The last supper… in the other three Gospels, the synoptics (remember meaning—“same vision”) , the Last Supper is marked by Jesus giving what becomes the ritual of the Eucharist, the bread and wine, in which we are to remember Jesus as ‘oft’ as we eat and drink. Can you imagine how different it would be if instead the Gospel of John’s foot-washing had caught on as the primary ritual? I’m sure churches would be outfitted with ceremonial shoe racks; in Rome and Spain those racks would be gilded. Every church would have piped water to little sunken foot baths.
Although it is clear that the last night Jesus spent with his disciples is portrayed differently in the different Gospels, there is no reason to think that both the words of the Last Supper, which become the warrant for our Eucharist and Jesus washing the feet of his disciples didn’t both happen during or around that same last meal.
Our lectionary readings for tonight although widely disparate give us a solitary theme. And it isn’t a theme that fits nicely into a sermon, but that won’t keep me from trying. Tonight’s lectionary theme, to my reading, is salvation. What we mean by that word “salvation” is myriad by any stretch of the imagination. Definitionally speaking, it is derived from the Greek soteria, which suggests both physical and spiritual wholeness.
The reading from Exodus is the synopsis of the Passover. The Jewish commitment then and now is that the observance of the law is itself a life-giving covenant with God which leads or IS right relation with God. For the Jewish people, this is the whole point, this is salvation, this is the primary end for humanity.
Remember that Jesus is quite clear that he did not come to destroy or replace the law, but to fulfill it. His intention was not founding a new religion, although that does NOT mean that the Eucharist is a Passover meal, it isn’t. But on that backdrop, our Christian views of salvation incorporate the Jewish views, but also the Greek mystery religions contemporaneous with early Christianity. There are several lines of thinking about Christian salvation, which also cover the close companions of heaven/ hell, grace and atonement. There is NO single Christian version or orthodox view on any of these.
There are four models of salvation that emerge from the New Testament
1. The earliest is “the day of the Lord” in which the just will be rewarded and those wronged will be vindicated.
2. There is the idea of atonement for past sins, rooted in Jewish practice. The death of Christ brings forgiveness of sins. This draws on Hebraic sacrificial system and on the Isaian imagery of the suffering servant, found in the Gospel of Luke.
3. Salvation is also seen at the deliverance from death. In the Epistles, the victory of Jesus over death is frequently seen in battle imagery. 4. Salvation is also seen as the flourishing that comes from a personal relationship with God. Through Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, there is a way to return to a covenantal relationship with God, a New Covenant. We are no longer separated from God in Trinity by our sin, but we in right relationship because we believe.
You can see that we focus on ALL of these at various times in these Three Days, the Triduum, and actually throughout everything we do in and outside the church as we live into our Christian lives.
But our focus for tonight, this word maundy comes from the Old French mande, in turn from the Latin mandātum, which means “mandate or command.” As you may have guessed, this Latin word is the source of the English word “mandate.”
The specific mandate or command at hand refers to the words Jesus is believed to have spoken after washing the feet of his disciples during the Last Supper. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another..”
Turning back to our Gospel, the meaning of washing feet is layered: it’s said that in the ancient world, a host would offer water for guests to wash their feet (sandals being the footwear of the day). So, washing feet is a sign of hospitality—of welcoming and care. It is also an act of humility, as it’s said servants often washed feet. Christians have come to interpret Jesus’s washing of the feet as an illustration of a humble mission of service. So our salvation, here, falls within the fourth meaning that I just walked through. To be saved is to have life through relationship with Jesus. To have relationship with Jesus is to do as he did, and taught us to do. And he taught that we wanted to “be part of him” – to be in relationship with him – then we would wash one another’s feet as he washes ours. As our Master is servant, so too we are servants, and we find our salvation in serving in his name.
The act has also come to symbolize the cleansing of sin from our fellow Christians—and so Jesus’s new commandment was urging his disciples to show forgiveness to all. And for that, we have a mandate— “to love others as I have loved you” even from the cross. This too is salvation and this too is Maundy Thursday’s salvation focus.
I was young when the 1979 Book of Common Prayer came out in print. We had a young priest who came to our low or probably broad church in San Antonio and chanted communion like a high mass. He also brought the stripping of the altar following the service of Maundy Thursday. This is one of those things that is called adiaphora—which means, it isn’t necessary. It isn’t in the prayer book, it isn’t a thing we are required to do. But it is allowable and it can be beautiful; and at the end of the service, we will strip the altar and I will wash it, symbolically washing away blood from previous offerings and sin, but also because it is the one time a year that the bare altar is visible and gets clean. As much as it is not required and definitely not mandated, I think stripping the altar is important because it leads our focus where it belongs, on the cross, at the foot of which we leave our sins…. On the cross, in which we see the highest service of all. So let us enter into salvation, with thanksgiving, this night – let us “be a part” of Jesus, entering into forgiveness and service, and so entering in to the life that God holds out to us all.
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Psalm 116:1, 10-17