April 7, 2023
Maundy Thursday, Pastor Jen Hackbarth, April 6, 2023
Dear friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen.
I’m Pastor Jen Hackbarth, your new Interim Associate Pastor. I’m grateful to be here and excited to partner in ministry and mission with all of you. I started my role at Gloria Dei on Wednesday, March 29, so it’s been a little over a week of meeting all of you and learning about the congregation. Since interim pastors transition a lot, we get good at beginnings and endings in congregations, but I have to say beginning in the middle of the week before Holy Week at Gloria Dei has been a memorable beginning—but also very fun. I’m so thankful to the staff and Pastor Bradley and Pastor Lois for patiently teaching me and walking with me through Holy Week at Gloria Dei, and to all of you for being so welcoming. I’m glad to be here.
Maundy Thursday is also a time of beginnings and endings. What began on Ash Wednesday ends tonight, and what begins tonight doesn’t end until the resurrection.
The hour has arrived. We gather today [this evening] to begin the Triduum, the three days that are the highlight of the liturgical year. (While I’ve read the word Triduum, I haven’t had the opportunity in my years of ministry to use it. I had to confirm with Pastor Bradley about how to correctly pronounce “Triduum.”) While Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil happen on separate days, they’re considered one long worship service, tying the three days together. Every part of this story of Jesus’ last hours, his crucifixion and resurrection is crucial.
Tonight we experience Jesus’ love for his disciples and for us, expressed through washing his disciples’ feet and giving himself in bread and wine. But this is not a simple or safe idea of love—it’s love in all its difficulty and complexity.
Today’s reading from John chapter 13 recounts the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and telling them to love one another—and this is key—“as I have loved you.” This is not a matter of being kind or nice. Jesus says this as he anticipates his death.
Chapter 13 is a turning point in the Gospel of John. The first twelve chapters cover three years of Jesus’ life and public ministry, but in chapter 13 the focus narrows and the momentum screeches to a halt; chapters 13-17 cover only one night and include only Jesus and his disciples. Jesus has recently entered Jerusalem and knows his death is near. He chooses to gather privately with his disciples for a meal, give them his final teachings, and pray for them. This is a quiet time of tenderness, affection, and compassion between Jesus and his closest followers.
While they share a meal, Jesus shocks them by getting up from the table, taking off his outer robe, tying a towel around himself, then pouring water into a basin, bending down and washing their feet.
It’s almost impossible to overestimate how wildly radical this act of service was in Jesus’ time. Foot washing was typically done by servants—probably women—yet Jesus willingly takes this stance of humiliation in order to serve his followers. Instead of claiming and using his male authority and power to set himself above, Jesus literally bends down and serves with humility.
Peter is so taken aback by Jesus’ actions that he says to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Theologian Karoline Lewis writes that Peter’s response could be interpreted as “You will never wash my feet…into eternity!” (I would add, “times infinity!”) I can only imagine what the other disciples were thinking as they witnessed this exchange between Peter and Jesus and waited for Jesus to wash their own feet. The room must have been buzzing with confusion and embarrassment as they tried to make sense of Jesus’ actions.
Jesus responds to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” And Peter, still confused, says, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” He thinks it is a literal washing he needs, something that can be easily replicated. But Jesus says, “Do you know what I have done for you, not just tonight but throughout my life?” This is the incarnation, God stooping down to become one of us, for us and the world.
After Jesus returns to the table, he feels troubled in his spirit, and declares that one of them will soon betray him. The disciples look at one another in dismay. Which one of them could it be? I can imagine the tension in the room as they frantically take inventory of their thoughts and actions. Is it him? Is it me? This is a moment of crisis for all of them. When Jesus finally identifies Judas Iscariot, the disciples are overwhelmed. And the moment of betrayal happens not when Jesus is handed over to the authorities—in the Gospel of John, Jesus hands himself over—but when Judas immediately gets up and flees into the dark of night, turning his back on Jesus and abandoning the relationship.
In the midst of Jesus’ powerful act of love and service, betrayal is present. One of his own, his disciples, who has been part of this group of Jesus’ closest followers and friends for three years, traveling with them, sharing in their daily lives and ministry, betrays Jesus. As a disciple, Judas probably cast out demons and healed people. He witnessed Jesus’ miracles. Yet when it matters most, Judas turns his back on Jesus and runs away.
Jesus also soon foretells Peter’s denial. Jesus has stooped to wash the feet of the people who will hurt him the most. Evil is present in the room. What kind of love is this?
Jesus gives the disciples a new commandment after the foot washing, saying, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” This should give us pause today. How are we supposed to follow Jesus’ lead? This is a love beyond our comprehension or ability. Yet we are called to be Jesus’ presence in the world. This is not only a matter of us being kind, hospitable, and nice. It’s us acknowledging how difficult it is to love, and how love is full of complexity. We need God’s Spirit to inspire us to the hard work of loving, both as individuals and as a community.
The hour has come. As we experience the washing of feet today, we remember the depth of Jesus’ love for his disciples—even those who denied and betrayed him—and for us—even to death. This love is more powerful than human betrayal, hurt, abandonment, and evil. This love is for us, and we seek to live out that love in all we do, remembering all of Jesus’ life. This is love lived out in light of the cross. Thanks be to God. Amen.