A sermon for Maundy Thursday

If you follow all of the news from the Diocese of Pennsylvania, you’ll know that last week, a group from the diocese including our bishop returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where they visited many of the sites that are associated with the life of Christ. So I saw lots of social media postings of pictures of them. They put their feet in the waters of the Galilee. They went to the Jordan River, where they renewed their baptismal promises. They followed in the footsteps of Christ to Calvary, and they went to Emmaus, where the grieving disciples didn’t recognize Jesus, except finally in the breaking of the bread.

They actually were following in a tradition that is many, many centuries old. Pilgrims have been going to the Holy Land since the fourth century, when the bishop of Jerusalem began to create opportunities for them to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and his disciples in that last week before Easter. And that actually is the origin of our observance of Holy Week. The pilgrims went and participated in this, and when they came back and described what had happened, people back at home began to recreate those observances.

So that’s what we’re doing. We’re imitating those fourth-century pilgrims, starting with our palm procession on Palm, and it’s meant to be a pilgrimage. It’s meant to be a pilgrimage in place. A lot of you know that I’m about to leave on pilgrimage myself a week from Monday. I’m goingto Assisi on pilgrimage. So I’ve spent the season of Lent reflecting on what it means to be a pilgrim. It’s not just a trip. It’s not just tourism. It’s a special kind of a journey, and it requires you to really concentrate on living in the moment, to pay attention to everything that’s happening right now. To let go of the things that you usually worry about, let go of worry about travel arrangements.

And then to focus on being in the moment, to open your heart to the special grace of pilgrimage. And I think that’s what we need to do. As we walk on a sort of virtual pilgrimage through Holy Week, we need to open our hearts and pay attention to what’s happening at each moment in our observances. So tonight we imagine ourselves there around the table with Jesus the night before he died.

They had to be aware of the danger that was building. The authorities were becoming increasingly jealous of the appeal that Jesus had to the crowds. You might have noticed that I changed a word in the reading. I did say the people, not the Jews. I don’t take changing that word lightly, but I think it’s really important to note the devastating effects that blaming the death of Jesus on the Jews has had over the course of history. So enough said about that for now.

The disciples had to be aware that night of the danger, but there must also have been joy in that intimate meal shared among friends, even if they didn’t know that it was the last time they were going to be together in that way. They were listening to this incredible teacher who had showed them a whole new way of living, of practicing their faith so that it really meant something. That wasn’t just going through the motions, but really was life-giving. And there they were, gathered together, listening to him for what turned out to be one last time in that way.

And in our Maundy Thursday service, we remember two gifts in particular that we associate with that night and with that meal. Two gifts he gave them to sustain them through the hard times ahead. As Paul says, those gifts have been handed on and handed on down through history and down to us, and we treasure them. They’re very simple things, but then simple gifts are often the best.

So the first gift is that simple commandment which summarizes pretty much everything Jesus was teaching: the commandment to love. “Love one another,” Jesus says, “as I have loved you.” That amazing self-giving love, which brought him to the cross, which is demonstrated in the foot washing that we read about tonight—which was the work of a female servant, a really menial servant in those times, carried out by Jesus for his people. And he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” He loved even Judas, who betrayed him by walking out from that meal.

Then the second gift is a gift of strength for the time ahead. It’s a gift of his presence in a very special way in the Eucharist. “He took a loaf of bread,” Paul says, “and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.’” And so we do.

As simple as these gifts are, when you think about it, it’s nearly impossible to describe either one of them in words. What is love, really, and how does it work? You can’t really define it in words. You can only live it. And it’s the same with the Eucharist. Books have been written. Sermons have been preached. Seminary papers have been turned in. And in fact, the only way to truly know the fullness of this gift is to open your heart the way true pilgrims do, to receive the grace that’s present and live into the experience. And so, in our own pilgrimage through life, we do.