On Palm Sunday, I drew some parallels between Jesus’ journey during Holy Week from celebration to cemetery and our own journey as a Western religion and as a congregation. And I talked about how I see the church and this congregation as being in its own Maundy Thursday - in that time when we see everyone abandoning us and when we know we are only a short time away from dying, and when we are afraid of what will happen next. This evening, I want to talk about what it’s like to be in this Maundy Thursday moment - to know that the end is approaching - and about how we’re going to get through it.
For me, the moment that most captures the significance of Maundy Thursday comes at the end of the service, when we strip the altar. We take away all of the things that demonstrate the life of the church - the paraments that tells us the church season, the candles that highlight the altar as the focus of our worship, the communion vessels and elements that are our very reason for existence, and all of the things that make this church different from just a building. Without an altar and the communion vessels, the church ceases to be a church. It becomes an empty space. The reason to be here is gone - until Easter morning, the life of the church as we know it comes to an end.
We do this to remember what happened on Maundy Thursday. The things that brought Jesus and the disciples together - his ministry of caring for the sick and proclaiming God’s forgiveness - were stripped away when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, and the life together as they all knew it came to an end, in a very painful and literal way. The fellowship they had with one another, the kingdom that they were working to bring about, these things were about to die.
And yet Jesus promised, despite the apparent finality of what was going to happen, despite the loss and the suffering and death, despite the almost complete falling apart of the community of disciples, that new and better things were coming. He knew they wouldn’t be able to understand at the moment, and yet he told them anyway. It’s often that way when we’re facing some impending loss. Our fear over the coming loss and pain overwhelms us and we can’t understand what people are saying to us. If you’ve ever had a loved one in the hospital and listened to the doctor explaining what the problem is, you know that it can sometimes take two or three explanations before you really understand what’s happening. So Jesus explained to his disciples, several times, what was going to come after life as they knew it came to an end.
He also knew that once they understood what he was saying, they wouldn’t believe him. That’s another truth about loss - how impossible it is to believe that things will get better. The disciples had spent the last week with Jesus, cheering with the crowds on Palm Sunday, celebrating Passover with him, and now enjoying this intimate dinner with him, expressing their care for one another. It was a good week, probably the best they’d had so far. And when things are really good - when your life is full of love and joy - and when you lose that - it becomes incredibly difficult to believe that things will be even better than what you’ve already experienced. Give up your house and your family and your friends and your life, and you will receive something better? How would we even know what this new and better life looks like? If Jesus promised us a better church once we’ve lost this one, how would we recognize it? If Jesus promised a new life when the life we know is gone, how would we know it when we see it? What is there to give us hope?
Knowing the reality of this, Jesus told his disciples what to look for. He described for them the signs of new life so they would recognize it, and then he modeled these signs, so that they would see it in action. This evening, we too see and model Jesus’ actions, so that we might recognize when Jesus’ promises of new life have appeared.
The first sign of new life that Jesus promises us is acts of service-in-love. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and told them to love one another as he loves them. Washing another’s feet was a sign of hospitality in a time when people wore sandals, if that, and walked all over dusty and dirty roads that were frequently covered in waste and garbage. Feet were germy and dirty, and so hosts would have their servants wash the feet of someone coming to their house, as a way of making the visitors feel welcome. Jesus did this himself, to demonstrate that his hospitality and service was rooted in love, no matter what their sin and no matter what betrayal they would commit. In fact, if we follow the chronology of the Gospel of John’s account of the evening, Jesus even washed the feet of Judas, knowing what he was about to do. So this is a sign of the new life Jesus has promised us - service-in-love. When we see somebody serving another in love, we are seeing the kingdom of God approaching, we are seeing new life after death. Even if this service isn’t happening in the church, or even among Christians, even if this service doesn’t look like anything we’re used to seeing, or like anything of the life we know, it is a sign of God’s new life in the world. So, this evening, we will wash one another’s hands. Not our feet, because those are no longer the dirtiest things - we are all privileged enough to have socks and shoes and boots to keep our feet clean. Our hands are the things that touch the world, that act out sin, that carry out God’s will, that pick up germs and that need God’s water. And so, because Jesus loved us as sinners and God’s children, we will love one another and serve each other, and we will see that God is present with us even as we die, and that God’s world is better than what we have experienced so far.
The second sign that Jesus promises, that shows us new life after death, is forgiveness. The ability to forgive comes from God, and is new life to the one who is forgiven. If someone has ever hurt you, you know what it’s like to be unable to forgive that person. They become, essentially, dead to you. Sure, they might walk around and exist, but in your mind, they are dead. And the same is true when we ourselves need forgiveness from someone. We can sense that we are dead to that person - that we are cut off from a relationship that used to give life. When we are in need of forgiveness, we experience a kind of living death. But forgiveness brings new life. When we forgive someone else, we are giving their life back to them, but better than it was before. We are telling them that they are alive once again to us, in a new and more meaningful way. And God gives us that ability to forgive, by forgiving us first. We’ve already seen it during this service in the proclamation of forgiveness at the beginning, and we will see it again in Communion–in the body and blood of Jesus given and shed for us and “for all people, for the forgiveness of sin.” This body and blood is a gift of new life. Whenever we receive communion, we receive forgiveness, and when we go out and forgive others, we see the signs of God’s new life amidst the death of the world. When we see others forgive us, we see God at work in them, moving them to grant us new life in our death.
Service-in-love and forgiveness from God are signs of God’s kingdom present in the world, bringing new life after death. They are promised to us in fullness after our death, and they are given to us today to comfort us as we let go of the life we have here. Life as we know it will soon be gone. It is the way of this world. Here, death has the final word. But we have Jesus’ promise that new life is coming, and that God has better things in store for us. So, trusting in that promise, we lean on God to give us strength to strip away life as we know it, and we draw comfort as we move through Maundy Thursday and turn to face our own death and Good Friday.