A sermon for Maundy Thursday
April 6, 2023
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
Readings: John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
We pray these words on Fridays in Morning Prayer. They also appear on Palm Sunday, as we enter the church to begin our observance of Holy Week. But I wonder if we’ve considered what it means to walk the way of the cross? We usually don’t really consider that until its meaning is made plain in our lives, until the changes and chances of this life visit us with a cross to bear, with suffering, with pain and hardship. We don’t consider what we’re saying until we are already on the road, walking the way of the cross.
Brian could tell you something about that. A good Christian, he was always in church. He raised his kids in church. It was a priority for him. He had heard those words before; he had heard preachers talk about walking the way of the cross; he had done the awkward palm procession around the building. But he never considered what that meant until he found himself walking that very way, on the via dolorosa, the road of sorrow, the way of the cross.
At 44 years old, with kids in the middle of high school, in the prime of his life, Brian was in a serious car wreck that left him paralyzed from the neck down. He was in the hospital for weeks. For the first couple of weeks, he was holding on to life. For the next few weeks, they were putting him back together. Then rehab. Rehab that lasted forever. Before he knew it, a year had passed. A journey that began with hope that he would walk again was chastened by reality: He wouldn’t, no matter how hard he tried. Rehab wouldn’t be his miracle.
That first year was torturous. Brian was an independent guy. He prided himself on hard work, on providing for others. Suddenly he found himself provided for. He had no choice in the matter. If you asked, he would tell you that getting bathed in the hospital by nurses and orderlies was bad enough. But then he went home. His relationship with his wife and children changed overnight; it had to. He couldn’t do anything without their help. His wife bathed him, changed him, helped him eat. He had been home for two weeks when his oldest son had to clean him after he used the restroom. Brian was humiliated. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.
If you asked Brian, his wife, his children about love before the wreck, I don’t know what they would say. But they loved each other. Maybe they would say, love is like going to games and cheering each other on. Love is like going the extra mile to make someone feel better. Love is cleaning out the gutters. Love is a feeling you get when you’re hugged. Love is wiping the silent and secret tears of your son after he loses the championship game.
If you asked Brian, his wife, his children about love after the wreck, I know what they would say. Love is being there to help when someone can’t help themselves. Love is being faithful even when life is turned upside down. Love looks like heaving someone into a chair, helping someone on a toilet, making sure someone’s pillow is just right because they can’t adjust it. Love is lived in real ways–it’s not just a feeling, it’s an action, sometimes an uncomfortable or inconvenient one.
I think Jesus is showing his disciples, and us, something of this at the Last Supper tonight. While the other gospels focus on the meal itself, John takes us to another scene. He shows us footwashing, the master stooping to care for the servants. Jesus equates love with footwashing: Just as I have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet, he says. Jesus is saying that love, real love, is shown in decisions, in actions, in servitude, like in washing someone else’s feet. Love is not some amorphous feeling, a warm fuzzy. Love is a gritty thing, a real thing, an enacted thing. Love gets you dirty; it puts you at the service of another; it takes you to uncomfortable and inconvenient places you hadn’t imagined before–master washing servants’ feet, wife and children caring completely for a helpless father.
I think most of us are comfortable with being the ones who show up, who do what needs to be done, who show love in concrete ways, who do the foot washing. But what about the other side, Peter’s side, Brian’s side? Peter and Brian are a lot alike, I think. Stubborn, strong, determined. Peter tells Jesus, you will never wash my feet. Why? Because that’s not how it’s supposed to work. Peter will wash Jesus’s feet all day, without blinking, without thinking. He loves Jesus. But to let Jesus wash his feet? If someone else in his family had been in that wreck, Brian would have shown up. He would have cared, he would have cleaned, he would have waited hand-and-foot without a thought, without a hesitation. Because he loves his family. But like Peter, he wanted to tell his wife, his children, you will never wash my feet. You will never clean me up. You will never dress me. You will never…
Sometimes love doesn’t look like washing feet; it looks like getting your feet washed. Love looks like deep vulnerability, allowing someone to do something for you that you could never do for yourself. It looks like Brian putting his pride to the side, forever, and letting his family care for him. It looks like Peter sitting in the chair and letting Christ wash his feet. It looks like all of us, under the power of things we cannot control, allowing a Savior to feed us–this is my Body, this is my Blood–because we can’t feed ourselves, we cannot sustain ourselves spiritually. It looks like allowing our Savior to wash us, because we cannot clean our own souls. It looks like allowing that Lord to die for us, because we can’t pay the price.
The Christian journey is about learning to love–learning to really love in concrete ways, like Jesus tells us, washing one another’s feet. But the Christian journey also looks like getting our feet washed, learning to accept the love and grace of a God who came to save us, because we are helpless in ourselves. And sometimes, learning that side of things, learning that powerlessness, that need for grace, that need for love; sometimes that’s the hardest thing of all to learn. But here’s the deal: We will never learn love until we learn vulnerability. In truth, it’s something we must learn on the road, on the way of the cross, as our feet are washed by another, as we’re fed with food we cannot provide.
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