Harrowing Of Hell
April 18, 2019

Maundy Thursday 2019

Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

To listen to the sermon click here.

Good evening Christians, seekers and friends,

Welcome. And if you were unable to be with us for the Agape Meal today, I am glad that we will be together to share the Holy Eucharist, the Lord’s meal, in a few minutes. Because sharing a meal together is one of the best ways that we can show we are a community; a communion. And it is probably for this reason that Jesus’ new mandatum or commandment comes during the Passover Festival. The Passover Festival was, of course, a time in which the Jewish people recalled not only their liberation from the cruelty of the Egyptian Pharaoh but also the time when they recalled the meal which would become “the first act of their new existence as the people of God.” That this meal was significant is shown in the fact that the God of Israel gives very specific directions regarding the meal– not only just what they should eat but how they should eat it. A description of the preparations for and making of this meal take over twelve verses in the Book of Exodus before we even get to the reason why they were instructed to mark the doorposts and entryways of their homes with the blood of lamb slaughtered for the feast.  And that was so that the last plague sent to the Egyptians would “pass over” them and spare the lives of all the firstborn sons.

Now the book of Exodus is a powerful testimony, indeed, of God’s saving actions on behalf of the enslaved Hebrew people. Centered around Moses, a firstborn Hebrew male, hidden and saved from Pharaoh’s decree to kill all firstborn male infants by Pharaoh’s own daughter. Exodus is full of big, elaborate shows of God’s strength against the most powerful ruler on earth. And even with all the powers of Vistavision, Cecil B. Demille and Charlton Heston, the immensity of these acts cannot be captured by film or human minds.

But as Jesus enters his last days on earth, God’s effort to save God’s people is about to take on even bigger form. Because, in an unexpected plot twist, God’s salvific actions take on a more intimate and personal form. The year-old lamb without blemish that each family was asked to slaughter at twilight of the appointed day on Passover to recall the mighty acts of God that freed them from slavery–that lamb has been replaced by the Lamb of God –God’s only begotten Son, Jesus, who offers himself up to save the whole world. And Jesus’ self-offering comes from a place that is very distinct from the political potentates that held power during Jesus’ time –something Jesus had spent the entirety of his earthly ministry trying to explain to the crowds and the disciples but something that they seemed unable to grasp.

Because Jesus was a Messiah who was unlike anything they could have imagined. He was doing a whole new thing. In order to free the people of God, he was, literally, giving it his all – giving his LIFE. Because what Jesus knew is that vanquishing one political ruler would not end the cycle of subjugation and injustice because another would rise, and another, and another.  So, this Passover meal that Jesus celebrates with his disciples has an added dimension. It is not only a meal or a liturgical tradition that commemorates the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery from without, it becomes a meal that celebrates the liberation of God’s people from within.

So, what would have been ordinary, if ritualized, actions performed by the head of the household at a formal meal are given a new significance. The bread that Jesus broke at the meal, he identifies with himself.  “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And the cup of blessing that would traditionally end a festal meal, Jesus also identified with himself. And he goes on to say, “This is cup is the new covenant in my blood.”  The covenant that God made with God’s people first with Abraham and then with Moses is being renewed. “Just as Moses sealed God’s covenant with Israel with blood [after they agreed to follow all the words and the laws of God], the blood of Christ signifies the new covenant – a covenant in which God not only promises to love God’s people but a covenant in which God actively, through Christ, undertakes to fulfill God’s side of the covenant and our side as well. As Paul explains it, both the bread and the cup were to be consumed as a memorial to Jesus who through his life and work redeemed us – who through his life and work saved us. So, the Passover tradition of the bread and the cup becomes more than a ritual act that recalls what happened in the past—it becomes a proclamation of the good news that is yet to come.  So while we may find ourselves discouraged, while we might find ourselves struggling against the political rulers of our own day, we can wait with confident expectation that Jesus Christ will come again. Because that is what he promised in this new covenant. And while we can take him at his word, “…he who promised is faithful” we can also see it in his life, in his ministry and in his actions this holy evening.

Because if Jesus infuses the traditional actions of the meal’s breaking of bread and cup of blessing with new meaning, he also takes on an action of great hospitality that would have been exceedingly rare. Something that the head of the table, the head of the household would not have usually undertaken. During supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 

For many of us here tonight, this is not our first time coming to a Maundy Thursday service. And if it is, and we are on the mailing list, we were told in the Lenten Guide or we might have heard in the Formation hour what would occur tonight. Most of us knew that foot washing would take place and if it does come as a surprise or we feel discomfort—after all, the personal hygiene of bodies –especially our feet and underarms is a major concern, we have the option of staying seated. But can you imagine the disbelief—the discomfort of the disciples to have their teacher wash their feet… demand, in fact, that he wash their feet? We can hear their shared incredulity from Simon Peter, who says to Jesus, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Even after Jesus answers him saying, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand,” Peter rejects the idea of Jesus washing his feet. He says to Jesus “You will never wash my feet.” And Jesus answers him, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

What the disciples would, as Jesus tells Peter, understand later is that what Jesus has done to them in washing their feet is not only an example and ritual action that reminds us of God’s own humility but also of God’s self- sacrifice — our spiritual cleansing through Jesus’ forgiveness of our sins through his self-giving death. And this action, this most important of gifts, is extended to all – even to those we might dismiss as the “worst” of us. Jesus washed every disciple’s feet including the reluctant Peter and Judas.

One of the things that Jesus is trying to make his disciples, make us, understand is that God’s way is different. In washing his disciples’ feet he was setting an example of true power, of true leadership as service. Tonight, we are asked to remember that the Kingdom of God is a community of equals in which conventional hierarchical structures are turned upside down. Unlike earthly contracts, instead of the covenant, the contract, between God and humanity benefitting both sides – God not only takes the loss but still honors, fulfills, and exceeds God’s promises. As followers of Jesus, Jesus is giving us an example tonight at his last Supper and in his washing of our feet.  And he gives us this law:

“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.”

But what love looks like can be difficult for us to understand. Just as Cecile B. DeMille could not capture all the glorious acts of the Exodus on film, Hollywood “love stories” can’t possibly relate the immensity of love—especially God’s love.  And that is probably because, as Jesus reminds us today, we look for love in the wrong places. The law of love – the loving of one another as Christ loves us – may include things that we might not wish to memorialize on film. But they usually have to do with things that feel intimate and a little uncomfortable. Things like talking with a friend about her illness and trying to be present, knowing you might be saying the wrong things, and yet trying anyway. It might be physically caring for the ravaged body of a family member or friend. It might also mean serving as an ally to someone whose voice the community will not hear. It might mean for those who do not usually do so, being the one to wash the dishes, do the laundry or take out the trash. It might just mean remembering what Jesus willingly did for us, and doing the next right thing in remembrance of Him.