Tonight we find ourselves gathered around the table with Jesus, before he walks to the cross. Before the Good News of the resurrection broke forth. Before all of it took place, Jesus brought the disciples together to talk, to eat, to be served by their teacher, and to spend time together. One last supper.
In the Episcopal Church, it is common to celebrate the feast day that your church is named after. Church’s call the day their “patronal feast” for their patron saint. Finding the day is pretty easy if you are St. Peter’s in Ladue say, or St. Mark’s in South City. Peter and Mark have days on the calendar. It’s a little more complicated for St. Michael and St. George, our neighbors just down the hill in Clayton. They have to pick a day, but at least they know that either saint they choose was a dragon slayer, so they’ve got that going for them. I’ll confess, I’m impressed by a church that picks two saints who slayed dragons for patrons.
But what do you do at a church called Holy Communion? There is a feast, a very Roman Catholic feast, not officially on The Episcopal Church calendar called “Corpus Cristi.” The day is marked by solemn processions, lots of smells and bells and carrying the Eucharist around town, which is a little too Catholic for me. It was WAY too Catholic for Martin Luther who said, “I am to no festival more hostile … beware of such worship!” So, Holy Communion probably won’t claim Corpus Cristi, at least not when I’m your protestant rector. I propose to you instead that tonight, Maundy Thursday, is our feast day as a congregation. I can’t think of a more fitting feast.
Tonight we remember Christ’s last supper with his disciples. The word Maundy in Maundy Thursday is a shortened form of the Latin “Mandatum” or command. We remember Jesus’ great commandment to Love One Another. We also remember two more specific commands on Maundy Thursday. The first comes in our reading from St. Paul. “Do this in rememberance of me.” We’ll hear those words again in a few moments in the Eucharist. Week in and week out, we remember this last supper at Holy Communion, and in churches across the world.
In his classic work on Communion, “The Shape of the Liturgy” the Anglican Theologian Gregory Dix wrote:
“Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and every country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance…[people] have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold.”
Indeed, the mandate to remember Christ in the Eucharist continues to shape the life of millions across the planet week in and week out, in churches, in prisons, and at hospital beds.
But Jesus’ first “do this,” is deeply connected to another commandment. Tonight we have heard the Gospel of John. Unlike the other Gospels, John doesn’t mention the bread and the wine in his story of the Last Supper. John’s Gospel is the last one written, and from other stories John tells, we get a sense the the people were already regularly receiving Communion, remembering Jesus with the bread and the wine. So John instead chose to tell of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.
“Do this” Jesus says to the disciples.
“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.”
The two commandments of Maundy Thursday are tied together. It’s as if John was saying: “What you do with bread and wine doesn’t really count, unless it is linked to who you serve.” On Maundy Thursday Jesus calls us together around the table. He invites us to see him present in bread and wine, and in the community gathered, and he invites us to wash one another’s feet.
There is probably no action on the church more radical than telling us to wash feet. Remember your place. You are servants of the world. We follow a savior who gave his life to us and for the world. He invites us to follow him in this way of humble self-offering. This is an action on the community that gathers in the name of Jesus. Remember who you follow.
Pope Francis has been intentionally using this action on the Church in recent years. In his first Maundy Thursday just weeks after taking on the office of pope, Francis broke with tradition and washed a woman’s feet. (In the Roman Catholic Church, the ceremony has been restricted to a priest washing the feet of twelve men, like Jesus washed the disciples feet). Francis washed a young Muslim woman’s feet that first year. She was a prisoner in a youth detention facility. This year, the pope chose to wash the feet of refugees in Europe.
You can’t mistake the message. The Church is not a club for the chosen. The Church is not some secret society with ancient rituals that can only be performed for the benefit of the few who meet our criteria of gender, race, class, or sexual orientation. The Church is not exclusive, the Church is inclusive. The Church is not for insiders. We are a community oriented outward. What we do here, in this building, forms us to go out into the world. “Do this,” Jesus says, “in memory of me.”
This is my body, given for you. Go give yourselves to the world. This is my blood, poured out for you. Go and bring life to the world. Serve in my memory. Do this.
We are a community that centers ourself on this command. So Tonight’s service casts all that is coming in the days ahead, the cross, the tomb, and the resurrection in the light of Jesus’ final gathering with his disciples. Jesus invited them to follow him in his way of self-offering love. He invites us, his followers today, to continue that self-offering love, to serve the lost, the least, and the left out in his name.
I can’t think of a better feast for us to celebrate in this congregation, especially as we continue to discern God’s calling for us to serve the world.