Blessed are you if you do them

Maundy Thursday’s mandate

by Ken Sehested
A 2018 Maundy Thursday sermon

        Last Friday several of the youth in our congregation joined several others from another congregation in our city, making the long drive to Washington, DC, to take part in Saturday’s “March For Our Lives” rally against gun violence.

        My wife Nancy, Circle of Mercy’s co-pastor, met them at the rendezvous point to offer a blessing on their journey. She said two things.

Right: Rev. David McNair, rector of Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, making a sign for use in the “March For Our Lives” march against gun violence, Washington, DC, which included youth from his church and from Circle of Mercy Congregation, Asheville, NC

        First, she urged these young ones to understand this journey as a protest against existing public policy. This is part of what disciples do: Saying no to current arrangements where benefits flow to some while costs are borne by others. Getting in the way of such mayhem is part of our vocation.

        One of the ironies of faith-based servanthood is it sometimes requires us to be a nuisance, to disturb the peace when maintaining “peace” is a cover for injustice.

        Servanthood is not servility. (This is among our greatest confusions.) Wielding the towel and basin, as Jesus did in John’s account of the last supper, does not mean becoming a doormat for use by others to wipe their feet.

        Second, Nancy reminded them that on the night before his trial, where he was arrested while praying in the Mount of Olives, one of Jesus’ disciples grabbed a sword and cut off the ear of the chief priest’s slave. Jesus, restoring the man’s ear, said to his disciples, “No more of this!(cf. Luke 22:51), which became our youth’s chant during the march.

        “You are going to our nation’s center of power to say ‘no more of this!’ Nancy told these pilgrims.

        Under the sway of Easter bunnies, chocolate binges, and spring fashion sales, Holy Week and Resurrection Morning observances have shed almost all connections to the volatile political events in Jerusalem leading up to Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into the city.

Left: Circle of Mercy members Kenzie Bell and Beth Maczka washing the feet of Rev. Angela Hernández, pastor of Iglesia Getsemani, Camagüey, Cuba. For more about this story see Kiran Sigmon's “While washing my daughter’s feet.”

        The season of Jesus’ final visit to Jerusalem was the fevered occasion of Passover. Passover was the story of the Hebrews’ miraculous escape from Egyptian bondage. Passover’s observance in first century Palestine was like President’s Day, Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day all rolled up into one. The Jews were again in bondage, this time subjugated by Roman occupation. Jews from around the countryside streamed into Jerusalem for reasons of piety mixed with nationalist fervor. Rome ramped up its troop level every year at this time.

        Acts of terrorist assassination escalated during the Passover observance. Some Jewish Zealots—known as the Sicarii, armed with sicae, small daggers that could be hidden in their cloaks—attacked both Roman leaders and members of the Jewish Temple elite who collaborated with their Roman overlords.

        Remember what the people shouted as Jesus, mounted on a donkey—an intentional act of satire against the assumptions of military prowess conveyed by the war horse—paraded into the city to be met by cheering crowds who laid palm branches in the street, a common symbol of victory, peace, and triumph among ancient Near East populations.

        “Hosanna,” cried the people lining the parade route. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our Lord! Blessed be the kingdom of our father David! Hosanna.”

        These shouts were thinly-veiled expressions of political subversion, with the memory of the mighty King David brought to bear against the Roman Caesar Augustus’ chokehold on the nation.

Right: Pope Francis washes the foot of a woman during the foot-washing ritual at the Castelnuovo di Porto refugees centre (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP). In previous years, Francis has observed Maundy Thursday by washing the feet of prisoners, the elderly and people with disabilities. Shortly after his election as pope in 2013, the pontiff made waves by including women in his foot washing ceremony at a juvenile detention center. Prior to Francis, the long standing papal tradition was that the Pope only washes the feet of priests. —for more see Antonia Blumberg, “Pope Francis Washes Refugees’ Feet in Catholic Ritual,” huffingtonpost

        The word “hosanna” isn’t merely a pious expression. It’s not like saying “Amen,” “Hallelujah,” or “Thank-you-Jesus!” The word “hosanna” means “come and liberate us!” It expresses the hope for martial intervention, for achieving political independence, authored by none other than the Creator of heaven and earth, the One who sponsored Abram and Sarai’s trek to the Promised Land, the One who empowered Moses to organize the Hebrews’ flight from Pharaoh’s slavery, the One who ransomed Judah from Babylonian bondage, the One invoked by the Prophets to indict Israel’s failure to practice justice in the marketplace, righteousness in the judiciary, faithfulness in the legislature.

        There is of course profound spiritual significance in Good Friday’s brutal arrest, torture, and trial—resulting in Jesus’ execution by crucifixion, an explicitly political form of state-sponsored terrorism designed to repress revolutionary violence—along with the seditious drama of Sunday’s rolled-away stone. But it is a spirituality which informs and reforms social, political, and economic norms. Throughout Scripture, the indwelling of the Spirit traffics in fleshly affairs.

        The starting point for this drama, though, occurs on Maundy Thursday, setting the stage for everything else.

        In some parts of the church, Holy Week’s Maundy Thursday service is one where the Jesus’ initiative in washing his disciples’ feet is replicated. “Maundy” (mandatum in Latin) means mandate, commission, injunction.

        The story is unique to John’s Gospel (13:1-17), the Eucharistic account that has no ritual eating and drinking. We are only told that “during supper” Jesus abruptly takes up a towel and basin of water and begins to wash his friends’ feet. Such washing was a common act of hospitality for hosts in a dusty land trod by sandaled feet. We don’t know why this hadn’t happened before the meal. If I were guessing, I’d say no one wanted to do this because none of the disciples wanted to be in Jerusalem in the first place. They knew the danger to Jesus implicated them as well.

        When he finished, Jesus used the occasion for his final instruction: “If I, your Teacher and Lord, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one anothers' feet.” This is Maundy Thursday’s mandate. It was a form of anointing his disciples to enact a reversal of the world’s understanding of power. The righteousness of Heaven’s purpose involves caring for neighbors, particularly the vulnerable, not lording over them. Indeed, naming Jesus as “Lord” disrupts and undermines all forms of lording.

        But how is this annulment to be accomplished? By moral heroism? By accentuating the positive? By saintly disposition? By extraordinary feat of willpower?

        Notice the odd question Jesus asks his friends in the middle of his teaching. “Do you know what I have done to you?”

        In his presence, we have been acted upon. By his power we are no longer autonomous, belonging only to ourselves, putting our own welfare before all others. We do not become (as the marketing gods insist) consumers for whom “freedom” means the choice between cable or satellite, Mac or PC, window or aisle.

        Servanthood in the manner of Jesus involves relinquishing private interests in favor of covenant ties to the welfare of the community. St. Augustine famously said, “We imitate whom we adore.” At the core of our faith, the privilege-abandoning Jesus is the cipher for the self-abandoning character of God’s love, inviting and empowering us to participate in that self-giving nature.

Left: Art by Steve Erspamer.

        Short of Maundy’s mandate, Friday’s agony is little more than divine ransom (as if God was in the bartering business); the joy of Sunday’s empty tomb, little more than the reassertion of divine gloating.

        Capacity for living beyond rancorous human competition has been bestowed. We are freed to wash because we have been washed; to forgive because we have been forgiven; to live graciously because grace is loosening the knots of self-absorbed greed in our own souls. The process of conversion, which is a lifetime appointment, is a form of divine photosynthesis: receiving the light of the Beloved’s delight to regenerate the verdant fields of creation’s intention for shared bounty and extravagant endowment.

        In the Jesus story, there is no behavioral gap between believing and doing. “If you know these things,” Jesus says, “blessed are you if you do them.”

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©ken Sehested @