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Maundy Thursday; John 13:1ā€“15

My father died in late February 2002, in his 90th year, in Germany. In my adult years, I visited with him for about 10 to 14 days perhaps once every 18 to 24 months. During our last times together (following his 80th birthday, just after my step-mother had died), and particularly after he had a serious illness that nearly killed him, a ritual developed.

Each visit, on the last night, after supper, a bottle of very good wine was opened and poured into the best crystal glasses. Snacks were put on the table. We’d have a toast; to seeing each other in a year or so, but we knew, although it was never actually said, only hinted, that there always was the real possibility that this was the last time we would be together. Then came stories; how he grew up, learning a profession, his time in the military, his career, his retirement. Not focussed on details, but more on the inner workings of his mind, the thought processes and values that he brought to decisions and actions. Then would follow advice; for life, on values (some of which I did not and still don’t share), on how to handle his affairs after his death (which was very handy after the event!). There was a sense of urgency; this time might indeed be the last chance my father had to influence his only son.

The Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples was something like that! Let’s deal first with the popular misunderstanding that Jesus had the program for Holy Week completely in his mind, and had perfect foreknowledge of what was to happen. We need to remind ourselves that Jesus was fully human as well as fully God, and that the fully human Jesus we see at the Last Supper had no more power to see, shape and control the future than you or I. The certainty about his mission and his relationship to God, and his conviction that through him God would bring in a new covenant with humanity was the certainty of unwavering faith, not knowledge.

Like any politically aware Jew in 1st century Palestine, Jesus knew that the events that week in Jerusalem, his triumphal entry with its implied claims of Messiah-ship, his cleansing of the temple of the merchants and moneychangers, his teaching attacking the religious authorities, all of this would have pushed the priests and scribes and Pharisees, those we would call the forces for good in the community, beyond their limit of toleration. They had to act to remove this threat to their establishment, or they would be admitting that Jesus was in fact who he claimed to be; and action had to be swift and decisive.

All this Jesus knew on that evening before Passover. For three years he had travelled up and down the country, teaching about God as loving Father, about love defeating evil, about service to the weakest and poorest of society as the highest goal of life, about sacrifice as the way to a life of satisfaction. Thousands had heard, and many had come to believe, but the few at supper on that night had been with him longest and been closest. Jesus knows that this might be the very last time they are together, this may be his last chance to impress upon them everything he has taught.
Reading the accounts of the Last Supper in the Gospels, and putting them together, we see Jesus re-telling his closest friends the meaning of all they have witnessed. There is an urgency to the words of Jesus; this may be his last chance to influence their lives. But he does more than tell them how to live, he gives them two symbolic actions which demonstrate his teachings, and which are to shape their future lives.

Jesus gives his friends a meal to share. He takes two familiar actions at a Jewish supper, blessing bread and distributing it, blessing a cup of wine and sharing it, and gives them a uniquely new meaning. This bread is his body, broken and given for his friends, this wine is his blood, poured out for his friends. In a symbol, Jesus presents all his teachings about a life of sacrifice for others. They are to continue sharing bread and wine, in order to continue to remember him, which means literally (in Aramaic and Hebrew) to have him present with them. Remember, Jesus is a faithful Jew. I once attended a seminar by a Jewish scholar, a lay theologian and member of a rabbinical council, about the Jewish perspective on the Last Supper. Interestingly, he said that first of all, this meal was recognizably a Passover Seder meal, which re-members (brings into the present) God’s liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. He went on, that if he for one minute believed that Jesus was the Messiah, then all of catholic theology of the actual presence of Jesus in the blessed bread and wine would follow! For us, who accept Jesus as the Messiah, the meal he gave to his friends assures us of his continuing presence with us.

But meals also have a social dimension. If you are like me, eating alone is not pleasure, it is re-fuelling. On the other hand, a meal shared with a spouse, a close friend, with family, even with colleagues, is different. We tell stories, we listen to each other and enter into each othersā€™ good times and bad; we relax and enjoy the company, we linger at the table. Such meals shape us, makes us different, and build us into couples, families, communities, from which we go out and face the world.

The sacred meal which Jesus gave to his friends, Jesus present as both host and food, is similar. We tell stories from scripture, we pray for each other and the world; hopefully we relax and enjoy each other, and we eat and drink together at table. We are made into a community, from which we go out to face the world.

The second symbolic action that Jesus gave to his friends deals with that world. At that Last Supper, he took a towel and a basin, and washed their feet, the task of a servant. Then he commands that they are to wash each others’ feet – be servants to each other and to all. The community formed and shaped by sharing bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus, is to be a community of servants. Love of others, and willingness to express love in loving service, is how the friends of Jesus are to live.

Within the Church, it has been said that these two symbolic actions express the two sides of the ministry of the Church, the priestly and the diaconal (the ministry of deacons). The priest is the one who intercedes for others with God, the one who offers sacrifices. Priests are the ones who preside at the meal which Jesus commanded his friends to continue, with all its symbolic content of sacrifice. But this role is not individual, it only exists in community, which is why at least one other person must be present at a Holy Eucharist in order for a priest to function. The deacon ministers in the world, caring for the needy, washing feet in whatever way is needed. But again, this servanthood exists in community. In our understanding, the deacon brings the concerns of the world back to the community who eat and drink together.

Let me go from that back to the level of symbol. We Anglicans have clergy most of whom (the priests) are ordained twice, once as deacons, once as priests (three times for bishops). This wraps up the presiding and sacrificial role symbolized by the sacred meal, and the servant role of foot-washing neatly into one and the same person. We also accept that our priesthood is representational, meaning it shows the community the nature of their own priesthood, the priesthood of all the believers in Jesus given to them in baptism. We don’t often say it, but deacon-hood is also representational, showing to the community they are to be servants, foot-washers. Just as Father Matt and I are priest and deacon rolled into one, so are you. And Kay our Deacon is also priest, because she is baptized. The commands of Jesus to eat and drink, and to wash feet, applies to all who are his friends.

As we now move on to following the commands of Jesus, and act them out liturgically, you may want to reflect on how they apply to you. As your feet are washed, or as you watch feet being washed, remember our Lord commands you to wash the feet of others, and that your servanthood is to be rooted in a community that eats and drinks together. And, as you eat and drink, and are fed by Jesus with his own body and blood, remember that footwashing, whatever that may mean for you, is the necessary consequence.

A theologian from the Quaker tradition, looking at the ordination practices of other churches (Quakers don’t ordain), noted that the line of those wanting to be bread-breakers and wine-pourers was usually considerably longer than the line of those wanting to be foot-washers. He might have noted the same thing about Christians in general. There are a lot more willing to eat and drink than are willing to wash. As for those of us gathered here tonight, let me repeat something else that Jesus said at that Last Supper, as the disciples argued over who was greatest among them;

“It shall not be so among you!”

Copyright ©2018 by Gerry Mueller.