Maundy Thursday Sermon (2013)

Maundy Thursday
Texts: John 13:1-17, 31b-35;
1 Cor 11:23-26; Ex. 12:1-14


[With “object lesson” items of apple juice, soda, and a bottle of cleaner:] Health food, junk food, and poison. We are taught from an early age how to nourish our bodies and to stay away from poison. Are we taught about how to nourish our spirits? This is an object lesson I often use with children. But it works well with adults, too.

Take love, for example. Love is the ultimate nourishment for souls. Do we understand it well enough to know it most healthy forms? A very important factor this evening to be wary of is the role our cultures and institutions in shaping our understanding of all things, including love. We cannot learn anything without the influence of culture, because human language itself is bound up with culture. It’s a common point to make around churches that Greek, the language of the New Testament, uses three different words that we translate as with our one word “love.” So English is even a bit more restricted in helping us to talk about this most vital of spiritual health foods, love.

Our experience of love, then, is shaped by the experiences and cultures in which we’re raised. For those who were sexually abused as children, love is tainted by violent sexuality. For those addicted to pornography, love itself becomes perverted and often leads to poisonous relationships. And what about the cultures of romance? What if love is nothing more for us than living out our culture’s images of romantic love? It’s not that romance itself is bad. Courtship and marriage relationships should have romance involved. But a love which never goes beyond romance is never going to be a love that nourishes our spirits more deeply, and can even become poisonous to us, causing a person to jump from one romantic fling to another.

Now, for the healthy food: In Jesus Christ we find out that God is Love and has always led the way in desiring to properly nourish our spirits in love. Ancient religion had formed many poisonous notions of the gods as wrath, and so the true God started a long project of setting us straight on love by making a covenant with Abraham and Sarah. God married a people, if you will, so that God could begin to properly teach us and shape us in love. This project came to a high point, a pivotal point, in Jesus Christ, who came to live out God’s love in the flesh.

And so we come to what tonight is all about: On the night before giving himself over to our violence, he shows his disciples a servant love. He washes their feet. And he gives them the simplest of rules on how to love: Love one another as I have loved you. We learn to love from Jesus. In the culture of church around this sacrament of love, we are regularly fed with Jesus’ spirit of love. “This is my body given for you. This is my blood shed for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Do what? Eat the bread and drink the wine? Yes. But also the love. We are to do the love. We are to love one another as he has loved us. If we truly want to live lives of love, then ideally the culture we need to most be nourished in is the one that gathers around this table.

I say “ideally” because our Christian practice of the Lord’s Supper hasn’t always been one that nourishes us as it should in the love of Jesus. One of Martin Luther’s main criticisms of the Catholic Mass in his time was that it had lapsed back into being about sacrifice, even though Jesus had meant to end sacrifice by sacrificing himself on the cross. (1) Today our knowledge of ritual sacrifice and its logic helps us to be even more clear than Luther. Even though human culture has now gotten past ritual blood sacrifice, the same logic of sacrifice is infused in the way we think about law and order as based in punishment. So many of our Christian views of what happened to Jesus on the cross have become bent to that logic. They have become punishment-centered and sacrificial — going something like this: God had to punish humankind for its sinfulness, but Jesus stepped in to take the punishment. With that brand of sacrificial theology, we reversed the story: we took a story about human beings punishing Jesus and made it about God punishing us with Jesus taking the hit. We took a story about God beginning to liberate us from being trapped in a culture of punishment and make it a story of God being the epitome of the culture of punishment. So we’ve also practiced Holy Communion sacrificially. It became focused on the forgiveness of our sin and remembering that Jesus takes the punishment. Not a very gracious and loving experience.

Brothers and Sisters, this is the logic that Jesus came to overturn by helping us to understand that God is all about love. God is about healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and transformation, not about punishment. The founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W., often said, “Punishment never heals. Only love can heal.” (2) Bill W. understood the Christian message. It’s not about punishment. It’s about love and healing.

Tonight, then, is another opportunity to understand that the logic of sacrifice, centered on punishment, is still alive and well in the cultures that shape us, and that God wants to liberate us from it. Consider what’s happened to our own justice system since we declared a War on Drugs thirty years ago. At the time this war was declared all the polls showed that the America public didn’t even consider drugs to be one of our top problems. Our prison population was only about 350,000 nation-wide, and our incarceration rate was just a bit higher than that of other democratic industrialized countries. Thirty years later our prison population is 2.5 million, more than a seven-fold increase, and the vast majority of those incarcerations are drug-related — with the number one type of sentence being not for selling hard drugs but for possession of marijuana. The War on Drugs enculturated us into thinking that the approach to solving the drug problem is punishment not healing. I’m not trying to say that drugs aren’t a problem we should address. But how we respond says a lot about whether we’ve been enculturated in the logic of punishment or of healing love. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (3) emphasizes that, as the Drug War began thirty years ago, we as a society very much needed to respond to the suffering which drugs cause, but she also writes,

As a nation, though, we had a choice about how to respond. Some countries faced with rising drug crime or seemingly intractable rates of drug abuse and drug addiction chose the path of drug treatment, prevention, and education or economic investment in crime-ridden communities. Portugal, for example, responded to persistent problems of drug addiction and abuse by decriminalizing the possession of all drugs and redirecting the money that would have been spent [on punishment] into drug treatment and prevention. Ten years later, Portugal reported that rates of drug abuse and addiction had plummeted, and drug-related crime was on the decline as well. (p. 51)

As Bill W. says, “Punishment never heals. Only love can heal.” Thirty years ago our nation chose the punishment route, and now mass incarceration has become part of our culture. Can it be undone in favor of a culture centered more on healing? After thirty years, it will be a tough job.

The question is, Will you and I, as people enculturated around this table of love, participate in reshaping our current culture of punishment? Does our current culture of punishment mute our Christian culture of love, or does the culture of this holy table nourish and strengthen us for the difficult work of being part of reshaping the current U.S. culture of mass incarceration? I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit can and does work with or without us, working through anyone who is open to the power of love. But isn’t is natural for those of us called to be the Body of Christ to be part of God’s healing coming into the world by healing our institutions, too?

Pope Francis has it exactly right. He celebrated Mass today at a prison, a place of punishment. He washed the feet of twelve prisoners including those of a Muslim woman. This very night we remember that Jesus let himself occupied the place of human punishment, executed on the cross, not to take God’s punishment for our sins, but to begin to undo our cultures of punishment with God’s healing power of love and grace. That’s what this week is all about! That God comes not just to heal us individuals, but God enters into the midst of our most central human institutions so that God can heal them as well. We individuals are so bound up with our institutions that healing one won’t work without healing the other. And so we are sent out into this world in desperate need of healing, as those healed by God’s forgiveness. We only need one commandment: Love one another as Jesus has loved us. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, March 28, 2013

1. See Luther’s essay “On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church.”

2. My source for this is Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God, by Dennis, Sheila, & Matthew Linn, pp. 46-47.

3. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The New Press, 2010, 2012. I have noticed that the paperback edition has significant changes in it. The portion I quote here is not in the original hardback edition.

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