Sermons

Rev Eric ShaferRev. Eric C. Shafer's Sermon
for Maundy Thursday  -  

 

I like the film “Walk the Line,” the 2005 movie biography of singer Johnny Cash. Stars Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix both deservedly were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances in this film and Witherspoon won the Best Actress Oscar.

Early in this film there is this scene: Johnny Cash is trying to break into the music business. Cash is auditioning for record producer Sam Phillips in Phillips’ recording studio. For his audition, Cash chooses a gospel standard, but before he even gets to the second verse, Phillips interrupts: "I'm sorry, do you have anything else?" "What's wrong with that?" Cash asks. "I don't believe you," Phillips replies. "Are you saying I don't believe in God?" Cash shoots back, getting angry. "I don't know, Mr. Cash," Phillips says; "what I do know is that I've heard this all before; the same old song sung the same old way. There's nothing real there.”

Then, Sam Phillips gets to his important point when he asks Johnny Cash, “If you were hit by a truck, if you knew you were going to die, if you only had time left to sing one song, what would you do so people would remember you? Would you really sing this song? Or would you sing something different: something honest, something real?"

Cash stands there for a minute in silence. Then softly, slowly, he begins to sing about a prisoner listening to the sound of a train full of people going by his jail. The prisoner in Cash’s song is tormented by the contrast between those people who are freely traveling where and when they want and himself, who, because of his choices and actions, has forfeited his freedom and everything else good in his life. The prisoner knows he deserves what has happened to him, and yet he longs for redemption. As the song builds, Phillips begins to smile. This is what he was looking for: something honest, something real, something that people can and will remember.

If you knew you were going to die, what would you do so people would remember you?

The things we do in the face of impending death carry a lot of weight: the prisoner's last meal that reveals a long-held fantasy or recalls lifelong food favorites; the deathbed confession that unburdens truths that could never be spoken in life; final efforts to reconcile long held grudges and heal old wounds, knowing there will be no further opportunities. Our final words and actions reveal much about who we are and how we understand ourselves; about our hopes and intentions for how we will be remembered and our feelings for those whom we leave behind. They have the power not only to sum up a life, but to determine how life is understood, valued and remembered.

That is what Jesus is counting on as he gathers his disciples together on this Maundy Thursday evening. "Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father," John tells us. Jesus’ hour has come, the hour he has awaited since the beginning of the Gospel. This very night, Jesus will be arrested. This very night, he begins the final part of his journey toward the cross. This very night is his last night with his disciples. And Jesus knows it; he knows that he is going to die, knows that he has this one last chance to give them something to remember him by. What should it be?

Interestingly enough, the Bible records two different accounts of what Jesus gave to his disciples that first Maundy Thursday. Our lesson from Paul's letter to the Corinthians tonight preserves the tradition of Jesus instituting the Lord's Supper in its earliest written form, and Paul goes to great pains to indicate that it comes from Jesus, not from Paul. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all contain only slight variations on this single tradition. "Do this in remembrance of me" makes the observance of the Lord's Supper both a gift and a command, both a blessing and a mandate. We are mandated to share the blessing of the Lord's Supper, to accept the real presence of Christ in this sacrament of forgiveness. The Latin word for "mandate," after all, is where we get the liturgical name for this day in the Christian calendar: Maundy Thursday. And, overwhelmingly, the Christian church throughout the world has followed that mandate in some form or fashion.

So it's a little surprising, then, to discover that nowhere in John's Gospel do we get the institution of the Lord's Supper. On the night of his arrest, Jesus gathers his disciples at supper, but he doesn't mandate anything regarding future meals together. Instead, we get the scene of Jesus taking on the dress and responsibilities of a household servant and washing the feet of his disciples.

It may be hard for us in 2014 to realize how upsetting this scene was for Jesus’ disciples. They would have viewed Jesus washing their feet as Jesus exchanging his status as Lord for that of a slave by doing what only a slave would do. And, they would not have liked it at all.

In the culture of Jesus’ time, social status was jealously guarded and easily lost; it determined your very existence. Humiliating yourself like this would be a kind of societal suicide. His disciples would have viewed Jesus’ actions as literally destroying himself by destroying his identity as Lord. And Peter simply can't let Jesus do that. "You will never wash my feet," he says emphatically. Lords do not crawl around on the floor on their knees, half-naked, washing the feet of their followers.

But this one does; and that really shouldn't have surprised the disciples. Jesus is a different kind of Lord: one whose crown will be made of piercing thorns; one who will reign from his throne by being nailed to it and dying upon it.

Jesus has been telling them this all along; he's taught them about it, warned them about it. But they have always had a pretty selective memory about Jesus' job description as Lord, highlighting the coming glory while forgetting about the suffering and death he tells them will accompany it. So Jesus capitalizes on this one last chance to give them something to remember him. He works his way around the table to each disciple. Unlike us, who may be uncomfortable with the experience in and of itself, the disciples are squirming at the impropriety of it all: Christ the Lord bowing, kneeling, washing, wiping.

When Jesus comes to Peter and Peter tries to stop him, Jesus warns Peter bluntly: "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." When Jesus finishes and returns to the table, he says, "Do you know what I have done to you? If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you."

Once again we have a gift and a command, a blessing and a mandate: Jesus offers his disciples this uncomfortably intimate and attentive gift of humiliation, self-denial and self-sacrifice. Jesus then commands them to accept it and do the same for one another.

"Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples;" that's what Jesus said. "Love one another" isn't new; what's new is the command to love each other just as Christ loved us. Let that sink in for a moment. Just as Christ loved us--that is how people will know Jesus' disciples.

In his sermon called “Selective Memory,” the Rev. J.C. Austin of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, reflects on tonight’s text and, remembers South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. According to Austin, at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, when the church was leading the movement and literally suffering and dying for justice and redemption there, Archbishop Desmond Tutu would gather his staff around him in the mornings for prayer. And often as he was closing, Tutu would ask them a question: "If being Christian became a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict us?"

What a powerful statement: If being a Christian became a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict us? And what would be that evidence? Pastor Austin suggests that such evidence would revolve around how we have carried out the important commandment of Christ in tonight’s Gospel lesson: to love one another as Christ has loved us.

The mandate of Maundy Thursday for us, no less than for the disciples, is to love one another just as Christ has loved us. That is what we as Christians must remember above all else in our ministry. The gift and mandate of the Lord's Supper enables us to experience that reality with one another through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is not simply an intellectual exercise, recalling what Christ did for us once upon a time. The Lord’s Supper represents Christ's love, one to another, re-experiencing it with one another. It is, fundamentally, about what we call “Incarnation.” It reminds us that we have been remembered, that our sins have been forgiven and that eternal life is ours. It also remind us that we have been selected, called, and empowered by the Spirit in our baptisms to incarnate Christ, to embody his presence and love as we receive it: intimately, selflessly, sacrificially, unreservedly, so that all who see it may know it is real, and believe.

So come and experience Christ's love anew. Come and receive the forgiveness of sins. Come join the throng at Christ's table and be fed with the richness of Christ's banquet. Come and remember whose you are; come and remember who we all are called to be. Come and be convicted.

Amen.

The Rev. Eric C. Shafer
Senior Pastor
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California

 


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