Weekly Preaching: Maundy Thursday 2021

February 28th, 2021

How quirky, Maundy Thursday falling on April Fools’ Day! The disciples must have had moments of feeling foolish. Their teacher insists on washing their feet. Students were eager to serve their masters in this way, but Jesus is always reversing things, going lower than we can imagine.

In Jesus Christ Superstar, after they’ve had a bit too much to drink, they tipsily sing, “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle, knew that I would make it if I tried, then when we retire, we can write the Gospels, so they’ll all still talk about us when we’ve died.” Clever. In my podcast "Maybe I'm Amazed," Tim Rice shared with me why he did it this way. Fascinating and clever.

More cleverly, Mark reports on the chagrined response of the twelve to learning one would betray. Taking turns, each one asks, “Is it I?” My church put on a corny drama on Maundy Thursday years ago in which each disciple had a monologue concluding with “Is it I?” Each guy mustered his best inflection to ask in a unique way. The constancy of the reply is profound.

The Greek particular implies a negative answer is anticipated, like “It isn’t me, is it?” William Placher reminds us that “the asking of the question implies at least a shadow of doubt.” We’re invited into the round of queries, probing our hearts for shadows of betrayal. Placher points out that in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, “Is it I?” is repeated 11 times, not 12. Judas didn’t need to ask.

I regret that the lectionary veers away from Mark, through which we’re progressing, and goes with the foot washing in John 13. This feeds into our very American notion that Christianity is about doing, serving, not receiving, or being with – and Jesus is hardly showing them merely how to serve humbly. He’s washing them of more than the dirt on their feet.

On April Fools’ Day, I’ll ponder the Lord’s Supper as a meal, asking How close does God want to get to us? Not just in the vicinity, or even at the same table rubbing elbows or even embracing. God wants to get inside us.

Candidates for ordination are asked to explain the theology of the Eucharist. The disciples would have flunked badly. I love Austin Farrer’s thought: “Jesus gave his body and blood to his disciples in bread and wine. Amazed at such a token and little understanding what they did, Peter, John, and the rest reached out their hands and took their master and their God. Whatever else they knew or did not know, they knew they were committed to him and that they, somehow, should live it out.”

No morals, no takeaways, no lessons this night. Just invite people to marvel with you, and to find ourselves together at that table, virtually if you will. When we partake, we become marvels, walking shrines, living temples. On Ash Wednesday, and at most any Communion service, I recall Martin Sheen’s lovely ramble to Krista Tippett in her “On Being” interview with him: “How can we understand these great mysteries of the church? I don’t have a clue. I just stand in line and say, Here I am, I’m with them, the community of faith. This explains the mystery, all the love. Sometimes I’m just overwhelmed, just watching people in line. It’s the most profound thing. You just surrender yourself to it.”

Or maybe, to switch it up, focus on Act 2 of Maundy Thursday: what unfolded after dinner. Jesus went out into the dark (literally and figuratively) to pray in Gethsemane. Sleepy-headed disciples again flunk Discipleship 101, but Jesus doesn’t thrash them or holler. And he doesn’t defend himself or run. He lets himself be acted upon. He’s “handed over.” He embraces God’s painful will for him, not fatalistically, but with immense courage – and unfathomable love.

His agony has troubled theologians who prefer a divine Jesus untroubled much by any genuine humanity. The Greek is pretty vivid: he "threw himself" to the ground and writhed loudly, collapsed, not entirely in control. This was light-years from the ancient ideal (and ours!) of how a hero (or anybody) faces death, with stoic acceptance. No, Jesus is human, never putting on a face, leaving us room for our emotion, terror, anxiety, inviting us to take all that to our Lord. Karl Barth captured what was at stake beautifully: "He did not let his life go as if it were worthless; he sacrificed it as something precious, from which it was not easy for him to part.”

This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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