Maundy Thursday Sermon Year C
“God’s Unfathomable Love”
April 14, 2022
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Christ Church, Shaker Heights
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
There are three holy nights in the Christian faith: Christmas Eve, Easter Vigil, and tonight, Maundy Thursday.
Christmas Eve is rich with awe and wonder as we recall the unfathomable love of God for we humans, as God becomes enfleshed in Jesus. As we sing in “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” “veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th'incarnate Deity.”
The Easter Vigil sees us sitting in twinkling candlelight as we re-call God’s mighty acts of salvation in human history, all leading to that ultimate act of salvation as the stone sealing the tomb explodes open, the Risen Lord bursting forth in new life. Again, we witness the unfathomable love of God as Jesus passes over from death into life, trampling death down once and for all. Hymnody again captures the essence of this truth, “Love’s redeeming work is done, fought the fight, the battle won. Death in vain forbids him rise; Christ has opened paradise.
Both evenings proclaim the abundant, unlimited richness of God’s love for us. To paraphrase St. Athanasius, the Incarnation - the Word becoming flesh - occurred so we might become “partakers of the divine nature.” The Resurrection occurred so that we might be freed from the bonds of death and live without fear. “Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands for our offenses given; but now at God’s right hand he stands and brings us life from heaven.”
And then there’s tonight, Maundy Thursday, when all that unfathomable love expressed in both the Incarnation and the Resurrection is captured in three intimate acts of love.
But Maundy Thursday is significantly different from Christmas Eve and the Vigil, because the Incarnation and Resurrection are acts of love given to humanity by the Deity of God. Tonight, we are given three things that witness to God’s unfathomable love for us by the human Jesus.
The first of those three gifts Jesus gives us is the Mandatum Novum, the new commandant, after which this day is named. Jesus said to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” On the night before he dies, Jesus sums up his whole ministry in this new commandment. Do unto others as I have done to you. Love wildly and radically. Love the least of these. The unlovable. The marginalized. The despised. Those who hate you. Even all those who defy or deny the love I have brought to the world. Do not respond to hatred with hatred. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt. 5:44) Give to all the unfathomable love of God that I have given you.
The second gift is given through the foot-washing. This was a humiliating act in the culture of first century Palestine; an act that only a servant would have performed. At the Last Supper this role is assumed by Jesus, in a supreme act of humility, as he washes his disciple’s feet. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he writes, that [Jesus] “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death- even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2: 6-8)
In washing the disciple’s feet Jesus did what none of them would ever have thought of doing. Even as fishermen, farmers, and tax collectors, people pretty much at the bottom of the totem pole in that society, such an act would have been considered humiliating . Yet Jesus tells them, “Surely if I do this, you ought to be prepared to do it. I am giving you an example of how to behave towards each other.” Our status in life, our sense of entitlement, our wealth, our university degrees, our ordination status, all of that are worth nothing in God’s Reign. If God incarnate can kneel before us in humble service in a display of God’s unfathomable love for us, then surely, we can humble ourselves and do so as well for each other.
And for the record: the foot-washing becomes symbolic of how we should be humble in all our encounters with each other. It’s not just this one act, on this one night of the year. While the foot-washing is not an official sacrament, it is truly a sacramental act; an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. That grace is intended to transform us in all of life, each and every day, making us witnesses of God’s unfathomable love in all we do and say.
In a commentary I read the writer called the foot-washing act by Jesus, The Royalty of Service. I love that imagery! When we engage in acts of humility toward others we are engaged in the royal service of God’s Kingdom.
The third gift Jesus gives us this night is the Eucharist; the gift of the bread and wine, his body and blood. Each time we celebrate this sacred meal we do so, as he commanded us, in remembrance of him. Each time we partake of the Eucharist we are reminded of the sacrifice of Jesus’ life on the Cross, as well as his Resurrection from the grave, both gifts of God’s unfathomable love for us. But this holy meal is more than an act evoking a memory, it is the food that gives us true life. As Jesus told the disciples, ““I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (Jn. 6:35)
The Eucharist transforms us. To paraphrase the first letter of John, when we eat the bread and drink the cup, Jesus abides in us and we in him. Being so intimately interconnected with Jesus, the Eucharist is the food for our journeys which sustains us as we strive to follow Him.
This is a holy night, indeed. God’s unfathomable love for us is richly given in three sacred gifts. May Christ’s Body and Blood nourish us so we may live lives of humble service, loving one another as we have been profoundly loved.
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Christ Church, Shaker Heights
Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought [the nard] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
It’s interesting the amount of attention this particular verse about the poor always gets from people, evoking mostly adverse responses. I say this because the other verses really should draw our attention considering how provocative – even racy – this Gospel story is. Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with this outrageously expensive nard and then wiping them with her hair is scandalous! So, it’s interesting to see people zeroing in on the phrase about the poor and not the racy stuff. One would think that it is Mary’s actions, which are fraught with suggestive imagery, especially in the context of the culture of first century Palestine, would draw attention, even outrage. After-all she is a woman touching a man’s feet in a culture that would have interpreted such an action to be those of a woman of ill repute. And Mary’s hair is down, uncovered in front of a group of men, none of whom is a relative or her husband, another serious cultural taboo. Add to that her taking this exotic perfume worth nearly a year’s salary for a common day laborer, and then using it all up to anoint Jesus, an action seen as one of significant wastefulness, well, at least by Judas! As I said, this is a shocking, suggestive Gospel passage.
But this racy material gets relegated to a secondary status. It is Jesus’ comment about always having the poor with us - offered as a reprimand to Judas when he criticized what he saw as Mary’s wastefulness - that catches people’s attention and even offends them.
What drives this is its seeming contrariness of who we believe Jesus to be. We think, “Jesus should be on the same page as Judas. He certainly would not tolerate such wastefulness when there is so much poverty and suffering that needs to be addressed. Jesus would never sublimate the poor to a secondary status for his own benefit. Jesus wouldn’t utter such a callous comment about people he clearly has a preference for in everything he says and does in his ministry.”
But there you have it, right there in the text. It does seem like he does all of those things. And if that’s true how do we account for it? How do we not lose the Jesus of our faith? How do we reconcile the Jesus who says such a thing about the poor in the midst of such extravagant waste?
I understand people’s objections. This passage is worthy of some study and explanation, not the least because it has been so misinterpreted, and even abused by some folks.
Think about it. On first glance it appears that Jesus is giving his blessing to using money extravagantly in a wasteful manner, to the exclusion of taking care of the poor. This passage has frequently been used to justify a defeatist attitude toward efforts – both secular and religious – to ease the plight of the poor. This argument believes that this scripture tells us that even Jesus sees such programs as a waste of time and money. “See! You’ll always have the poor with you, regardless of what you try to do to improve their situation. It’s hopeless. If this is Jesus’ attitude toward the poor, then why should we be funding Medicaid, Head Start, the SNAP program, and subsidized housing? After all you’ll always have the poor with you, regardless of what you do. Better to use that money in other ways. Better to look after your own needs; be extravagant with yourself, get those things you want. Better to use the money by giving tax breaks to the richest 1% in our society; pour the nard of abundant and aromatic tax cuts on their feet. Then we’ll incentivize a trickle-down economy and we’ll all benefit.”
If you think what I just said is harsh and a bit sarcastic, it’s meant to be. And I’m fine with that because the reality is Jesus could be harsh when people took God’s words, which are intended to build up God’s Reign, and twisted those words to their own devices. Which is precisely what is taking place when this passage is used to justify not funding, not contributing, not volunteering to help the neediest among us. For those who doubt the veracity of this claim, please reference Jesus’ parable about the goats and the sheep in Matthew 25; that’s the plumb line by which we measure Jesus’ desires for our behaviors.
So, is Jesus disparaging the poor when he tells Judas to leave Mary alone, not fret about this extravagant act, because, well, “you always have the poor with you?” Is he telling us to forget them? Is he saying it’s okay to just tend to our own needs? No! He is saying just the opposite. Mary’s actions inform us just how costly discipleship is: just how sacrificial following Jesus will be for us, if we do it faithfully.
Ask yourself this question. Where did Mary acquire the money to purchase the nard? Did she use money from her dowry, thereby jeopardizing her changes at a good marriage, or a marriage at all? Certainly, buying the nard would have diminished her dowry, and her behavior in anointing Jesus’ feet certainly diminished her reputation. It actually put it in great jeopardy. Her seemingly inappropriate behavior would have deterred an eligible man to take her as a wife, even if she had a substantial dowry.
What her actions are intended to do is have us see and understand that in all she did, Mary was sacrificing her own security, her own future, her reputation and her dignity so that she could be a witness of what faithful disciple to Jesus looks like. Mary’s action informs us that the cost of disciple can be expensive.
In her actions Mary risked impoverishing herself both financially and reputationally, so that she could honor the One who taught her how to care for the least of these by his teachings and his example. Can we see in her actions that she loved Jesus because he was the One who taught her that she mattered, that she had value as a person, despite how the rest of society marginalized her as a woman.
Frankly, I think Mary learned her lessons about God’s Reign well, when she was taught sitting at Jesus’ feet. I think that is why she did what she did: in gratefulness to Jesus for recognizing her self-worth. For giving her dignity. Mary’s witness is an object lesson that caring for the least of those among us changes everything; for them and for us.
In this moment of sacrificial discipleship as Mary anointed Jesus so extravagantly, intimately and at great cost to her, Mary teaches us a lesson of critical importance for our own faith lives. It is a testimony of love. Jesus’ accepting and defending her sacrificial gift invites us to witness the sacrificial gift he is about to make of his own life on the Cross. It is through his passion and death that Jesus testifies to God’s abundant love for the world. It is through Mary’s witness that we see abundant love for God’s ways, here and now. Hers is an object lesson showing us that we can sacrifice all we have to live into God’s ways as well. It’s a witness to authentic discipleship.
I think that’s the pearl of great value hidden in the field of this story. When we understand the outpouring of love Mary offered to Jesus in her sacrifice, and then witness the love Jesus offers the world in his sacrifice, we are empowered and encouraged to a life of sacrifice as well, so that we may care for the poor all around us, not ignore them.
The next time Jesus’ words and behavior throw a curve ball at you, remember this: Jesus is always looking to startle us, challenge our assumptions, get our attention, prod and nudge us forward, even if it means shocking us into having us doubt his reputation.
Frankly, you’ve got to watch out for this Jesus guy. He won’t stop trying to get us to build up God’s Reign. He’ll sacrifice everything – including his life - to call us to discipleship.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.