The Most Important Thing About Us
The Rev. Dr. Andrew R. Guffey
April 18, 2019 – Holy Thursday
Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another, as I have loved you.”
In the name of the One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + AMEN.
As I understand it, the last words of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas were: “Eighteen straight whiskies…I think that’s a record!” The last words of Groucho Marx were apparently, “This is no way to live!” The last words of President John Adams were supposedly, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s last words were to his wife: “You are wonderful.” We have a fascination with last words. Because last words carry weight. They often place a seal on a relationship, or reveal the character of someone. And when they come from the lips of our loved ones, they are often the clearest memories we will carry of them. They can bless or curse, they can haunt us or heal us, and they endure in our memories. And, of course, it’s not just words. It’s actions, too.
And that would seem to be the reason we have come here tonight. After all, it’s a week night and we’re in church. So that’s weird. We’re going to get our feet washed. That’s weird, too. But we’ve come here to remember the last supper, when our Beloved was at table with his friends. We’ve come here, once again, to watch and listen to Jesus’s last words and deeds. Perhaps.
But Maundy Thursday is not the kind of service where we get to be spectators. Not really. On Maundy Thursday we are drawn right into the story by Jesus himself. As a favorite preacher puts it, “On the surface, you may think you came tonight from duty, or habit, or curiosity, but those are not the real reasons. The real reason is that Christ himself has brought us here to be with him at the meal that he has arranged and set, to eat the food and drink the wine that he himself gives to us.”
We are not just here to watch, but to participate, to remember in our bodies and not just in our minds. Because this sort of remembering does more to us than simply bring up emotions. This sort of remembering re-arranges who we are. We have our feet washed, we commune together, and then we stay—an active kind of staying, and watching—as the altar is stripped, and as our Lord removes himself to dark Gethsemane, foreshadowing what we know is coming: this is the night in which he was betrayed. It ends without a blessing, without a sending. Just with silence. No period, no question mark, certainly no exclamation mark. Just an ellipsis. Dot. Dot. Dot. And we are drawn into it, by Jesus himself, so that we can participate in his last deeds for us, and so that we can hear his famous last commandment: Love one another.
Maundy is an Anglicization of the Latin mandatum: commandment. Maundy Thursday gets its name from the Latin for John 13:34: mandatum novum do vobis… A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, as I have loved you. This commandment was sealed up as Jesus’s last words, wrapped up in the memory of the last meal his own beloved shared with him, so that it became the central sacrament of their life together. It remains the central sacrament of our life together, and it means love. Jesus’s last words to us were, “Love one another.” And the memory of those words has become enshrined in our Eucharistic feast. We celebrate the Eucharist week after week to re-arrange our hearts to be more loving: to hear again Jesus’s last word to us, his new commandments to us: Love one another, as I have loved you.
There is a story I love. I don’t think I’ve used this one here yet, but if I have, rest assured, you will hear it often. When the Apostle John, the Beloved Disciple, and according to our lore, the only one of the apostles who died a natural death—when John was of an advanced age in Ephesus, he was brought out on a stretcher every week during the Sunday service. He was very weak, but he was brought out, he would raise himself up a bit and say, “Little children, love one another.” And they would take him back in. After some time, someone finally said, “John, every week you come out and you say the same, thing: ‘Little children, love one another.’ Why is that?” And John replied, “Because if you would do it, it would be enough.”
Love one another. It sounds rather simple, until you realize that loving one another is hard work. It sounds rather simple until you reckon with just how radical love is and just how annoying people can be. Notice what Jesus asks of us: Love one another…as I have loved you. And how has he loved us? How has he loved his own, as the Gospel calls us? “Having loved his own who were in the world,” the Scripture says, “he loved them to the end.” Not just up until his death, but to the very extent of his being, to the very reaches of his capacity. In the face of betrayal, in the knowledge that his hour had come to depart from this world, he loved them to the end.
And this is where I want to say something very important. I hope you are still listening. As we look forward to the next season of being the Church together here at St. Mary’s. As we come together in ministry and mission, in worship and service, I want you to know that this is the most important thing about us. I know there have been disputes here, just as there were disputes among the disciples about who would be the greatest. I know tempers have flared and resentment has occasionally taken hold. I know there has been fear here. And disappointment. I know that there will never be a time when there is not some sort of conflict here, because there will never be a time when there is not some sort of conflict in any church. But this is the point of Maundy Thursday. Those disagreements are NOT, that conflict is NOT, the most important thing about us. The most important thing about us, as Christians, as the Church, as St. Mary’s, is not which side we are on of this or that “issue”; it’s not whether we get what we want, or how unpleasant the person 3 pews back is; it’s not even how lovely or how awful it was when so-and-so was in charge. The most important thing about us is this: “Having loved us, he loved us to the end.” That is the most important thing about us. And notice, it’s not about us. We are being called into this new way of being together that is grounded not in our capacity to love each other well, but in the fact, the fact that God loved us in Jesus to the very edges of divine infinity and to the fullest capacity of human vulnerability.
That is why we are here to remember this meal, this command, this betrayal. I have no doubts that Jesus loved Judas to the very end, too. I would even go so far as to guess that Jesus grieved for Judas. Because that is love. Jesus could have been indignant. He had every right. He could have lashed out in anger; he could have condemned Judas. But he didn’t, and he wouldn’t, because, as Leonard Cohen would put it, “Love is not a victory march; it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”
In Lent and in Holy Week that ought to strike us: how love can be a cold and a broken Hallelujah. Because all of our Hallelujah’s are cold and broken. Consider Peter, as someone once said, “the first to open his mouth, and the first to regret it.” When Jesus comes to Peter to wash his feet, Peter doesn’t understand; he doesn’t know what love is, what it requires. You will NEVER wash my feet, Peter says. He thinks he’s above that. He doesn’t understand that the first step toward healing is accepting this love. He doesn’t understand that the most important thing about him is not his place in the group, it’s not saying and doing the right thing; it’s that he was Jesus’s own, and Jesus loved him to the end. When Jesus points this out, he still misses the point: Ok, then wash all of me! I have to think this made Jesus smile. Oh, Peter. You really do try, don’t you?
“Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asks. This question always strikes me. Do you know what I have done to you? I have loved you to the end. I have given you a sacrament of my love for you. I have washed off your filthy, stinky feet, as I am washing your hearts. I am re-arranging them for love. But the first step is to let me wash your feet. The first step is to recognize that the most important thing about you is that I have loved you in the world, and I love you to the very end.
Tonight Jesus draws you to have your feet washed, to begin again to learn to love—and we are always beginning again. Tonight Jesus calls us to the table together, his table, set out for us, the banquet of love that knows no end. Tonight the lights will go out and we will be together in the valley of the shadow of death. But we will fear no evil there, because in the dark Garden, Jesus still loves us to the very end.
And what shall we give him in return? What can we give but our own hearts, now broken open and free of our own illusions and hardness? Hearts ready to love as he loved us, ready to embrace one another. Come. Do not shy away. Do not be afraid. Come, open your hearts a little, and know that no matter how smelly your feet, or how awful your betrayal, he loves you to the very end.
Little children, love one another.