Sermon for Maundy Thursday

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

When we modern people talk about love, we more often than not speak of it as an emotion: tingly feelings and butterflies in the stomach and so forth. You’ve seen the movies with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan and the rest. There’s nothing wrong with this sort of love, but if the raw feeling is the end of it, such love is ultimately ineffectual.

Thus the words of tonight’s Gospel go well beyond mere sentiment:

Having loved his own which were in the world, [Jesus] loved them unto to the end.

John is not telling us that Our Lord had warm fuzzies for his disciples, but rather that he was prepared to take actions, very specific actions dictated by the law of love.

Christ’s call to “humble service” has become a cliché in the church, and his example has come to be seen as less radical and (indeed) less distressing as it must have been for the disciples that night at Supper. Christ’s example of love is not merely encouragement to work hard for others without regard for recognition. Neither is it a model of ordinary hospitality. No, that is but the patina of easy respectability in which we’ve encased our Lord, for the true meaning of his example is too hard for us.

In washing his disciples’ feet, which in an ordinary non-pandemic year we would reënact this night, Christ is not simply doing a mildly unpleasant task without complaint. Mere hospitality would have dictated that a host provide water for his guest to wash his own feet, or a slave to help if he had one. That would be “humble service” enough. Jesus was not just being hospitable. Rather, he profoundly humiliated himself, he chose debasement-disgrace-by carrying out a task which in his culture was relegated to only the lowliest of slaves.

This would have been shocking to the disciples, as we might discern from Peter’s reaction. It should be shocking to us, and not a little discomforting, for Christ’s mandate, his “Maundy” to us is clear:

For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.

We, too, it seems, are supposed to choose humiliation, to choose lowliness.

The law of love commands not that we simply set the good of others above our own in some vague, but ultimately comfortable way. Rather, we are to be open to the humiliation of Christ himself, to ourselves become fools for Christ, to ourselves take on the form of a slave, for as Saint Paul says:

God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.

This is an unpopular position in our culture which is sometimes overly concerned with affirmation; I have sometimes called it the Stuart Smalley culture in which “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” But, at least in my case, low self-esteem is not the problem. For me, the problem is the opposite, and Christ’s example convicts me, as perhaps it does you. Christ’s example convicts me to actually love the family of which I am the spiritual Father by sacrificing myself for it. I’m not good at that. I’m not good at truly keeping my priestly vows as I ought, but thank God that I get reminded to recommit myself to the sacrifice inherent in my vocation from time to time, and this night especially, on which the greatest privilege I have–the celebration of the mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood–is so clearly coupled with Christ’s example of humility.

Later in his long discourse at the Supper Table, Jesus gets to the heart of what washing his disciples’ feet implies for us: “Greater love hath no man than this [he said], that a man lay down his life for his friends.” By the humiliation of washing the disciple’s feet Jesus lays down his life figuratively; by his death on the Cross for our salvation the next day he does so literally.

A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

Christ, having laid down his life for us has made us his friends, and our mandate is to lay down our lives for others. Perhaps we’ll none of us be called to do so literally, but we shall all have the opportunity to lay down our lives in some sense. Love implies sacrifice; if there’s no sacrifice it’s just warm feelings, not love. May we then all be ready to lay down our lives, in whatever way we may be called to do so, for Christ and for those whom he himself died to save. For it is only in dying to ourselves and abiding in love that we may experience the risen life in him.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.