Maundy Thursday 2023
Rev. Dr. Les Martin
In the name of the living God, Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, amen. During the years that Kate and I lived in Nigeria, there was a story that often repeated itself. Sometimes at the market, sometimes at the bank, sometimes in a government queue. We’d be waiting patiently and a man, it was almost always a man, a larger man, he was almost always heavyset. And he would have gray hair and fine clothing, but he would be [inaudible 00:00:48], sometimes subtle with his shoulder. But more often than not, he would just walk past everyone. And whoever he was, this man came in so many forms and yet strangely identical.
Whenever he was challenged, he would say something to the effect of, “Do you know who I am?” He felt that his identity made him important. That happened a lot in Nigeria, but it happens here too. One of the great stories about John Kerry is that he is notorious with bypassing lines, because after all he’s John Kerry. His identity makes him important. What’s funny about these Nigerian big men, however, is however much they may push when they’re in Nigeria, if he dipped into the customs line in the UK or in the US, they suddenly become meek, they become compliant. These large men who bellow out, “Do you not know who I am?” suddenly are silent and obedient and patient.
These men who thought that their identity made them important, in a whole different context, we see that their identity was actually just an illusion. So much of our sin, our pain, our alienation and confusion in life comes from not really knowing who we are. We go along in our life developing an identity, and for most of us, we are fairly certain of who we are in the end, in the end, in the end. A day will come, or an illness or a tragedy, or just getting older, and we find that identity we were so certain of is little more than an illusion. A whole culture, a whole self-help movement has made quite a bit of feeding selfish illusions.
By now, you’re asking, what does this have to do with Maundy Thursday? Well, let’s consider Jesus. Jesus the man… for some time, but since the raising of Lazarus, it was clear that the tomb was going to be filled again, only this time Jesus. To add insult to injury, to see what he’s doing this week, cleansing the temple, cursing moneychangers. His teaching is pointed and unusually direct about the shortcomings of all temple priesthood and Pharisee. He could read the room. He had to know it was coming. And no doubt, as we will see in the night between Thursday and Friday, Jesus the man was afraid.
But that’s not the whole story, because Jesus is man and god. And this is where identity comes in. Listen to these words again from the Gospel of John. Jesus knew that the Father had given all things into his hands and that he had come from God and was going back to God. Jesus knew who he was. He knew where he came from. This is the word. The word that was in the beginning with God and was God and was with God. God’s plan and order. God’s created purpose in the universe, without whom anything could be made. All because of him. This is God’s love, God’s first, best word to those who believe in him.
So identified with the Father, that Jesus will say, “If you wonder about him, just look at me. If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Jesus knew where he came from. Jesus knew where he was going. He was going to the father’s right hand, and to an everlasting kingdom, and to a position where all authority would be given to him. Jesus knew who he was and where he was going. And so unlike us who are mired in illusion, unlike us who are weighed down by false sense of self or confusion, Jesus, knowing who he is, is free. He’s completely free. He can read the room, but the threats don’t stop him, just like death won’t stop him. He is free.
And unlike so many people who proclaim themselves free, he is free but he does not give in to self-indulgence, he is free but he does not give into abuse of power. He is free to sacrifice, he is free to stay and to love. He knows who he is, and so continuing, he got up from the supper and lay beside his robe and began to wash the disciples. It’s not incidental that those two sentences follow one another. He knows who he is, and so he gets up and serves. And remember, that might be impressive if self-important. But this is God. Knowing who he is, he serves. He serves in two ways.
He serves the table and self. In a mystery that we confess as faith, but I at least refrain from trying to explain, he serves himself. This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins. What will be enacted in a physical way come Friday afternoon is already enacted in a mystical way Thursday night. He is free to die, forever. He is free to sit himself down and wash. Now, we need to understand that he would’ve already been washed at the beginning of the meal, so the cleansing that he gets the stuff of the streets off your feet, that cleansing would’ve already happened.
And he washes again. We’re not certain, but we can surmise many of the disciples would’ve been baptized by John. For they would’ve already been washed. And he washes again, because Jesus, the server, the god who is willing to sit himself down and kneel, is in the washing business, again and again and again. Sometimes we call it absolution. Jesus knows who he is, and who he is is free.
There’s not enough emphasis that I can put on those words. No matter how I say them, they sound flat. I want to bang on the pulpit, I want to set off fireworks. I want to scream, “Jesus is God, for you.” In his freedom, able to do anything he wants, he washes and feeds you. The whole purpose of the great mystery that continues for three long days is summed up in that. For you, for you, for you. He knows who he is, and he is for you.
Now the implications to this, of course, it’s foot washing, there’s people going in and out, and there’s an argument. In the Gospel of Luke, there’s an argument about who will be greatest. Those people out there who think they know who they are, who go around busting through lines and saying, “Do you know who I am?” They like to lord it over people. Don’t be like that. I am among you as one who serves.
And as if to make the point clear, he washes their feet. Peter objects. If we truly understood, we’d object too. And then he says, “You know what I’ve done to you. Blessed are you if you do likewise.” Now again, there are implications here about us. I mentioned that so much of what we’re suffering from is because our identity is confusion. We see it in our schools, we see it in our culture. If we’re honest, we see it in our lives. We go around saying, “Do you know who I am?” while at the same time, we have no idea who we are.
Here’s the answer. For Jesus, the free man, the free god, who knows who he is, is showing us that it doesn’t so much matter who we are, as whose we are. Our identity is not found on Les’s CV or what Les does for a living, or how much money Les makes, or whether Les seems good about herself, or whether Les needs to lose weight or gain weight. Her identity is found in Christ, who has washed us, fed us, and who sends us out to do the same. Again, that’s a deep subject, with years of meditation.
But if you’re unsure of why you’re here, maybe things have taken a weird turn in your life, maybe after years on the mission fields you find yourself weary, maybe retirement has been harder than you thought, or unemployment is a reality… if you’re unsure who you are, suffering, instead ask yourself whose you are. And everyone do likewise. But tonight, on the beginning of the great Triduum, it’s enough to participate fully in the Sacraments of absolution and communion tonight. The Sacraments of freedom given to us by the God who is free and whose ultimate identity is salvation for you.