Maundy Thursday Sermon
The Rev. Thomas W. Traylor
All Saints’ Episcopal Church, 28 March 2013
A question is a thing of great power. The physician asks a question of her ailing patient and derives a clear diagnosis from what had been a swarm of puzzling symptoms. The lawyer puts a question to an evasive witness and uncovers the truth of the case. The scientist asks a question about the natural world discovers larger patterns and deeper connections within the buzzing confusion of the cosmos. The teacher asks a question and creates a new awareness in the mind of his student.
A question is a thing of great power. It can lead to greater understanding, or lay bare hidden truths, or spark new insights. A question also creates a bond between the one who asks it and the one of whom it is asked. To pose a question is to create a relationship. That relationship may be as momentary as the exchange between the customer and the Starbuck’s barista who asks, “What can I get you?” Or it may be as enduring as the bond created by the question, “Will you marry me?” The more probing or profound the question, the deeper the relationship it creates may become.
There is a question at the heart of the gospel we read this evening. Jesus, the master questioner, poses it to his disciples, his friends, on the night before he dies. He rises from the table, casts off his robe, ties a towel around his waist, takes up a pitcher and basin and moves from disciple to disciple around the table and washes their feet. When he has finished, he returns to his place at the table and asks his astonished friends, “Do you understand what I have done to you?” In that moment it is a question about what Jesus has done by washing their feet. But in a larger sense, it is the question for all of Holy Week: “Do you understand what I have done to you?”
Jesus had asked many questions before the great question of that fateful night. The four Gospels record one hundred seventy-three questions Jesus asked. There are more than forty in John’s gospel alone. Some were those he placed on the lips of characters in his parables. Some were challenges to his adversaries. Some were the private musings of Jesus’ own heart. The most pivotal questions, like the question he asks tonight, are those Jesus put to his disciples. Every time Jesus put a question to his disciples, the relationship they had with him changed in some way. Those changes, with their new insights and new challenges, became part of the answer to the larger question, “Do you know what I have done to you?” The questions Jesus asked have power to change our own spiritual paths as well and our own relationship with Christ. His questions continue to shape our own answers to his question, “Do you understand what I have done to you?”
Long before they came to that final meal with Jesus and heard him ask his question, Simon Peter and his brother, Andrew, had heard the first of the many questions Jesus would ask them. They had been standing on the bank of the Jordan River with John the Baptizer. Jesus walks by. John exclaims, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” Peter and John take off after Jesus. He turns, sees them following him, and asks them, “What are you looking for?”
What had compelled these two men to tail Jesus? Was it simple curiosity or a longing for something deeper than a sunburned life in a Galilean fishing boat? Jesus asks them the first question of any spiritual journey: Where is your heart taking you? What are you looking for? In the moment there by the river, the only answer to Jesus’ question Peter and Andrew can think to say is, “Teacher, where are you staying?” Jesus says, “Come and see.” And off they go. In that moment did they understand what had Jesus done to them? His question was an invitation to journey with him. In this moment, tonight, do we understand what has Jesus done to us? He has set us on a path toward God and invited us to walk it in company with him.
So Peter and Andrew walked with Jesus, collecting friends and fellow travelers along the way. They weren’t sure where they are going, but the journey was full of wonder. Day by day excitement built, the crowds grew, until one day, more than five thousand people flocked to see this wonder worker, Jesus. Then Jesus turns to his disciples and asks his question: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” You remember their incredulous responses, the powerlessness they feel in the face of such a challenge. All they can do is place the meager resources they have in the hands of Jesus. It turns out to be enough.
By his question Jesus said to them, “To walk with me is to care for those I care for, even when the odds are long. The relationship you have with me is more than a path of personal spiritual fulfillment. It means to feed the hungry, to care for the sick, to champion those whom others forget. It means to live and work so that the voices of those on the margins can be heard. In that moment, in the face of that crowd, did the disciples understand what Jesus has done to them? In this moment, this evening, do we understand what has Jesus done to us? He has charged us to share in God’s work of justice and love. He has asked us to offer the resources we have trusting that in Christ’s hands they will be enough.
On they go, Jesus and his band. Things begin to get rougher. Jesus’ adversaries plot to kill him. Jesus begins to speak of giving his life for the world—his very flesh and blood. Some of those who have followed him find his words so troubling that they turn back. Watching them go, Jesus asks those who have been closest to him, “Will you also go away?” With that question their relationship once again changes. What had begun as a path of spiritual discovery had led to a call to care for the world. Do the disciples now understand what Jesus has done to them? Do they begin to understand that the path they are on with him will lead to sacrifice? No only his, but theirs. Not only theirs, but ours, if we choose to follow.
Now we come to that table, to Jesus kneeling to wash his astonished disciples’ feet. We come to his great question, “Do you understand what I have done to you?” How would they have answered, when this man in whom they had placed their hopes, this man in whose face they had begun to see the face of God kneels before them and washes their feet? Can it be that this how God’s love is made real, not in splendor or power, but in humble service? That night, Jesus says to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you?” Then he tells them, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Is this how they are to love one another? Is this how we are to make God’s love real in our fellowship and in the world around us?
Before the sun rises the next morning, John’s gospel tells us, Jesus will ask two other questions. When supper ends, Jesus and his friends will go across the Kidron Valley to a place where there is a garden. Jesus will pray there for those he loves, whose feet he has washed. While he is praying other men will come up behind him. Jesus will turn to them and, in an echo of that very first question he asked long ago at the Jordan River, he will say to them, “Who are you looking for?” But these men will not have come out of curiosity or spiritual hunger. They will have come with lanterns and torches and arms to arrest him. Jesus will say to them, “I am the man you are looking for. Let my friends go.” Peter will leap to Jesus’ defense, reach for a sword, and strike one who has come to arrest Jesus. Jesus will say to Peter, put your sword back into its sheath.
Then Jesus will ask, “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” In that question is all his resolve not to turn back from what lies ahead. In that question, Jesus reveals how far God’s love will go. Having loved his own who were in the world, he will love them to the end. Could those with him that night have understand all that Jesus had done to them and all that he was about to do for them? Could we?
On a hot July night in 1933, in the mountains of North Carolina, folklorist and singer John Jacob Niles came upon a traveling revival meeting that had made camp on the outskirts of a country town. In his journal Niles wrote that as he watched the proceedings, “A girl stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins…. But she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.”
Niles took down the words she sang. They became the basis for a song we now sing as a Christmas Carol. But it is really a song for Holy Week. Let the question that young girl sang be the question our hearts sing as we contemplate all that Christ has done to us and for us:
“I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”