John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Maundy Thursday/April 17, 2014
It's not a secret that I am a word nerd. I love words. I love language. As I was thinking about my homily for tonight, I began to ruminate on the word, "communion." In our gospel reading from John, Jesus and the disciples are together for the feast of Passover. They will eat what we know as the Last Supper. Our understanding of the sacrament of communion, or the Lord's Supper, comes from this meal that they shared on this particular night. Our observance of Maundy Thursday would not be complete if we did not also celebrate the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. The word Maundy, from Latin, means "commandment". On this night, while at dinner with his disciples, Jesus took bread and wine -- common elements at any table, much less any Passover feast -- and imbued them with new meaning. Bread and wine now became symbols of his love and sacrifice for them. They became symbols of remembrance. Whenever they ate bread or drank wine, they were to remember him. Communion.
While I use the word communion more often than I'm even aware of, I don't know that I've given much thought to the word itself. So I turned to my handy Merriam-Webster dictionary app and looked up the actual definition of communion.
The first definitions were about the meal we will share together in a few minutes. It is a sacrament celebrated by Christians of all denominations. It is our fellowship together. It is our community. But the word communion finds its origins in Middle English, from the Latin communio or communis. It means "mutual participation."
This meal, our communion, is about mutual participation. Isn't that what Jesus came to do? Isn't that what he accomplished? From the very beginning, John's gospel describes creation itself as "the Word became flesh." God came into the world, to be with us, as us. Mutual participation.
John's gospel also tells us that Jesus didn't just give the disciples a commandment merely about what to think about, what to remember, whenever they ate bread and drank wine. He gave them a commandment about love. They were to love one another as he loved them. How did he exemplify this love? What was the object lesson he gave them regarding love? He washed their feet.
Foot washing was not uncommon at that time. Whenever a friend or a stranger came to your home, one way of offering hospitality was to wash the dust from their feet. But the host or hostess wouldn't be the one doing the washing. It would be a servant, a slave, who would bring the water and the towel. It would be a servant or a slave who would kneel before the guest. It would be the servant or the slave who would wash the feet. But on that night Jesus brought the water. Jesus wrapped a towel around his waist. Jesus stooped low. Jesus took the feet of each disciple and washed them. Jesus became a servant, a slave, and washed their feet.
While some of our brothers and sisters in faith see the washing of the feet as being a literal part of the commandment to love, I'm not sure that was necessarily the point Jesus was making. It is profoundly moving for me on this night to wash the feet of all who gather. But I think that what Jesus wanted the disciples to understand was that love, loving others as he loved them, was the willingness to serve others, in any capacity. Love was about humility. Love was about living out compassion and care. Showing love, giving love as Jesus loved them was the willingness to do even the most menial of tasks for someone else. Love was mutual participation. As Jesus loved them, so they must love one another.
Communion with one another is mutual participation in love.
In just the last few days I read a story that's making its way around the internet about a provocative sculpture that is being found in more and more places. In the article, I read that this sculpture has been erected on the campus of an affluent Episcopalian church in Davidson, North Carolina. The church resides in an affluent neighborhood. The sculpture is of a homeless Jesus. It is a park bench with a man sleeping on it. The man's head, hands, and body are covered with a blanket. The only way to recognize it as Jesus is by looking at the bare feet, which remain uncovered. They still bear the holes from the nails.
The reactions to the sculpture are divided. One woman driving by called the police, because she thought it was a real person, a vagrant, sleeping on the bench. But the artist, Tim Schmaltz, was inspired to create this piece after walking with a friend to dinner one night. At almost every block, they passed a homeless person or persons. Seeing these homeless people, Schmaltz saw in a new way the "least of these." Jesus didn't come just to talk about the least of these. He didn't come merely to give them charity, then return to the comfort of his home. Jesus was one of the least of these. He loved them and he was them. His love for the least of these was a mutual participation in their lives, their circumstances. And in the meal he shared with his disciples, he showed them in word and deed what that love looks like. He called upon them, as he calls upon us, to be in communion. Not only with each other, but with the least of these. Our communion is a remembrance of his love, his sacrificial love. But it is also a call to mutually participate in that love. As we gather around this table, may we be reminded that to love is to serve. May we remember that our communion is about mutual participation in that serving love, with one another, with a broken world, with the least of these. Amen.