March 28, 2013  — Maundy Thursday

Rev. David Boyd


Back in the 90's, when we lived in Northern Ontario, every Christmas we went to the Joseph's for Christmas Day dinner. We were asked the first year we were there and it seemed like a good thing to do, and it became a yearly tradition. The Josephs were a farm family; Theresa and Joanne used to babysit our children. There were five children in the Joseph family, all older than our children; until 1991, we had three children. So, there were seven of them, plus our five and often Verlyn's mother would join us—she had Alzheimer's and wasn't always well enough to come. When Alanna was born, there were then 13, sometimes 14 gathered around that table. And we crammed into the kitchen, which passed as the dining room, seated around a long table heaped with food. The Joseph's had a smallish house and it felt like we filled the whole house to bursting.

It was delightful breaking bread together in that small house, crowded around the table. When someone had to go to the bathroom, it seems to me that 3 or 4 people had to get up because there wasn't any room to go behind the chairs. We filled that farm kitchen. It was not a quiet, formal meal. There was lots of laughter, raucous conversation and sometimes some gentle arguments, lots of teasing, and much, much good fellowship. Picture "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and the raucous hospitality of the Greek culture depicted in that film. It was delightful hospitality.

Now, with that picture of hospitality and friendship in your minds, picture a different scene. It was a different time of year, a different culture, a different climate, a different socio-economic time, a different religious tradition, a different occasion... and yet not so different. If the last supper of Jesus was a Passover Seder in the Jewish tradition, which it likely was, it too, was a raucous occasion with children present, lots of food, laughter and story-telling. There no doubt would have been some gentle ribbing and teasing. We've lost some sense of this in memorializing that meal as the Last Supper, which is usually depicted as a somber occasion of Jesus giving us in the institution of communion. While Jesus may have had some inkling of what was to come, it was an occasion of hospitality with an element of surprise and challenge thrown into the mix.

What was behind both that farm scene at the Josephs and the Seder meal that Jesus shared with his friends was love. We came to feel part of the Joseph family because of the love they shared; we celebrated the incarnation of Jesus by sharing a meal together and celebrating the gift of love. And God's incarnation in Jesus fostered a sense of love in the meal shared with family and friends in an Upper Room somewhere in Jerusalem.

But, as Jesus was want to do, he took it to another level—he took this gift of love to a level that has given rise to the reason why we remember this meal in particular. Jesus, the leader of this small community, the Rabbi revered by some and reviled by others, the one whom Peter had proclaimed Messiah, tied a towel around his waist and began to wash the feet of those gathered for that Seder meal. Jesus, already a living parable of love, enacted that parable further. Jesus loved to teach by way of parable; this time, he chose not to teach with words but through action.

But the action of washing feet was a parable with a bigger meaning; it was a parable that enacted the essence of what the incarnation meant in the first place, that God should enter the life of creation fully, kneel down in humility, take the form of a servant, and do the work of the lowly. Jesus enacted this parable of servant leadership in the form of love. Jesus was and is God's love as a living parable. "A new commandment I give you: wash one another's feet."

And what is more, this living parable prompted Peter's misunderstanding: "Please, Jesus; not my feet but my hands and head also!" Jesus responded that there was one among them who was not clean at all. In the midst of this raucous meal, suddenly become serious, in the midst of misunderstanding and a friend's duplicity, Jesus continued to wash their feet; Jesus continued to embody the living parable of love. Jesus gave a glimpse into the Reign of God, this Reign that is upside down. As Debra Dean Murphy, assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College put it, "the God of heaven stoops to dwell; into deceit and double-dealing, into the misery, fraud and loneliness of our small lives—into this and more the Word became incarnate, and lives among us 'full of grace and truth.'"1

Murphy, a little later in her blog about Maundy Thursday, referring to South African theologian Peter Storey, said that God sent Jesus into the world not to die... but to love. She wrote: "And to those who tried to fence his love in, whose empty legalism was exposed, whose very social order was threatened—to those it became clear that to stop his loving they would have to destroy him. And so they did."1

But on this night before he died, Jesus took a towel, a basin and some water and spent his love lavishly and humbly washing the feet of a likely growing confused group of people. He took bread also and wine... and he invited those with him to become part of this living parable of love, this incarnation of love. Jesus invited those gathered; we, standing in this tradition, are invited again to be part of God's parable of love as we gather here!

"By this they will know you are my disciples." By this they will know that love will triumph over fear. By this they will know that love will triumph over oppression and injustice. By this they will know that love will invite social and political engagement to ensure a fair and just society for all to live as free human beings. By this—by taking a towel and serving one another in love—by living the parable of love that is Jesus, in all humility we become this parable of love; we become part of the incarnation in the world.

We quietly wash the feet of the fearful and the confused, of the cynical and the callous, of those pushed to the margins and those who think they have climbed the ladder of success. Because when our feet are washed we are changed; we become part of the parable. Because we have had our feet washed and are now part of the living parable of loving incarnation, we cannot keep silent. We take up Jesus' song of love with peace and justice and decry government policies that are fear-based and only disenfranchise; we sing so that our communities will live with a sense of hope, a sense of peace, a sense of wonderment and mystery, a sense of being family together. Because we have had our feet washed we are now part of the living parable of the incarnation of love. Jesus lives and love triumphs because we wash one another's feet.


1    See Debra Dean Murphy's blog in The Christian Century.    return
2    ibid    return