Sermons That Work

Have You Ever Heard a Verse…, Maundy Thursday – 2010

April 01, 2010

“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, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.”

Have you ever heard a verse of scripture as if for the first time? Have you ever noticed a connection that, in many hearings in the past, you had ignored? Did you now hear the stunning juxtaposition contained in this one sentence?

If someone were telling you a story about a person who had been given all power by God – for this is what “all things into his hands” means – if you were introduced to such a person who came directly from God and was about to return to God, would you expect him to put on a towel, an apron?

Think about it. Imagine this scene. You would naturally expect such a person to put on a crown or assume the stance of power; this is what the world has taught us to expect. Why then did the evangelist make the first part dependant on and connected to the second? The second part of the sentence derives from the first: it means that the one person with control of “all things” willingly performs the humblest act of a servant. The connection between the two ought to stun us into silence and awe.

With this one scene vivid before us we tonight leave an insane world behind in order to enter into sanity – utter sanity and peace in the midst of the saddest story in the cosmos. The Lord and Teacher, as he admits that he is, takes on the role of the servant inside an ordinary upper room while the forces of evil are going mad outside; men who are drunk with their own power and cleverness are plotting to kill him, as he quietly takes off his robe, puts on a towel, and kneels before his students and friends. This is a situation that only God would have dreamed up. But Jesus says that by this act he is teaching us to dream in the same manner. Even though the servant cannot rise higher than the master, as the people believed in a world that kept everyone in his and her place, the master here becomes the servant.

Peter is scandalized. “You will never wash my feet,” he tells Jesus. And if the writer of that day possessed this particular technology, he would have italicized the word “my.” “Not my feet, Lord.”

But Jesus reprimands him. He is really saying to Peter:

“Forget the old ways of thinking and doing, Peter. Forget the structures that keep the poor, poor, and the slaves in a permanent underclass from which they cannot escape. Forget what you have been taught, and do as I do. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Many of us go through the motions of washing each other’s feet on this sacred Maundy Thursday but forget to remember and to emphasize that this is a new order, not just a humble act. All the passages we read tonight speak of a drastic change to the status quo. Think for a moment about that world of the first century. Rome controlled her subjects with an iron hand. Compassion, love, and non-violence had no place in such a world. Slaves were not considered human beings; the emperor had unquestioned power; the father in the household, the pater familias, could dictate the life or death of his own children; women were not citizens; and humility was not a virtue but a weakness to be despised. In Israel, an occupied land, the higher clergy, Annas and Caiaphas in this instance, controlled the people by collaborating with the Roman powers. Caiaphas admits it when he says during these secret machinations against Jesus, “It is better that one man should die for the people.” That meant that he knew how to appease Rome.

Into this world comes the Son of God, and by donning a towel and kneeling before his friends to wash their feet, he declares that in God’s eyes everything is different from what Rome and the clergy declare as the order of things. Power is relinquished willingly because love is stronger than power. What a revolutionary concept! It was unthinkable in that first century; it is scandalous even in our time, except for those who truly understand the good news of God in Christ.

Robert Browning wrote a poem about a fictitious Arabic doctor, who visited Israel some years after the resurrection. This physician comes across Lazarus and hears his own story of being brought back from the dead. He realizes that Lazarus’ way of seeing the world is totally different from that of other people. The physician relates this encounter to his friend Abib when he returns home. He tries hard to remain skeptical, but he keeps returning to what Lazarus revealed to him. He tells his friend, “If this indeed happened, think of the implications.” Listen to the last verse of this poem by Robert Browning, “An Epistle:

The very God! think, Abib; dost thou think?
So, the All-Great, were the All-Loving too –
So, through the thunder comes a human voice
Saying, “O heart I made, a heart beats here!
Face, my hands fashioned, see it in myself!
Thou hast no power nor mayst conceive of mine,
But love I gave thee, with myself to love,
And thou must love me who have died for thee!”

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Christopher Sikkema


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