A reflection as we begin Maundy Thursday
Tonight we begin the worship service that stretches over these next three days and walks us anew through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
This service not only sets before us the story of Jesus; it brings us into that story. We are witnesses. We are participants. Our feet get washed. Our hands hold the bread. The cross is carried into our midst. The darkness turns to light. These three days are not only about Jesus, but about the fundamental spiritual journey of human life.
The human spiritual journey is about learning to love, learning to set aside ourselves for the sake of the other. Our true humanity is not found in our ability to go to war, make babies, or make money; our true humanity is found in care and fidelity to God and to others.
There is nothing noble or true or enduring in anger, greed or vanity. There is nothing eternal in such things. But love, honor, grace, compassion – these share in what is eternal
So these days are not just about what happened to Jesus; they are about what is happening in us. We are dying and rising with Christ. We are being born from above. This is about our Passover, when we renew the journey that takes us from bondage into freedom, from darkness into light, from death into life.
And this three-day service, this piece of our human spiritual journey, begins tonight with this exhortation and a rite of confession and forgiveness.
Whatever our politics might be, I think we can agree that this last year has not shown the noblest side of the human character. In our own country there has been violence at political rallies. There has been no small amount of falsification and prevarication. There have been abusive comments about women and people of various ethnicities and religious traditions. There has been an increase in hate crimes. There has been an increase in fear and intolerance.
And these things have been happening around the world.
And we have seen worse: the intentional bombing of hospitals in Syria, the destruction of civilian neighborhoods, the killing of children with Sarin gas.
There is too much violence. Too much hate. Too much greed. Too much fear and ugliness.
The story of Jesus we begin tonight is also a story of too much violence, too much hate, too much greed, too much fear and ugliness.
But it is not just this; it is also a story of a profound compassion, a profound love, a profound service, a profound faithfulness.
In the face of violence, hate, greed and fear, Jesus teaches and forgives and loves. And through it all, Jesus never breaks faith with God or with us – with humanity.
We need to say that it is possible for us to be better. It is possible for us to choose compassion over neglect. It is possible for us to choose openness over fear. It is possible for us to do kindness and love justice and walk humbly with God. If it weren’t possible, Moses wouldn’t have commanded it, the prophets wouldn’t have demanded it, and Jesus wouldn’t have taught it.
It is possible for us to be better.
And the secret to being better is in this story of the one who was perfect.
We want to think that somehow it was easier for Jesus. We want to think that he had an advantage over us. But that’s not what the teaching on the two natures of Christ or the teaching on the sinlessness of Jesus means. He was fully human. He had no superhuman powers. He had no special divine knowledge (he has the knowledge of one who is perfectly attuned to the Father). When we say he was sinless, we mean he never broke faith with God.
Or with humanity.
When we say Jesus was perfect, we don’t mean he never struggled – we know he struggled in the garden. Trusting God in the face of torture, shame and death did not come easily. But Jesus did not break faith. Jesus was perfect in the same way that we might say a ripe garden tomato is perfect. It is what it was meant to be. An unripe tomato isn’t finished yet. It isn’t complete. But a garden ripe tomato is all that a tomato was meant to be.
Jesus is what humanity was meant to be. Jesus is what we were meant to be. But, instead, we have a world with too much fear, violence, hate and greed.
And reality is so catawampus, that even when we try to do the right thing or say the right words, too often the words come out wrong, or the words get misunderstood or our actions are misinterpreted. We hurt others – sometimes because we give in to the desire to lash out, but sometimes just because things don’t come out right. It is the reality of life in our broken world.
But God is working to unbreak it.
So we are coming together to tell this story. We are coming together to experience this story. We are coming together to be encountered again by this Jesus who was what we were meant to be. We are coming together to be encountered by the God whose work is to unbreak us. We are coming together to journey again through the water of baptism from death into new life.
So we begin tonight with confession. We begin by dealing with the questions God asked Adam and Eve after they had eaten the apple and were trying to hide from God’s gaze: “Where are you?” and “What have you done?”
And having coped with those questions, we are met by this Jesus who bends to wash our feet. And in the washing of our feet we realize that he has come to wash away all our sins.
And standing then in that abundant grace, we share the bread that is the sign of God’s redemption of the world.
And having shared the bread we ponder the imagery of Jesus stripped of all honor, yielding his life for the sake of the world.
And then, tomorrow, in Jesus’ final hour, we come together to pray that God’s redeeming work will come to all the world.
And Saturday night we will come together again to hear all those great stories of God’s deliverance, and we will bless the water and renew our baptismal covenant, and darkness will turn to light and we will hear the story of angels descending to open the grave. And we will see the empty tomb and know that God has validated everything Jesus said and did. And this great drama will push and pull us a little closer to our true humanity, to our true joy, and to our true peace.