A sermon for Maundy Thursday

As that last meal begins, Jesus lays aside his outer garment, ties a towel around his waist, and begins to wash and dry the feet of his disciples. When Peter resists, Jesus tells Peter that if he can’t accept this act of love and care, “you have no share with me.”

Love can’t fully flourish except in relationship, and sometimes we—like Peter—find it even harder to accept love than to offer it. To let yourself be loved, you have to make yourself vulnerable. Opening a channel for love means revealing parts of yourself you might rather have kept hidden. It means admitting how much you need that love. It means acknowledging that you can’t make it on your own.

From Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as partners: “To love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value … to reveal to them their capacities for life, the light that is shining in them.”

That is exactly what grace–the lived experience of God’s love—does for us.

The season of Lent is meant to help us let go of our resistance and and accept God’s love more and more.

So that when Easter dawns we can take up that challenge, to love one another, “just as I have loved you.”

Transcription of the full sermon:

Last fall my husband, Chris, and I were on vacation in New Mexico, and we went to see the international folk art museum there. It’s a collection of folk art from all around the world. It’s very charming. My favorite piece was a depiction of the Last Supper that came from Portugal, and it was made up of little ceramic figurines arranged around a table.

What I liked was how simple the people were, and how varied their reactions were. Jesus is holding up the cup, and there’s a whole bunch of different expressions on their faces. Some of them are very devout and very focused on Jesus. Some of them are a little distracted and they’re having side conversations, and some of them just look completely befuddled.

Which I think is a lot like us. Sometimes when we’re in church, and especially when we hear the story that we heard tonight about that last meal they shared. There are a lot of threads running through that story. It’s about a lot of different things.

It’s about friendship. These guys had been on the road together for a long time. They had really bonded, and this was the last time they were going to share a meal this way. There’s real poignancy to that.

It’s a story about commitment. Jesus had preached a new kingdom to them, and touched their hearts. He preached a new way of being, a new reality, and they had found something that changed them. Something they could give their hearts to. Something they could give their lives to.

So there’s this tremendous sense of cause that they’re signed up for, and they’re committed to that cause, and yet at the same time there’s betrayal in the story. Certainly Judas, who leaves before the meal is over, but also Peter. Before the night is over, Peter is going to deny that he’s a follower of Jesus.

So there’s friendship, commitment, and betrayal in this story, it’s about all those things, but most of all, it’s a story about love.

This is where Jesus gives us that new commandment. He tells us to love one another. He tells us that’s how people are going to recognize us. And then he gives us this really vivid demonstration of what love looks like in action when he takes off his outer garment, kneels, and begins to wash the feet of the people who were there.

Now this was a common thing. It was a mark of hospitality. It was something a host would provide—foot washing for the guests—but the host wouldn’t have done it himself. A very lowly servant or even a slave would have done that. So that explains why Peter’s reluctant when it’s his turn. He doesn’t want to be served that way by Jesus, and what Jesus tells him basically is, if you don’t let me wash your feet, then we really have no relationship.

I think one of the lessons in that, one of the things that Jesus is saying is, you have to learn to receive love before you can give love. That’s something that we see certainly in our own lives. I have a very new granddaughter who’s about six weeks old, and she is an object of love. She receives it from all around, but it’ll be a while before she begins to be able to give it back. We have to learn to receive love before we can give it.

There’s a man named Jean Vanier. He’s the founder of a worldwide network of communities—you may have heard of them—they’re called L’Arche. And in these communities’ people with intellectual disabilities live with people who don’t have those disabilities. And they’re partnered. And the one who’s provides a lot of services to those who aren’t able to do things for themselves. Some of them can’t wash themselves. Some of them can’t feed themselves. And yet it’s meant to be an equal partnership, knowing that they both have love to give each other.

When Jean Vanier talks about love, he says love is not about doing things for somebody. It’s about showing them who they are, showing them the beauty of who they are. Showing them the light that shines within them, and showing them who they can be.

And I think that’s what God’s love is like for us. So all of Lent you could say is a process of learning to let God love us, learning to accept that love, learning to be healed by that love. And it isn’t always easy. I mean if you’re a baby you know you need love—you don’t even know it, but something in you knows you need love just like you need milk.

For us, I think we can be a little resistant. So I’ve heard people say about foot washing, oh, it’s awkward, you know. I don’t want to show my gnarly feet, you know, and it’s the same with being loved. You have to make yourself vulnerable in order to receive love. You have to admit that you really need that love, that you can’t make it on your own. You have to be willing to let go and show some of your gnarly parts before you really can receive that love, to receive God’s healing.

So tonight we come to remember that Last Supper, we come to remember the commandment Jesus gave us, to love one another, and we come to reenact what he told us to do, to wash each other’s feet. Remembering that it’s an act of love, but the giving of love and the receiving of love are equally important, and if you can’t receive it, it’s very hard to give it.