St. Agnes Catholic Church, Nashville, Indiana
Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper – April 2, 2015
Exodus 12.1-8, 11-14; Psalm 116; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 13.1-15
We were early that morning. The place was supposed to open at 8 am, and we were a few minutes early. So we waited. 8 am came and passed, and the doors to the place we wanted to visit stayed closed and locked. Eventually, someone came and opened the doors and we went in to the place we had been waiting to enter: the place where Jesus went for the Passover meal the night before he died, the place where he washed the feet of his disciples, the place where he gave his Body and Blood in the Eucharist – the Upper Room in Jerusalem. It was only later that evening this past November that our pilgrimage group found out why the doorkeeper was late in unlocking the Upper Room that morning. Four rabbis had been killed in an attack at a synagogue across the city of Jerusalem that morning. Religious violence had once again struck the city of David – the city of Jesus. And it took a while longer for the city to get going that morning. So the doors of the Upper Room remained locked longer than usual.
Our vision of what happened in that Upper Room is at the same time both tranquil and not far removed from violence. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, but one of those very disciples would betray him. He gave his own Body and Blood in the Eucharist, but one of those who ate and drank would later that night take a sword and cut off the ear of one of the high priest’s servants. The Master and Teacher led his followers in singing a hymn, but then he led them to the garden where he would be arrested and led off to be beaten and scourged and crucified.
Even our celebration on this holy night is not far removed from violence and bloodshed for those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. Earlier today, dozens college students in Kenya were killed simply because they were Christians. Churches have been burned and Christians exiled from some parts of the Middle East so that there will be no celebrations of the Eucharist in those places this year. And the Coptic Christian martyrs of Egypt are not far from our minds – 21 men executed earlier this year because they refused to deny their faith in Jesus Christ.
Jesus often asked his disciples to imitate him – to do as he has done. He told them that in order to follow him, they would need to take up their own cross. After washing their feet, he told them to do the same – to wash one another’s feet – to serve rather than be served. And in giving them the Eucharist, he also gave them a command – “Do this … in remembrance of me.” He called the disciples – and he calls us – to martyrdom. To lay down our lives for our friends. To be witnesses to love and service and hope and peace. To die to self in order to live for God. To become like the Eucharist we receive – grains of wheat crushed and baked into bread, grapes trampled underfoot and fermented to become wine, a body broken and blood poured out on the cross for the life of the world.
But he does not call us to do anything alone – or to follow a path that he has not blazed before us. The Eucharist we receive heals our wounds – it makes us whole – by uniting us to Jesus Christ. But it also gives us the strength & courage to conform ourselves to him in our brokenness and weakness, the strength & courage to lay down our lives and stand up for others, the strength & courage to confidently approach the throne of grace knowing that death has been conquered and heaven opened by an unending font of love, the strength & courage to stand against the violence and strife that surrounds us: as witnesses to the redeeming mercy of almighty God, in whose eyes all people are his precious sons and daughters.
After the Coptic Christians from Egypt were martyred earlier this year, a remarkable story emerged. One of the 21 people killed was actually not from Egypt – he was from the African country of Chad. And he was not Christian when he was captured. As the terrorists came through the line of men, they gave each one the opportunity to deny faith in Jesus Christ – one by one, they refused, and were killed. When the executioners got to the man from Chad, he could very easily have avoided death by revealing that he was not Christian. But having witnessed the faith of his fellow prisoners even to the point of death, he responded to the interrogation – “Their God is my God.” And he died a Christian martyr.
What happened in the Upper Room as the disciples gathered with their Master and Teacher has never been far removed from violence and brokenness and sin and death. But Holy Thursday and Good Friday are not far removed from Easter Sunday and the end of the story, a story that is ultimately about redemption and salvation and grace and eternal life. And when the earthly life of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, comes to an end, and he returns to his Father in heaven, the most important thing to remember is what he left us: a new commandment, to love one another as he has loved us, to wash one another’s feet; and the Eucharist – his Body broken and his Blood poured out to strengthen and nourish us, in our brokenness and pain, even unto death – so that we might live. And so that when other people see our lives and see our witness, they may be able to say: I want their God to be my God.