Laying down our lives (a sermon for Maundy Thursday)

I took this photo in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris before the fire. I don't know if it's still there....

"And during supper Jesus, knowing that he had come from God and was going back to God, got up and washed their feet."  He did something his friends considered unthinkable (Peter:  "You will NEVER wash my feet, Jesus!"), taking off his robe and tying a towel around his waist and serving his friends, serving even the one who was to betray him, by washing their feet.

He could do this because he knew he had come from God and was going back to God.  He had no doubt, no fear, about that. What he was doing might be unthinkable for Peter, but not for Jesus.

What could we do, if we truly knew, truly believed, truly lived in the surety that we have come from God and are going back to God? Could we do what others might consider unthinkable and daring because we had nothing to fear?  If we knew that the world is changing irrevocably, as the disciples were soon to realize when the resurrected Lord showed up in their locked room, could we give up our nostalgia for the old way, the old order to make way for a new thing? Could we give up our fear? Could we act boldly to serve the community beyond our walls by showing the world by our own actions Jesus, the servant of all?

But there’s more. Jesus, after he engaged the disciples in their lesson on servanthood, gave them this directive: “I give you a new commandment:  love one another just as I have loved you.  The world will see and know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another." Our bold actions are to be signs of love, signs that we are all bound up together, not in competition with one another but abiding in one another.

Jesus loved his disciples, he loved even Judas whose feet he washed, too, he loves even us in our struggles to be faithful, secure in the knowledge that he came from God and would return to God.  That knowledge set him free and should set us free as well.

But what does this mean for us today during this strange time? Are we safe? Are we free? Already we are doing some uncharacteristic things, staying home, not seeing our children, wearing gloves and making masks. Not many of us are called to be on the front line, putting ourselves in danger (although I pray daily for the ones who are walking that road). It feels a little self-indulgent to “just stay home" in the face of the Biblical stories about servanthood and laying down our lives for our friends. 

Yet many of us are laying down our lives. We are not gathering for church, we are not hugging our children and grandchildren, we are not organizing a blood drive, we are not stocking the food pantry with canned goods. Instead, we are staying out of the way, the way we pull our cars over to the side of the road when a firetruck or ambulance comes by, so that we don’t clog up the efforts to get help to those who need it most.

Jesus is our model for laying down our lives, but even Jesus was judicious about his timing. The crowd wanted to throw him off a cliff at the very beginning of his ministry, but his death at that time would have not had the power or meaning or efficacy that it did on Good Friday. There are times to put ourselves in harm’s way because our doing so will bring about a greater good, and there are times when we need to withdraw for the greater good. Both of these are ways in which we love each other and lay down our lives for our friends. Our job is to discern what we are called to do today, in the knowledge that we belong to God and nothing can ever change that.

There are folks out there who are putting their lives on the line right now. I wish I could wash their feet. I hope someone is serving them. And I hope that when this is over, and it will be over but not before there is suffering and loss, I hope I will remember those who are shouldering a burden right now and never again take them for granted - doctors and nurses and health aides, of course, and also grocery store cashiers and shelf-stockers, restaurant workers, cleaning people, hospital chaplains, those who deliver our food and supplies, all those who have put their metaphorical towels around their waists (their masks over their faces and their gloves on their hands) and gotten out the basins and the water to be servants to all who come their way, be they saints or sinners, for the good of us all.

These are hard days, friends. But in the end, all will be redeemed. God will bring life out of death and also God will wipe away every tear. And we will need God to do both. 

Now supper has ended, the servant has acted. Now the world is about to change. Let it come.

Here's a video of this reflection: