Maundy Thursday (Year C), 18 April 2019

April 18, 2019 | by Bruce Epperly

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Exodus 12:1-4, 11-15 Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19 1 Corinthians 11:13-16 John 13:1-17 31b-35

We continue the ambiguous adventure of Holy Week, where celebration, anxiety, violence, hopelessness, and surprising celebration encompass the days from Palm/Passion Sunday to Easter Morning. On Maundy Thursday with the cross on the horizon, Jesus shares acts of love with his disciples and models a new vision of relational power. Despite appearances to the contrary, “God can,” to spin Thomas Oord’s fine book, win the world by love, not violence; empathy, not apathy.

The Psalm asks the question, “What shall I return to God for the bounty of my life?” as a reminder of the places where we have experienced God’s grace and deliverance. What are your God moments? What blessings have you received as a result of your birth, family of origin, church life, and the apparent accidents of grace, providence disguised as moments of insight, inspiration, and fortune? This question – and the questions I have posed – invite us to self-reflection and loving action. What we take for granted – home, safe streets, intellectual reflection, professional success, the leisure and training to read this text – are luxuries to millions in North America and throughout the world. We have been given much and our gifts invite us to service and sacrifice. The graceful interdependence that we have experienced challenges us to live in solidarity with those whose relationships have been oppressive and toxic.

Whitehead states that the higher organisms initiate novelty to match the novelty of their environments. The same is true for an insightful faith. Today’s readings challenge us to novel and inspirational interpretations and the right balance of tradition and novelty and history and adventure. The Passover story in Exodus frames the Maundy Thursday readings. It is a story of deliverance, and a living history for the Jewish people, including Jesus and his followers then and now, and yet the story is filled with violence and exclusion. The children of Israel are delivered and that inspires gratitude. But their deliverance occurs at the cost of the first born Egyptian children. In most readings of the Passover, no thought is given to the pain of children or the grief of the Egyptian parents. The Egyptian oppressors are objectified as a people without feelings or an inner life. Yet, even our opponents, even the oppressors, are God’s children as the book of Jonah asserts. Could the “fellow sufferer who understands” grieved alongside Egyptian parents? A God who chooses sides is hardly worthy of worship. Even the moral arc of history must take into consideration the humanity of oppressors if it is to truly be moral.

Sadly, today, many of us in the developed world have become the Egyptians of our time, whose wealth and power is responsible for the poverty and oppression of others and the destruction of this good Earth. We pray that we not be the victims of our own foolish consumerism and hunger for power. But, more than prayer, we need to act sacrificially and forcefully to ensure the survival of fellow humans and non-human companions.

The Corinthians passage describes the Lord’s Supper – a meal of memory and transformation – a sacrament, a making holy, both as a Passover ritual of Jesus two thousand years ago and as a place where we continue to look for God. In sacramental moments our openness to God opens the door to God’s presence. In the interplay of call and responses, our liturgical and personal openness to God awakens new possibilities for God and us. We share in the Lord’s Supper as an invitation to make every encounter sacramental, whether at our dinner table or the workplace.  In so doing, we discover that God is in the domestic as well as the dramatic. In fact, each moment God reveals the divine, the presence of God is ubiquitous not only in the bread and cup, but in all creation.

The gospel reading from John is love embodied. On Palm/Passion Sunday, we reflected on relational power as the way God works in the world. God’s presence is invitational, persuasive, and inspirational, not domineering. On Maundy Thursday, Jesus embodies Philippians 2:5-11 as he washes the feet of his followers and then models how we should lovingly respond to each other.

Jesus serves his followers, washing their feet and providing them with the bread of life and the cup of salvation, and then “mandates” them to love one another as he has loved them. This is the sign of our allegiance to God’s realm – our loving care, sacrifice, and hospitality within and beyond the community of faith.

The Maundy Thursday passages invite us to hospitality and service, to recognizing the interdependence of life and our essential connectedness with all creation. Our interdependence and the impact of our actions can be a blessing or curse for creation. While our actions are always complicated and have many results, in light of Jesus’ lived and spoken message, loving sacrifice and concern must be our intent regardless of our fallibility. The Christian, as Luther says, is called to be a “little Christ,” blessing their neighbor as Christ has blessed us; being Christ to the neighbor through acts of sacrificial love. Our blessing represents our commitment to become God’s companions in bringing beauty and justice to this good Earth.

Rev. Bruce Epperly, Ph.D., serves as Senior Pastor at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, Massachusetts. Prior to moving to Cape Cod, he served on the faculties and of Georgetown University, Claremont School of Theology, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He also served for nearly twenty years as Protestant University Chaplain at Georgetown University and for seven years as Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. Bruce is currently a professor of spirituality, ministry, and theology in the doctoral program at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington D.C. He is the author of fifty books in the areas of process theology, spirituality, ministerial excellence and spiritual formation, scripture, and healing and wholeness, including The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World; Tending to the Holy: Practicing the Presence of God in Ministry; Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; and Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims.