Harrowing Of Hell
April 14, 2022

The Upper Room

Kelli Martin, Lay Preacher

I am Kelli Martin and I have been a parishioner at Epiphany Parish for almost 4 years.

This evening we celebrate Maundy Thursday. We get kind of funny about this day. No matter how gently or funnily or casually we try to talk about foot washing, somehow it always comes back to that.

But Maundy Thursday isn’t really about foot-washing. There’s so much that happens during this night. Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. He does this in service and in love, much to the disciples’ astonishment. This is the night he talks about knowing that one of his disciples is going to betray him. This is the last night Jesus spends with his disciples before being taken away and crucified. Jesus tells his disciples good-bye. He tells them he’ll be with them only a little while longer, that he’s leaving and they cannot come with him. This is the night of the Last Supper. When Jesus breaks bread with his disciples, in fellowship and in community with them. This was the first Eucharist. The night culminates with Jesus giving them a new commandment: to love one another as he loved them.

This night is about one thing: it is all about love.

All of this took place in a space called the Upper Room. I have been in that room. A group from Epiphany was on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, we got back a little over 1 month ago. I was one of those pilgrims. What I’d love to share with you about my experience there…being in that room felt like pieces of a puzzle being fit together.

With all the acts of love that happened there in the Upper Room – the feet washing, the Last Supper, the new commandment – I thought the room would be adorned somehow and look like a shrine, maybe accompanied with some sort of fanfare, sort of how Jesus was when he rode into Jerusalem on the colt that we just heard about in Doyt’s sermon on Palm Sunday. But the Upper Room did not look or feel like that.

Let me paint a picture for you.

The Upper Room lives in St. Mark’s Monastery, which is an ancient monastery in Jerusalem. You have to walk down stone stairs to go into the Upper Room. The room has low ceilings that are made of big stones, in these beautiful, soft shades of gray and beige and yellow and rose, and the walls and the floor are made of these stones too. There’s an altar with crosses and candles and a cloth. Not a lot, just a few. You may feel like it’s a cave down there. It’s a nondescript room. There is something rustic about it, something earthy about it. You may feel like you’re descending into a small basement. Only there’s no damp smell. I thought it smelled…clean. Not antiseptic, not like cleanser, just clean. Modest. Cozy. There’s a loveliness to this room, there’s a sweetness to it. And yet it is unassuming. It is warm and modest and unassuming, just like someone’s well cared for home. This room felt like someone tended to it. Just like Jesus tended to and serves his disciples in that room.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a really big deal to be there. You feel the weight of the story there. Of course it’s big deal.

The longer I stayed in that room, the more my expectations and reality became one.

We stood in that room, and you knew something special had happened there. And when Tamara Lamb started to sing, “Let us break bread together on our knees. When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,”…. I sang along with her, I think a couple others did too. I was urged to do just what the song said, it felt like I HAD to fall on my knees. In fact, I longed to do so. So I did. I melted to my knees, in prayer. And we sang. Our communion of voices I think were honoring what had happened there.

The Upper Room is not a big room. But what happened there was definitely big.

That’s what Jesus and Maundy Thursday teach us. These big things happen in small, unassuming, domestic spaces. Maybe you’ve experienced some of this too. Like rituals we have at home. Domestic rituals. Rituals around meals and around relationships. Like this ritual with my mother.

When she comes to visit my family and me, or when I go to see my parents, when it’s time to leave, I do this thing. I kneel down, and grab on to her leg like a toddler does a parent or caregiver and I don’t want to let go. The first time I did it was funny! I’m a bit over 5 feet 7 inches tall and my mom is 5’ 2” so it’s this funny visual! This tall woman crouched way down, on my knees, clinging to my smaller mother so that she won’t go, so that she’ll stay with me, so that she won’t leave. It started out as this funny thing, but each time I would do it, which was every trip that I saw her, this holding on would get more serious and I would get sadder and sadder that she was leaving. Even though I knew I would see her again. That I would get to be around her and feel her presence and her spirit again.

It’s selfish of me but I feel something similar when I read today’s Gospel. When it says “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.” And when Jesus says “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.’” 

I want to say to Jesus, “Please don’t leave us. How can we make it here without you.”

I realize what it is that I feel in those moments: what I feel is longing.

Longing for my mother to stay so that I can be around her more. Longing for Jesus, which was why I obeyed the intense desire and urge I had there in the Upper Room in the Holy Land to fall to my knees in prayer. Kneeling there felt like an imperative. Maybe the disciples felt like that as Jesus insisted he wash their feet. Maybe to Jesus this foot washing was an imperative because he says  “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 

That sounds like an imperative of love to me. An imperative for how to be a part of Jesus.  An imperative of how to be with one another – in service and in love. This imperative was an act of love…in the form of that New Commandment. He says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you al so should love one another.”

Big things happen in these small domestic spaces. A last meal with beloved friends and followers. The washing of feet in service and in love, no matter where those feet have traveled, including everywhere they have walked.

When I was in 3rd grade I was aware that every time I went up for Communion I would well up with tears. I never knew why that happened…until now. I longed for Jesus. It’s a feeling we are familiar with as Christians.

Every time we gather on a day like today and on any given Sunday, we Christians feel this longing. We long for Jesus and we experience him within the Eucharist community. Jesus teaches us that the Eucharist is for everyone. Yes, there’s debate. Is it REALLY the body of Christ? Or is it a representation of? We can put aside the debate. What we can focus on is the word is “communion”, the word “community.” In this Eucharistic community, there is no hierarchy. There is no status. There is no unlevel playing field according to one’s race or gender or sexual orientation or gender identity or nationality or ethnic background. This is the bigness of the Eucharist, that first happened in a small, domestic space, with an act of service and an act of love. Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

You don’t have to have gone to the Holy Land to experience the Upper Room. Every time you take part in the Eucharist, you are in the Upper Room. And it is a room is big enough for everyone. That’s the imperative Jesus left us with that night.

Over the next three days, we walk into the bigness of Christianity by taking small steps with Jesus. That’s what we’ll do tomorrow – with the very big deal of the crucifixion. And the next day – with the largeness of the empty tomb. And we know what happens the day after. We know what happens on Sunday: the big, big rejoicing that is the heat of Christianity.

Tonight, though, we are in the bigness of what happened in the Upper Room by taking small steps with Jesus. We will eat one last time with Jesus.  We will be with him as he feeds his disciples, as he serves them by washing their feet with all the places they’ve traveled. We will be with Jesus as he says goodbye. At the end of this service, everything’s taken away. Jesus will be taken away. Then it will be dark. We will walk Jesus out.  We will long for Sunday. What happens on Maundy Thursday is enough. Jesus has charged us with what we do on Sunday. We serve one another. We love one another.

Until then, together, we will long for him.