Maundy Thursday Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Cheryl McFadden on April 1, 2021.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I want you to reflect on a significant event in your life. Where were you, who was involved, what was happening? What made the event significant? Have you pictured the event? I can vividly remember one of the most significant events in my life. The event was transformative. It shaped me; it changed my life. It set my life on a course that I could not have imagined or would not have done on my own. It was the day that I realized that I wanted to follow Jesus, that I wanted to be a disciple of Christ. I was 17 years old, and I wanted nothing more than to serve Christ. I knew, I believed that a life serving God, following in the footsteps of Jesus, was the absolute pinnacle of existence. I remember sharing with my parents my love of God, my exuberance for being a follower of Jesus. My parents, overjoyed with my love of God and new-found direction, asked me how I was going to follow Jesus. How was I going to live my life for God? What did this mean? What was my life going to be like? Taken back, puzzled, I told them I had absolutely no idea, but I would pray. I would ask God for guidance, for direction, and I was positive that God would lead me, would show me how to live my live totally directed, encapsulated in Jesus. By the grace of God, and a Catholic priest named Bob, I began to study the Scriptures and learn about the servant leadership which is the essence of our Gospel on Maundy Thursday. Father Bob introduced me to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who in turn, introduced me to servant leadership and what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
When I met with Sister Caroline, I asked her how I could follow Jesus. What was I to do? I remember her smiling at me and saying, Cheryl, you need to read all the Scripture about Jesus and follow what he did during his life. She suggested that I began my study with the Gospel reading for Maundy Thursday. Why did Sister Carolyn suggest this particular Scripture and not other passages? Because, it is the heart and soul, the very essence of what it means to be a follower of Christ. To be a follower of Christ, to be a disciple, means first and foremost, that we become a servant to others. Now, I am not naïve, simplistic, or out of touch with reality. I do realize that our society, our culture, does not promote or encourage people to be servants. In fact, I would go as far as saying it ignores servanthood, servant leadership. Our society, our culture, promotes and values individualism and the care of self. It does not value putting others before self. But servanthood is exactly what Jesus is demonstrating to us in this Scripture passage. Let me give you my interpretation of this passage and you can see if you agree with me.
First, I believe Judas represents society, the culture. He values money over servanthood. He values his relationship with the authorities over his relationship with Jesus. It is more important for him to be in alignment with the authorities than with Jesus, the outcast, the rebel. Judas is putting his interests first. No one likes Judas in the Jesus story, the passion narrative, but my friends, I imagine we have all put ourselves, our interests before others, once or twice in our lives. It may not have resulted in the death of someone, but it may have affected them in negative ways.
My second observation about this Scripture passage is that Jesus becomes very human with his disciples. After communing with them, he gets up from the table, removes his outer robe, and ties a towel around himself. Jesus strips down. He becomes very human to his disciples. In just a few chapters later in the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples, “You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing, but I have called you friends, because I have make known to you everything that I have heard from my Father (John 15:15). Jesus does not elevate himself above his friends but actually lowers himself, to become a servant to them. This is radical ideology. This is counter-cultural to society, to culture, both then and now. That very act of taking off his outer robe symbolizes Jesus’ humanity, his humanness to us. He then begins to wash the feet of the disciples. Jesus gets down on the ground and washes, most likely, the dirty feet of the disciples. Jesus is demonstrating that to be his follower, one must be willing to forsake one’s pride, one’s self-ambition, one’s sense of individualism. We saw a semblance of this very act by Mary, Martha and Lazarus’s sister, toward Jesus a few chapters early in the Gospel of John and used on Monday of Holy Week. Interestingly, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with costly perfume made of nard and wipes them with her hair (John 12:3) in anticipation of Jesus’ burial. Jesus washes the feet of the disciples in anticipation of their servanthood to others. They are being sent out into the world to be servants to everyone they meet.
My third and final observation about this particular passage is that it takes place in the context of a meal. We read, “And during supper, Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table…” (John 13:2b-4a). After Jesus had washed and dried the disciples’ feet, he returned to the table (John 13:12. It is my belief that many times servanthood takes place within the context of a meal. People are fed, people are cared for, people are nourished during a meal. We need to continue to come to this Eucharistic table to be fed, to be cared for, to be nourished so that we can go out into the world and be a servant to others. We need to go out into the world and sup with others. To have supper with another is to partake with them. It means to share with one another. It is about us being in relationship with others. When we share a meal, we are sharing ourselves, our lives with one another.
So that’s my take on this Scripture passage that Sister Caroline shared with me. To be a follower of Jesus, to serve Christ, begins with being a servant to others. It begins with symbolically and literally washing one another’s feet. It means sharing supper with one another. If we truly want to be a follower of Jesus, to be his disciple, we must forego putting our self before and above others and we must be willing to place ourselves at the feet of others. It is no small task, but we have an incredible example to follow in our Lord and Savior. Amen.