The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
April 18, 2019
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
Tonight, the mystery begins. Tonight, we begin a three-day-long liturgy the Church calls the Paschal Triduum filled with a stark contrast between deep sorrow and unfathomable joy. As we begin this intense time, from the book of Exodus, we heard Nancy read to us what is essentially a liturgical customary for the preparation of the Jewish Passover meal.
Around 1,300 years before Christ, the Jews were slaves in Egypt. God raised up Moses as their leader, and the Passover marked the beginning of Israel’s exodus out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. God commanded each Israelite household to slaughter a spotless Lamb. The instructions are quite detailed, just as any good liturgical customary is. “Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs.” It reminds me of the some of the fussy liturgical customaries we use around here, such as “The organ is silent and the bells do not ring from the end of the Gloria on Maundy Thursday until the Gloria at the Great Easter Vigil.” (This is why you’ll hear us use a wooden clacker instead of the bells later in the service.). At the Passover, the head of the household was to smear some of the blood of the lamb on their doorposts as a signal to God that he should “pass over” their houses when he destroyed the firstborn of the Egyptians, thus paving the way for their escape back to Israel. The passage ends with, “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.”
Thirteen hundred years later, as good Jews, our Lord and his disciples kept the feast in their time. Jesus tells his disciples that he “eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer,” and his disciples would have immediately recognized a play on words: the Greek word Passover (pascha) and the verb “to suffer” (pascho) are almost identical. In the story of the Last Supper, Jesus foretells his own suffering that will happen tomorrow on the cross, and links his own Passion with the Jewish Passover. Just as Israel was delivered from the bonds of slavery in Egypt and sent into the land of promise by the Passover, so is the Church delivered from the bonds of sin and death into an everlasting life with God in the Passion of our Lord on Good Friday.
Jesus goes on to say to his disciples that “he will not eat it [the Passover, that is] until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” In some ancient manuscripts, it is recorded that he says “he will not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God,” as if he’s celebrating the Passover in that moment in the Last Supper. Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross is the fulfillment of the Jewish Passover. And tonight, as we celebrate the Eucharist, we reenact the fulfilled Passover in this great sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. In the Passover, a lamb is sacrificed to give God’s chosen people what they need to avoid the devastating effects of God’s judgment. At times throughout the year during the liturgy, we sing, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us! Therefore let us keep the feast!” Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we are united to the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. It is through Jesus’s sacrifice that we are brought into the Promised Land and freed from the bonds of sin and death. Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we are joined with each Eucharistic celebration throughout history and each future Eucharist that is to come, along with all of the saints who have ever come to the altar rail throughout history and those who will in the future.
So, let us celebrate the fulfillment of this festival just as our ancestors did in Egypt so long ago. But before we do, we will observe another ritual that has been around since at least the year 694: the washing of the feet. In John’s gospel, just before the Passover, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Peter initially responds, “You will never wash my feet,” utterly appalled at the thought of his Master washing his feet. In washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus takes the place of servant to his own servants. Beyond inverting the image of leadership, Jesus performs a very intimate act in this moment. Exposing one’s feet to another was just as unusual in the 1st century as it is in our culture. In my home parish, I always remember some of the ladies going to get pedicures before Mass on Maundy Thursday. I mean, I get their urge to gussy up their feet so as not to gross out the priest, but I wonder if they’re missing the point entirely. In this humble act of service, Jesus is modeling what the Christian life is all about: just as he washed his disciples’ feet, so are they to go and do likewise. For “servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.” He then continues, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Despite his having experienced this intimate moment with his Lord, we will hear tomorrow that Peter proceeds to deny his Lord three times. He’s not the only one – Judas not only denies him, he betrays him. But there’s a significant difference between Peter and Judas which Pope Benedict XVI explores in his book, “Jesus of Nazareth.” For Peter, there is true mourning and sorrow, as Peter’s eyes meet our Lord’s after denying even knowing Jesus three times. Peter—who was full of brash confidence—has now come face to face with his own weakness and inconstancy. And this confrontation with the truth hurts. But Peter’s mourning—while painful—brings him to the truth and ultimately repentance. For Pope Benedict, the key difference between Peter and Judas here is that unlike Judas’s desolate despair, Peter’s mourning includes a glimmer of hope and a sense of God’s infinite mercy. And this gives Peter the chance to start over. Moved by God’s grace and having come face to face with his own weakness, now he is ready to let God work through him in an even more powerful way. Benedict writes: “Struck by the Lord’s gaze, Peter bursts into healing tears that plow up the soil of his soul. He begins anew and is himself renewed”.
Let us remember the feast of the Passover tonight recognizing our own weakness, but with a glimmer of hope. For we will need that hope to get us through the long hours of Good Friday when our Lord’s suffering is almost unbearable, and death and despair seem be the final word. Let the glimmer of hope given to us in this Holy Feast give us the strength we need to serve others in Christ’s name – to love one another, just as He has loved us.
 Verse 14.
 John 13:14.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!