Maundy Thursday, Year A
6 April 2023
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
I think I have shared with you that the society in which I was raised was deeply secular. In fact people say that because northern Germany was outside of the borders of the Roman empire, Christianity not only arrived late but never really took.
People were still members of the church, nominally that is, but few people attended or thought that the rituals and teachings of the church should somehow shape their lives.
So when I came to Canada and learned that people were upset that the Lord’s Prayer was no longer said in schools, I did not really understand. I mean, I think I understood the loss people were experiencing, but I had never thought that teaching the faith was the task of the state. I thought that not only because I grew up in a country that – like Canada – knew the separation of church and state, but also because I never believed that saying words that to many seemed like a formula would instill faith.
That Canada was likely as secular as the country in which I had been raised became evident to me when, upon an inquiry by someone in residence about what I was taking, the questioner responded to my answer with the words, “That’s different.”
I think it was around that time (the late 80s) that I read of a survey in Germany that found that people still had great respect for clergy, even while they had no or little respect for the church. An interesting finding because there would be no clergy if it were not for churches.
This is important because while the older generation in my first parish deferentially called me “Pastor Reiners,” I knew from the beginning that being a pastor would not only not get me riches, but also little respect or status.
All this does not deny a hierarchy in society, only that we are no longer near the top, but much closer to the bottom. And by “we” I mean all of us who believe that our faith in Jesus gives our lives meaning, and for whom being part of the church gives shape to our lives.
Being at or near the bottom seems an appropriate place if we pay attention to the life of our Lord
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.1
Being near the bottom should not surprise us who follow a Lord who washed his disciples’ feet and who said to his disciples,
‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’2
And for those who have been watching the marginalization of the church for some time, it has been a source of hope, that a church no longer concerned about societal status and position would be able to be more authentic and truthful, for what has a diminished church got to lose?
That means that the church no longer has to stand on the side of the powerful – for we no longer have to keep up appearances – but can stand on the side of the poor, marginalized, and diminished, for the church too is poor, marginalized, and diminished.
The church no longer has to be afraid of whose company it keeps and the church can challenge the existing order, for there remains an order. And order is usually maintained in two ways, the first one is the idea that we are in charge of our own destiny and that everyone can rise to the top. The fact that some do, does not mean that this is generally possible, nor that there is equality. The second one is that we tend to find our own position in the hierarchy acceptable as long as there is someone below us. Sadly, race often plays a role. Both these things prevent most of us from challenging the existing order.
We will not wash each other’s feet tonight. The fact that Covid is making the rounds now makes it inadvisable to come that close to each other. But hold on to the image of washing each other’s feet.
Washing each other’s feet is practice in turning toward one another, a practice that involves physicality, and that suggests that following Jesus involves serving people and not just serving ideas.
Serving people does two things:
It can do some, admittedly limited good (for we are limited). Think of listening to someone who is not heard or serving someone who is hungry.
And it does other good by changing us, for serving others in tangible ways gives our lives a direction we would not choose on our own. And so washing each others’ feet is a reorientation toward not only each other but toward the mission of Jesus.
Such reorientation is a witness to the world while at the same time it places demands on the world, namely that justice shall flow like streams.
And that is a challenge to the existing order. An occasional good deed is not a challenge, a way of life is.
But there is a connection to the second part of our reading. “This way of life is shaped by love. Love is both the end and the means. We cannot achieve peace through war, we cannot coerce people into being free. We cannot solve big problems with the Big Way because the Big Way is what caused the big problems in the first place. Humility is not just the way to change the world; humility is what a changed world looks like.”3
If we accept the place of being diminished and marginalized, and understand that Jesus does indeed call us to serve, then this is not a further diminishment but a rediscovery of the power of the Gospel, as it was revealed to St Paul, God’s power is made perfect in weakness.4
And so servanthood is not a withdrawal from the church’s calling, but the only way for the church to live authentically. And it is only by being authentic that we can offer the world an alternative.
Thanks be to God.
1 Philippians 2
2 Matthew 20
4 1 Corinthians 12