This is the sermon the Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles preached at the diocesan worship service for Maundy Thursday, April 1, 2021.
Maundy Thursday 2021
John 13:1-17, 31B-35
Today we find ourselves in a similar place as we did last year – observing Maundy Thursday in our separate homes rather than together in our church buildings. We hope that this digital service engages you and feels both holy and sacred, even though we couldn’t quite figure out how to virtually wash one another’s feet. In lieu of serving members of our congregation through this act of humble service, we are tending the feet of our homeless neighbors by collecting adult shoes and socks for the patrons of Beautiful Feet Ministries in Fort Worth.
Maundy Thursday feels different this year – and not just because we are still worshipping virtually. The readings typically call me to remember Christ’s death through the institution of the Holy Eucharist, recalling the words he speaks at that final supper shared with his disciples. Each year we read about Jesus taking off is outer robe, tying a towel around his waist and then pouring water into a basin to wash the disciples’ feet, then we too emulate this act of servanthood.
But not this year.
We are one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, so a virtual Maundy Thursday isn’t as foreign for us as it was last year. We’ve been here before. For one year we’ve been loving our neighbor by staying home and masking up. For one year we’ve gone without regular Celebrations of Holy Eucharist. For one year we’ve watched Black and Brown siblings die at a higher rate from the coronavirus. For one year we’ve observed toxic masculinity and Christian nationalism take the lives of innocent people who happen to look different than them. For one year we’ve seen the working poor sink deeper into poverty.
Last year the message preached over and over and over again was that we must love our neighbor by staying away from them. This was absolutely the right message for March 2020. Stay home. Flatten the curve. End the pandemic.
But after year, I wonder if this is the best way to love our neighbor.
I think Jesus’ new commandment in today’s Gospel reading calls us to a deeper love. I hear him asking a bit more of his followers than passively staying home.
After their meal together, after he washes their feet, after he calls out Judas, Jesus says to his disciples: this is what you know, you know that God is love. You know this because I have shown you the love of God in everything I have done and said during our years together. You know God is love.
But knowing it is not enough. Jesus then says to his closest friends, this is what you must do. You must show this same love to each other and to the world. This is how everyone will know you are my disciples. It will be hard, but you can share this love because I have shown you how.
This is Jesus’ new commandment. This is why we call today Maundy Thursday. Maundy comes from the Latin word meaning ‘mandate.’ And the reason this is a new mandate is because we are not only commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves but to love one another just as Jesus loved us.
We learn in our gospel reading today that Jesus came to earth so that he could teach us how to love.
Jesus’ friends that night didn’t yet fully understand what it was that Jesus commanded them to do—because Jesus was still in the process of showing them how much he loved them. They hadn’t yet realized how very deep, expansive and abiding the love of God is.
They couldn’t have known what Jesus was really talking about when he broke the bread and blessed the wine, telling them to eat and drink in remembrance of him. They didn’t yet know the depth of Maundy Thursday love.
Maundy Thursday love accompanied Jesus to the cross and held him there with the nails and agonizing pain. Maundy Thursday love rose with him on the third day and called out to Mary Magdalene by name
Maundy Thursday love motivated Paul to spread the news of the gospel on his four missionary journeys. This mandated love empowered truthtellers like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gustavo Gutierrez, and prophets like Sojourner Truth, Kate Christensen-Martin, and Wil Gafney who testify to God’s transformative love for all of humanity.
Maundy Thursday love declares that every single person is worthy of respect, compassion, and safety no matter what. It means creating and advocating for a community of equals.
Maundy Thursday love is active because that’s how Jesus loved. It boldly seeks a more equitable healthcare system and access to affordable, healthy food. Maundy Thursday love pulls the victims of hate, poverty, and oppression out of the river, and then travels upstream to address the issues of injustice causing people to fall into the water in the first place.
No, I don’t think the disciples understood the depth of Jesus’ love at the Last Supper when he offered this new commandment. And honestly, it took living with a pandemic for a full year for me to grasp it.
But now I’m here and I AM grasping the depth of Jesus’ love. And I believe it’s powerful enough to dismantle systemic structural sins and evils. If we are willing to receive the love of Jesus and then love other people in the same profound way.
Two weeks ago, I called my household together for FFF: Forced Family Fun. As a way of marking the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, I wanted the four of us to reflect on how it’s changed us. My daughter colored a prayer sheet designed Illustrated Ministry. My son wrote about his experiences in the form of a script he’ll submit to his favorite podcast, The Story Pirates. My husband and I chose the more traditional manner of reflection – writing in journals.
I wrote about things I’ve missed this year and things that I really haven’t missed at all. I spent a great amount of time reflecting on how we’ve embodied the church out in the world. And how passive I’ve been when it comes to loving my neighbor…which brings me back to the theology we promoted one year ago – loving one’s neighbor by staying away from them.
It’s true that physical distancing saves lives. Staying home as much as possible and limiting our public interactions is responsible and loving. But it’s not enough.
I realized that while love kept me home, selfishness kept me idle.
I realized that I’ve withheld love.
We’ve grown quite adept at withholding love this year – in the name of partisan politics, national security, the economy, fear, and personal comfort. While journaling about this year I realized that I don’t want this to be my pandemic story. I want to look back on this pandemic and remember it as the time we returned to embodying Maundy Thursday love.
As you reflect on the year, how have you felt this deep abiding love of Jesus Christ? How have you learned to love others just as Jesus loved you? Have you worn a mask and stayed home as much as possible? Have you called the elderly members of your church communities to say hi and see how they’re doing?
Have you tended to the newly widowed?
Have you intentionally supported Black and Asian American owned businesses?
Have you intervened when witnessing racial bullying?
Have you examined your own perpetuation of white supremacy?
Have you embodied Maundy Thursday love?
Like the disciples at that Last Supper, we didn’t know in March of 2020 what Jesus expected of us over the coming year. But now we do.
Love one another. Just as I have loved you,” Jesus said.
May it be said of us that Holy Week 2021 returned the people of God to Maundy Thursday love.