of the altar. His words are true always, but they are especially powerful on this night:
You are Christians, then your Lord is one and the same with Jesus on the throne of his glory, with Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, with Jesus received into your hearts in Communion, with Jesus who is mystically with you as you pray and with Jesus enshrined in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down the world. NOW go out into the highways and hedges, and look for Jesus in the ragged and naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, and in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus in them; and when you find him, gird yourselves with his towel of fellowship, and wash HIS feet in the person of his bretheren.