- Fr. Frank St. Amour
Sermon - Maundy Thursday
In the Name...
I think it was Mark Twain who said that he had been born humble, but, managed to grow out of it.
"Do you know what I have done to you?" The Gospels are full of information about Jesus' life on earth - who he was, where he went, what he did, why he died. But, only once do we hear about what he was like inside. Only once does Jesus himself reveal to us something about his character, his personality, and he does it in Matthew 11. 28. We may be familiar with the first part of this verse, "Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy-laden and I will refresh you." It goes on, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. For I am humble and gentle of heart."
Of all the things that the Son of God could have said about himself he chose “humble” and “gentle.” Two qualities which are greatly misunderstood today. We live in a society which is fixated on personal achievement and success. We all know phrases like, Nice guys finish last; Never give a sucker an even break. And many of us have probably suffered at the hands of people who live by those rules. Words like humble and gentle are equated with wimpy and passive. But, in fact, it requires more self-confidence, more courage, to be truly humble and gentle than it does to be self-centred and callous.
The word Jesus uses for "gentle" is the Greek word which means "well-trained." Marines are well trained and nobody would call them wimps. Sports players are well-trained and certainly not passive. And so it goes. The well-trained person knows his place. He is humble. He is gentle. His energy is under control to be used at the right time for a given purpose. He doesn't have to be the centre of attention all the time. With this in mind, then, let's now enter the upper room, and see how Jesus modelled his training.
It was the feast of the Passover, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, a time for reflection on the events by which the ancient Hebrews were delivered from slavery in Egypt. Similar to our American Thanksgiving, it was a time for eating traditional foods with symbolic meaning in a ritual pattern and a time for gathering with family and very special friends. So there was Jesus and his 12 closest friends, his disciples.
We've heard St. John's description of what happened. Just imagine if, at a formal banquet at the White House, the President of the United States got up from the table to help the waiters adios the dirty dishes to the kitchen. In all honesty it would probably cause at least a hiatus in the conversation and some confusion if not embarrassment among those present. Well that's the reaction Jesus produced when he got up to wash their feet. One gets the impression also that this was something new. He hadn't done this before. So, why now? Why, when he had so much else on his mind? Well, John doesn't tell us, but, Luke gives some hints. The table conversation among the Twelve was their favourite subject - which cabinet posts in the new government where they going to get.
Even after three years of following Jesus, listening to his sermons, watching his miracles, they still didn't get it. So Jesus got up, took a towel and gave them a silent rebuke. Sometimes the most effective means of making a point is by actions, not words. Contrast their heated rivalries with the cool water. Nobody spoke, imagine the tense silence, until Jesus reached Peter. "No, not me." This is not humility, it's pride exposed. You can almost see Peter tucking up his feet under his robe in embarrassment.
Jesus then says, "If I do not wash you, you have no part in me." That's a strong rebuke. Peter has not learned that humility means being able to receive what is offered, as well as give what is not asked. Peter, then, in his usual fashion overreacts and wants a bath, But, such is his extreme devotion to Jesus. He doesn't want to be left out.
Jesus then completed the washing, folded the towel, resumed his place at the table and asked, "Do you know what I have done to you?" It's a question easy to overlook in reading the passage. It's not answered by them and it's not designed for an answer. It's a question to make us think. What are the implications of what has just happened?
Jesus says, "You call me Teacher and Lord and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher wash your feet,........." Well how should it continue? What is the logical grammatical structure of the sentence?
If I do for you, then you should do for....for me, right? Wrong. Jesus doesn't follow human logic. Instead he says, "then you ought to wash one another's feet". Gahhh! What a shocker. Anyone one of them would be glad, honoured, to wash Jesus' feet. After all, he is the Teacher and Lord. But, each other's? Some of those guys couldn't stand each other. Would you want to wash the feet of someone you dislike? But, that's his message.
Jesus modelled not how he wanted us to treat him, but, how we were to treat each other. He was more than a Teacher and Lord. He was God Almighty, no wimp, no wuss, and yet he performed a servant's task for those who were inferior to him in every way, so inferior that no scale could begin to measure. He was humble and gentle of heart, well-trained for his task. And he commended to us this same way of life - to be so self-assured, so at ease with who we are, that we can lay aside man-made values and roles, as easily as he laid aside his robes, and pick up a towel if that's what the job requires.
The message of Jesus, the new commandment, the challenge of tonight, is are we strong enough to be gentle? Are we confident enough to be humble?
Do we know what he has done for us?
In the Name...