Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2010. The Revd. J. Michael Povey at St. Boniface Church, Siesta Key FL
13Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table,* took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ 7Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ 8Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ 9Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet,* but is entirely clean. And you* are clean, though not all of you.’ 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’
12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants* are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. 18I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfil the scripture, “The one who ate my bread* has lifted his heel against me.” 19I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he.* 20Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.’
(1) A long time ago in another state and another diocese all the clerics would be summoned by the Bishop to attend a Maundy Thursday Eucharist. Most of us would, with grouchy hearts, trek the fifty or seventy five miles to be part of an indifferent liturgy and to share in a mediocre lunch. We wondered why it was necessary to travel so many miles since we could have so easily dis-organised such a liturgy and lunch in our home parishes.
At some point in the service the Bishop would take his seat and put on his pointy hat. Then he would instruct us to renew our ordination vows. On the surface of things that was not too difficult as the words were printed for us. Beneath the surface some felt uneasy because they knew that they’d never fully kept their ordination promises. Others felt self-righteous because that knew that they had.
I always believed the process to be a bit self serving. I mean – here we were, all clerics renewing our promises in the presence of other clerics, sans the non-ordained baptised and holy people of God. And it was all so cerebral.
(2) In 2005 I was in Atlanta for the Bat-Mitzvah of Lesley, the thirteen year old grand-daughter of my friend Barbara and Don. Lesley did well as she read her assigned passage in Hebrew, and expounded it for us. Then we all went to Maggiano’s Little Italy in Buckhead and had a great party.
A boy was Bar-mitzvahed at the same service. He too was 13 and I think that his name was Ben. His passage was all about the Israelites gathering and eating manna in the wilderness. He reminded us that the people were supposed to gather only enough manna for one day, except on the day before Sabbath when they gather two days’ worth. He mused about why they were told to gather just enough for one day. He came to this conclusion. “You can sometimes have too much of even a good thing”. And he went on to talk about our never satisfied appetites – and that they were never satisfied because we were sated.
Too much of anything, however good, can lead us to a loss of memory – the memory which says “this is good”. That amnesia leads to a presumption that we have a right to be greedy; and to the death of a sense of gratitude.
As we read in the gospels of Simon Peter he either gets it utterly right, or dead wrong. Today he is dead wrong. He wants too much of a good thing.
Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ 9Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’
Peter wants the whole kit and caboodle now, but he is not ready for it. For he, with the others, has no clue as to what Jesus is doing. Jesus says to Peter, and I think also to the others
‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’
As when he decided to ride into Jerusalem on a colt, Jesus is utterly in charge. He knows what he is doing.
“during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God”
“He had come from God and was going to God.” This Jesus is serene in the conviction that he knows who he is, and what he is about. He knows what he is doing. That was not true for the disciples, all save Judas who surely knew who he was, and what he was about.
In the washing of the feet of the twelve Jesus is behaving as the servant he knows himself to be. This was no play acting. He knows his vocation. He is a servant.
Jesus serves in the face of two power structures – the might and pomp of Rome and the compromised ecclesiastical power of the Temple Hierarchy. Soon he will serve a “contempt of God” citation upon the Temple oligarchs by overthrowing the money tables. Soon he will plant the bloody seeds of a bloodless revolution against Rome. In Jesus’ scheme of things, to serve is to be subversive.
On this night, the servant washes the feet of the disciples so that in due course they would also come to know their vocation – to be servant ministers. This is the night of their ordination.
Foot washing is ordination. To be ordained in this fashion is to know that ministry is about service, and not about power.
But” power” is the governing principle for much Christian ministry.
It would be good if that man in Rome who loves to dress up all fancy would remember that he is not a Pontiff – the “Pontifex Maximus” (which the Roman Emperors called themselves), but that he is the “servant of the servants of Christ” to use another of his many titles.
It would be good if those American Protestant ministers who seek power to blend Church and State into a new Theocracy would remember that Jesus died partly because he overthrew such notions as he “cleansed the Temple”.
Important as it is to point out the errors of the Papacy and of Fundamentalist Preachers, we too are called to understand the meaning of ministry all over again.
We in this case are the ordained ministers in this congregation.
Maundy Thursday speaks to us. It reminds us that our ordination was never about power – not even about the power of magic hands. It was about the call to serve. We are your servants.
We are not servants to be at your beck and call. We are servants for the sake of Christ. Our service is to live with you into patterns of life which, in utter non-violence, are subversive of the crippling and demeaning power structures of our age.
A bit later in the gospel Jesus talks with Peter and fills out the meaning of that Maundy Thursday ordination. He said, ‘Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ Peter’s hands will be bound, and his feet, once washed by Jesus, will take him to martyrdom.19
My sister and brother priests
Maundy Thursday is when we renew our ordination commitment. We will not do this with words, words: - words which some Bishop told us to read. It is NOT all up here in our heads.
We will do this best with deeds as we wash each other’s feet. We serve from our feet not from our heads.
We wash each other’s feet knowing that God will probably ‘take us where we do not wish to go.’
Having thus renewed our commitment we are ready to feed Jesus’ sheep, so that we might walk with this congregation not to where it wants to be, but where God calls it to be - for the sake of the world.