Maundy Thursday, March 29, 2018, Lectionary B
ELIZABETH’S OF HUNGARY IN RICHMOND HILL, GEORGIA
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr. Rector Scripture: John 13:1-17, 31b-35
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Let us pray. Heavenly, loving Father, send now the Holy Spirit that we might encounter Jesus this very evening in the washing of feet and the breaking of bread through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
It is Maundy Thursday again, Maundy from the Latin mandatum (hear the word, mandate), meaning to command. As we just heard, Jesus said in the gospel reading, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Jesus poignantly and practically demonstrates His love for His disciples; yes, even us in the washing of their feet—a task not even a slave was required to do for his or her master. To emphasize the level of humility here, we might recall that with the exception of Roman highways streets during the time of Jesus were not paved. Streets also served as the local sewage system. Imagine how filthy those sandaled feet must have been. God Himself in the person of Jesus had stooped to wash His disciples’ feet.
Earlier this past week I washed the feet of some forty of our preschool children, ages 2-4. Yes, you might wonder where their little feet might have trod. I tried to explain to them what I was doing or rather what Jesus did. I asked them, “What do important people do?” There was no answer, of course. So, I went on to say, “Important people do important things. God is important, right? They do not wash the dishes, sweep the floor, or vacuum, all things that I do. The teachers chuckled at that. Even so, I doubt the kids got what I meant. Of course, important people do do the very tasks I described, but you get the point.
The idea of God in Jesus stooping so low as to wash your and my feet is, perhaps, difficult for us to grasp, intellectually, never mind emotionally. God on high, creator of the universe, who created us from dirt, loves us so much, even though we do not deserve His love. What a gift! In that respect, we might recall receiving some unexpected gift, undeserved perhaps. What has been our response? We got choked up, about to cry or even crying, did we not? Multiply that by whatever value you choose. That is the gift of love God in Jesus is demonstrating to us when He washed the disciples feet. I told the kids that Jesus is still washing peoples feet, our feet today.
In washing the disciples’ feet Jesus also gives us an example of loving and caring for others. The children’s vocabulary is limited at their young ages, so the word, example, was meaningless to them. I tried this tact, telling them that an example is like when Ms. Cindy, the four year old teacher, shows you how to pronounce a letter or a word. That’s an example. Washing feet is an example of serving others. It is an example Jesus has given us. The gifts of love Jesus gave on the night before His crucifixion do not stop there.
St. Paul’s speaks of this additional gift in the reading from Corinthians this evening. “[T]he Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; 24 and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” 25 In the same way He took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
If we thought Jesus had humbled Himself in washing His disciples’ feet, now out of love for us and the Father, He allows Himself to die for us, for our sins. If the word sin is bothersome, then say to yourselves, “You know I am not as hot or as good as I sometimes think I am. In fact, I can be mean and perverse on occasion.”
What then are we to make of this sacrament of Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, or the Mass to which St. Paul refers? Is it Jesus’ body and blood as the Roman Church doctrinally confesses? Through a process known as transubstantiation the belief is that the bread and wine actually become Jesus’ body and blood. Certainly, that notion confounds our senses of sight and reason. Neither wine nor bread looks like any part of the human body except maybe the red wine in color. Martin Luther, perhaps acknowledging this inescapable reality, coined the term consubstantiation, meaning that the interior of the bread and wine had become the body and blood while the exterior still looked like plain old wine and bread. As science gained momentum to see the smallest of the small his notion quickly became less than compelling.
The German reformer, Philip Melanchthon, a contemporary of Martin Luther, perhaps focusing on Jesus’ words, “do this in remembrance of me,” reduced the understanding of Holy Communion to nothing more than a memorial like some plaque on the wall. All spiritually was drained from the sacrament, as an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Note, however, that Jesus does not say this is the sacrament of My body or the sacrament of My blood. He simply says that it is His body and His blood. This might make us wonder about the use of the word, sacrament, in respect to the Eucharist.
I rather like what Pope Benedict the XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, wrote about the Eucharist. “Physically and chemically nothing happens in the Eucharist. This is not its level of reality. But a faith-filled approach to reality includes at the same time the conviction that physics and chemistry do not exhaust the totality of being; therefore it cannot be said that where nothing happens in the physical order nothing happens at all. On the contrary: the reality lies behind the physical” (Collected Works: The Theology of the Liturgy. p.236). Later in the same text the Pope writes, “[T]he Lord, who is the Risen One has overcome the limit of historical existence, (and) can impart himself when and where he wishes. The “freedom of his love has chosen for itself the place of presence—preeminently and most profoundly in the sacrament of his Body and Blood” (IBID 239).
Turning his thoughts to Luther, Benedict wrote: “Luther’s error lay, I am convinced, in a false concept of historicity, in a misunderstanding of what is repeatable. Christ’s sacrifice is not behind us as a thing of the past. It touches all times and is present to us. (Notice the present tense when we say after the breaking of the bread, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us,” and not was.) Eucharist is not merely the distribution of something from the past but is, rather, the presence of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, which transcends and unites all time” (IBID, p. 555, 556).
Where then does that leave us in respect to understanding the Eucharist for us today, now, this evening, as we approach it in the next little bit? Well, the Anglican/Episcopal understanding of the Eucharist is that Christ’s real presence is present at/in the consecrated bread and wine. The officiating priest prays, as we will soon hear, these words, known as the epiclesis:
“And we most humbly beseech thee, O merciful Father, to
hear us; and, of thy almighty goodness, vouchsafe to bless
and sanctify, with thy Word and Holy Spirit, these thy gifts
and creatures of bread and wine; that we, receiving them
according to thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ’s holy institution,
in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers
of his most blessed Body and Blood” (BCP, p. 335).
With these words of institution something spiritually has changed in respect to the bread and wine.
You may recall a story I told a few years back. I had been to an early morning Communion service around 38 years ago after the birth of my first daughter. Her mother had been unable to attend. As I was leaving the service, I passed by the sacristy and asked a member of the altar guild if the wavers on the counter were blessed. She said, “Yes,” and gave me one to take with me which she should not have, but that is another matter. As I went to administer the wafer to my wife (again, which I should not have been doing), it was if the wafer took on a life of its own. If you have ever held a spinning gyroscope, then you will know what I mean. That wafer had become more than a thin circle of flat bread. It (or should I say He) had intention and direction.
An occasion from seminary also comes to mind. It is something you yourselves might have noticed and then wondered what was going on. One of our professors at seminary was a Presbyterian. The day came for her to celebrate communion in her tradition, however, there is no epiclesis in her tradition. The lack of Jesus’ presence was palpable. It was just a memorial and nothing more. Incidentally, I am not saying it was the grape juice that somehow diluted the Lord’s presence.
From our scripture readings for Maundy Thursday, we are reminded that Jesus has bestowed upon us two very important gifts of love. In the washing of the disciples feet, indeed our own, He tells us that God is not above in some distant ethereal realm. Rather, God in Jesus shows His love for us by doing the most menial of tasks—a task exemplary to serving others. Then, in Jesus’ establishment of the Eucharist, He not only gives us something by which to remember His sacrifice for us on the cross, but also for receiving and knowing His presence even now. This means that in a few moments when we come forward to receive Holy Communion we will have the opportunity to encounter Jesus, His real presence. The same might be said at the washing of feet.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.