Thursday, March 28, 2013
We Are Family (Maundy Thursday, March 28 2013)
Homily: Maundy Thursday, Mar 28 2013, St. Albans
Readings: Exodus 12:1-4,11-14;Ps 116:1,10-17/ 1 Cor 11.23-26/ Jn 13.1-7,31b-35
We Are Family
Tonight, we remember the last supper that Jesus shared with his disciples in Jerusalem, on the eve of his death. And we will once more share together this evening the Lord’s Supper, sometimes called the Eucharist, sometimes Communion, always in remembrance of Jesus, just as Christians have done throughout the ages.
In our second reading this evening, St. Paul writes to one such group of Christians in the first century, the church in Corinth. And he tells them,
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
So what is it exactly that we are proclaiming?
Paul says that we’re proclaiming Christ’s death. But we’re not simply proclaiming the fact that Jesus died. All humans die, the fact of death is hardly worth proclaiming. No, what Paul means is that we’re proclaiming something about the significance, about the meaning and purpose of Christ’s death through our celebration of this meal together.
So what is it that we’re proclaiming? And how do we proclaim it by the simple act of gathering around this table and sharing in the bread and wine together?
When I was a university student in Kingston, the priest at my church was a man named Bob Brow. And Bob used to have a number of expressions that he used to repeat on a regular basis. And one of them was this:
“The definition of a family is people who gather at a table and share meals together.”
So what is it that we’re proclaiming when we eat this bread and drink this cup?
It’s this: We are family.
Jesus lived and died as one of us so that we might become children of God. And if we’re all children of God, that makes us family.
But what sort of a family are we? What, if you like, are the family rules? Can we be any sort of family we want?
Well, no. It’s clear from Paul’s letter that the Corinthians were getting it wrong. When they gathered to celebrate the Lord’s Supper they were proclaiming the wrong things about family. In the Corinthian church, some people were getting more food and drink than others. They were separating people according to the social divisions of the day, and as a result some would go hungry and others would get drunk.
That’s not the sort of family that Jesus was trying to create. Those were the old rules. That was the old way of doing things. But Jesus was doing something new. And as he often did, rather than simply tell his disciples what sort of family we are to be, he acted it out for them. Right in the middle of supper, right where the new family was being born, Jesus got up from the table, stripped off his outer clothing and tied a towel around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with a towel.
And only after his example had been acted out before them, did Jesus address them with words.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
This is our family rule. This is our family identity. We are a family called to love and serve each other. This is what we proclaim when we eat this bread and drink this cup. This is how we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Now as many of us know from experience, it’s not easy being family! And this new family created for us by Jesus, and this new way of being family poses certain challenges.
First of all, it goes contrary to our social conventions and our usual way of doing things. Anyone who has watched Downton Abbey will be very familiar with how society can dictate roles within a family, who’s the boss, who serves, who is eligible to be brought into the family and so on. The family we proclaim will have none of that. In our family, all of us are foot-washers. Social distinctions are left behind when we gather at table. That can be a challenge. It was a challenge for the church in Corinth. It has been a challenge for churches throughout the ages, including our own, churches which practice segregation and exclusion on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, the list goes on.
Have no doubt that the Lord’s Supper is a revolutionary act. Many years ago I had a South African friend who told me that in his opinion, one of the things that caused apartheid in South Africa to crumble was when blacks and whites started sharing the Lord’s Supper together. As South African theologian Denise Ackermann wrote, “When racist laws kept people apart in my country, the Eucharist rite of sharing one cup took on revolutionary significance.”
A second challenge posed by this new way of being family is that it calls us into a mutual intimacy and vulnerability that may feel uncomfortable or even frightening. When Jesus kneels to wash Peter’s feet, Peter gets the heebie-jeebies. “Are you going to wash my feet? You will never wash my feet!” I get Peter’s reluctance. Moving into relationships of intimacy and vulnerability is hard. And yet that is what families are made of. I remember when I was an intern at the one of the hospitals in town, there was a long-term patient who was very ill. He had a faithful friend who used to visit each week. And each week when the friend would visit, the two men would strip down and go into the shower together, and the friend would wash the man who was too sick to wash himself. I once asked the friend why he did it, after all there were nurses who were paid to help patients with their washing. And the man looked at me and said, “All our lives we have been friends. But in these past months we have become brothers.”
There is a third challenge in entering into the family that Jesus calls us into. You know the story of Judas, the one who betrays Jesus. You know that on that last Thursday evening, Jesus announces that one of them will betray him, and as a result Judas leaves the gathering. But did you ever notice the sequence of events? Jesus could have forced the issue with Judas early in the evening, causing him to leave before supper. But he doesn’t. Jesus chooses the timing so that Judas his betrayer is included both in the supper and in the washing of feet. Jesus washes Judas’ feet. Even enemies are included in this family.
And so this is what we will proclaim tonight when we gather together around the table. We will proclaim that we are family, that by Jesus life and death, we have been made children of God and hence brothers and sisters. We will proclaim that we are a family with a new way of being, the new commandment that we love one another as Jesus has loved us. And in so doing, every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we will proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.