April 5, 2012
The word Maundy means Commandment. On this night, we remember Jesus saying to his followers, “A new commandment I give you: that you love one another as I have loved you.” And, at his Last Supper on earth, Jesus uses tangible symbols to teach his disciples what he means. He shows them how to be incarnate agents of grace–how to dignify people by washing their feet, feeding them, and telling them stories. On a symbolic level, everyone loves this theme. Everyone likes to talk and think about love. But the practical ways Jesus lives out love are disturbing, un seemly, and downright unsanitary. AND Jesus commands his followers to love and serve one another in the same way.
Footwashing, for starters. I know some of you are nervous about this. And why wouldn’t you be? Footwashing confronts us with being in another person’s normally-covered-up personal space. We have to look dead-on at what might be unlovely—even smelly—about another person, and–what is sometimes worse–we have to show what might be unlovely about ourselves to someone else.
For the record, it was just as unseemly and unpleasant in Jesus’ day, too. Friends did not wash each others’ feet—that was slave’s work. So it is no wonder Peter got upset when Jesus knelt to wash his feet. There’s so much we’d rather not have anyone see, share, know about our secret selves. The part of us we keep hidden—under socks or a sunny smile or a reserved demeanor. But if we take seriously our Lord’s command to serve each other, to wash each other’s
feet, to love as we have been loved—it means letting someone else see and touch what might not be our best features. It means being somewhat exposed, vulnerable, transparent. And that can be very unpleasant. But Jesus commands us to wash one another’s feet as Jesus washed ours.
But even that might be more palatable than what he suggests during the meal! No wonder some outside observers accused ancient Christians of being cannibals. The Gospel of John isn’t much of a defense. The Greek word he uses for to eat is actually more accurately translated as to gnaw on or to chew. Why is this gruesome activity a revered part of our worship, instituted by Jesus himself?
One reason could be that it reminds us that God is determined to be very intimate and personal with us. God does not want us to intellectually believe in Jesus so much as to embrace Jesus and hold on tight. The Gospel of John’s Christmas story is simply to tell us, “The Word became flesh and lived among us full of grace and truth.” Well, now the Word has grown up, but is still full of grace and truth. The Word is incarnate in this smelly, messy world, and Jesus is determined to spread it around forever. Be Incarnate Word for the world! Don’t just think about this. Don’t just discuss its symbolism. DO THIS in remembrance of me.
Jesus tells us that whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood abides in him and he in them. God is not just with us, but in us! We are Christ incarnate for the world that God so loves! God our Creator takes the most ordinary and unremarkable materials—like bread and wine, or you and me, maybe—and uses them to bring Christ to a sinful but precious world. God our Redeemer takes on evil and makes it good. That’s how what seems like a carnivorous cultic act of dis-membering is transformed into a means of re-membering a community, putting it back together. God finds a way to reconnect what has been isolated, mend what has been torn.
How are we remembered in this meal? Jesus must have known enough of biology to know that whatever we eat and drink is digested in our bodies, and becomes a part of us. It flows through our bloodstreams, all around our insides. It is as true to say that after we take communion, Jesus is in our little pinky finger or our kneecap as it is to say that Jesus is in our hearts and minds.
And Jesus must have known enough about sociology to know why people who are on dates often go out for dinner. There’s something about eating together that brings us closer. Anyone with whom we eat and drink cannot ever really be a stranger to us again. We say that Christ is in, with, and under the elements of communion. What that means, no matter how we spin it, is that our Incarnate Jesus permeates the world, making the ordinary extraordinary, turning evil into good, and strangers into family.
Thanks be to God.
~Pastor Susan Schneider