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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Maundy Thursday – Year A

Jesus…got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and
tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin
and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel….
(John 13:3-5)

It was an act of pure love. On the night when he was betrayed, on the night when those against him far outnumbered those with him, on the night when the darkness was thick with evil and foreboding, on the night when certain death awaited him, Jesus extended to his friends an act of pure love. It was an act which a proper dinner host would command his lowliest slave to carry out. Like the lowliest of slaves, Jesus crawled about on his hands and knees to wash and dry the filthy feet of each one of his twelve friends as they reclined around the table. There were Simon Peter and Andrew, John and James, Matthew and Thomas and all the others—and, yes, Judas Iscariot whom he knew full well would sneak off and betray him to the authorities. For everyone there it was an act of pure love.

And it was followed by a pure gift, a gift by which they and all his subsequent followers would remember him for ever and ever: A loaf of bread which he took and broke, and from which he gave each of his twelve friends a piece. A cup of wine which he passed to each one to drink a little. And he spoke lovingly to them: Of the bread he said, “This is my body that is for you.” Of the cup he said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” A pure gift, I say—the most precious of gifts, the gift of everything about him: his body, his blood, his love, his very being. And of all gifts, this was the one that would keep on giving—forever. The earliest Christians experienced it in abundance. Paul the Apostle spoke of it in the most unforgettable terms: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” That means forever!

And what does it mean “to proclaim the Lord’s death”? It means to declare as a present, palpable reality the death of Jesus, and all the effects and consequences of it. As we celebrate what we now call The Holy Eucharist, repeating the very words and actions of Jesus as he commanded, we find ourselves again and again caught up in all the power and significance of that night and the days following—Jesus’ act of washing his friends’ feet; the gift of himself at their final meal; his infinite compassion for his friends—even Judas; his offering of himself upon the cross; his forgiveness of those who wanted him dead; his unimaginable suffering; his cry of utter desolation; his entrusting of his mother to John; his final shout of triumph as he bowed his head in death—and his unmistakable risen presence among his followers which would endure forever through the ages.

Pure love. Pure gift. The offering of Christ himself with us and for us, making us companions and inheritors every time we come together to break bread in his name. Frankly, I could not live without the Eucharist. That is the absolute truth. It is for me life-changing and life-sustaining. It proclaims again and again that through all life’s ups and downs our crucified and risen Savior is in our midst with saving power as we gather faithfully around his table.

See if you relate as I do to an early 20th century mystic named Simone Weil, a French woman of Jewish birth and agnostic upbringing who was drawn deeply to the Christian faith. In 1938 she spent Holy Week at a Benedictine monastery. She was suffering from acute headaches. “Every sound hurt me like a blow,” she said. During the week she met a young Englishman who was also staying at the abbey. He would go forward for Communion, and as he was returning to his pew, she said that never before had she seen such an expression of joy and peace on a person’s face. She was deeply impressed, and the experience led to her own pilgrimage of faith in which she became a devout Catholic whose brief life of 34 years has left an indelible stamp upon the Christian world. She suffered unimaginably but found that as she offered her suffering in the companionship of Christ she experienced a personal contact with God which she had never thought possible.

In my own earlier life, I myself never dreamed that God could be as real and present to me as I experience God to be today. As you prepare to come to the Lord’s Table this evening, let me share with you a prayer which one of my favorite writers, Olive Wyon, records in her wonderful little book, The Altar Fire:

“Lord, this is thy feast, prepared by thy longing, spread at thy command, attended at thine invitation, blessed by thine own word, distributed by thine own hand, the undying memorial of thy sacrifice upon the Cross, the full gift of thine everlasting love, and its perpetuation till time shall end. Lord, this is bread of heaven, bread of life, that, whosoever eateth, never shall hunger more. And this cup of pardon, healing, gladness, strength, that, whoso drinketh, thirstest not again. So may we come, O Lord, to thy table; Lord Jesus, come to us.” Amen.

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