Thursday, March 29, 2018

Maundy Thursday, 2018: Servant ministers for Christ

Lectionary: Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

En el nombre de Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

It is often said that Episcopalians take the Bible too seriously to take it literally. This is one of those nights it is imperative to go beyond a literal approach to Scripture to find the truth and redemptive love within, but for most of our Sunday School experience doesn't prepare us to do that.

Thankfully, our forebears in the faith, the Jewish people, created a ritual designed to do just that: the Passover seder meal, the origin of the Agape supper we shared tonight. The seder meal traces the story of the deliverance of the people of Israel from bondage to redemption but isn't just a story of what happened once. It's also a story of what happens now, eternally, because of who God is and how the world is - until that final day when all people and all creation are fully and completely reconciled to God.

A great deal of focus during the seder meal is on the children who are asked this question: "What makes this night different from all other nights?" The question is meant to encourage the children to ask questions and spark their curiosity. This curiosity combined with participation in ritual is how Jewish children are taught about their faith, their identity as children of God.

Held in the Spring, the seder meal signals rebirth and renewal which is symbolized by the dipping of greens, usually parsley, into water that is salted to symbolize the tears of the people enslaved by the powers of the world. The story unfolds in four parts marked by four cups of wine consumed during the meal. Each of the cups represents how God has acted to save and is taken from the book of Exodus (6:6-7). These four acts are: "I will bring out, "I will deliver," "I will redeem," and "I will take."

It matters that we know this because each Sunday, when we bless and share our holy food of communion, we are lifting up the third of the four cups, just as Jesus did with his disciples at his last seder supper. The third cup is the cup Jesus claimed himself to be. To understand that, we need to know the meaning and cultural context of the four cups.

The first cup is the cup of SANCTIFICATION. God says: "I will bring you out." To sanctify is to set someone or something apart as holy. This is where the people of God learn that they are "chosen" by God. God will bring them out from their slavery so that they can serve God, not a human master.

The second cup is the cup of DELIVERANCE. God says: "I will deliver." We cannot save ourselves. Only God can save. Freedom from whatever or whoever holds us bound on earth is always a gift from God.

The temptation most of us face is spending time and energy trying to do the right thing or to live the right way, in order to earn salvation. But that is impossible. Redemption is a gift we can't and don't have to earn.

The third cup is the cup of REDEMPTION. God says, "I will redeem." It is this cup that Jesus takes, blesses, and gives to his friends saying, "This cup is the New Covenant in my blood…" as often as you drink it, do this to remember me.

That is familiar to us. What isn't is the cultural context of this.

In the Jewish tradition the word redemption also means "avenger of blood" and it is, by definition, a family member. This family member acts to set their kin free from slavery, paying a ransom, or great price for that freedom.

The traditional image is of a father sacrificing his firstborn son for the freedom of his entire family. Sound familiar?

At dinner with his friends, Jesus claims himself to be the third cup. It is his blood, that is, his life that will be given for the redemption of all by the forgiveness of sin. Because he is the second person of the Trinity, fully God and fully human, Jesus is the Father who pays the price, the Son who is the price, and the family for whom that price is paid.

The fourth cup is the cup of HOPE. God says, "I will take." The Jewish people understood this to be the cup of Elijah, for whom an empty seat is kept at the seder table.

When Elijah returns and takes his place in that seat, it will signal the coming of the Messiah, the complete fulfillment of God's promise: "I will take you for my people, and I will be your God."

Jewish theologian Tim Hegg says, "redemption does not immediately place [Israel] into the realm of eternal peace. She is redeemed… and given her freedom, but now she must make her way through the wilderness… before she reaches the Promised Land" where all people will worship God in truth and unity. "Redemption (he says) guarantees the final destination, but the journey is still necessary."

The Christian narrative begins in the story of our Jewish forbears. For us, however, the fourth cup, our hope, has been fulfilled in Jesus, the Christ, therefore, we journey now in the already-but-not-yet time: the new age inaugurated by Jesus which comes to its fulfillment at his Second Coming.

In the meantime, we do our part as partners with Christ in the continuing work of redemption. And what is our part?

Jesus said, "I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you." The Messiah of God humbly served his community by getting on his knees before them and washing their feet.

I hope we all take this very seriously and hear the symbolic language of this Bible story of servant ministry. Jesus is mandating that we do now do as he did then: get on our knees (a posture of servitude), wrap a towel around our waist (the symbol of a servant) and humbly do the "dirty work" of tenderly caring for the most unappealing realities of the human condition, bringing refreshment and dignity to the lowest of the low.

To make this crystal clear, Jesus put this new approach into the form of a commandment - a mandate (the root of the word 'Maundy"): "Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

So now we humble ourselves and do as Jesus did by ritually washing the feet of the people in our community, thereby re-committing ourselves to the servant ministry Christ mandated for us to carry outin our corner of God's world.

(Instructions for the foot washing)

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