A sermon for Maundy Thursday, March 24, 2016
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot to betray him.
The literal translation of the word “the devil” in that sentence is “the slanderer.” That is, one who distorts the truth to hurt someone else. It is understood as the power of evil, a demon—maybe the king of all demons. But we should remember that evil is not something that existed before the world. It is not an equal power competing with God. Evil is not something that was created by God. Evil is something that people do.
So what is this “devil,” this demon, this—perhaps—prince of demons? The best way that I can understand the demonic is that it is human evil that no human being is taking responsibility for. I have talked about racism in this context. But it happens a lot and in many human ways—it goes back to the Garden of Eden when the first people hid from God because they knew that they had disobeyed…when he was caught, the man immediately started blaming the woman. Human beings ever since have been like that—trying to make themselves more comfortable, or safe—often at the expense of others.
When people do that in a direct way—like the way Judas planned to betray Jesus—they are seen as bad people. Some even revel in that role! But most don’t want to be the bad person. So they find ways to rationalize when they are trying to take advantage of others. They tell themselves: This is OK. I am not hurting him or her directly—I am just taking care of myself. I have to protect my job from those immigrants. I need to protect my neighborhood from people whose looks or culture make me suspicious or uncomfortable. Over time, this kind of evil becomes disassociated from specific acts and develops a volition of its own. It becomes powerful enough that it’s demonic and we are witnessing its presence among us even in modern times.
Jesus entered Jerusalem and he preached the truth. It was that simple—the truth. But that aroused fear among the people, particularly their leaders, and particularly the religious leaders were fearful because they had much to lose. Shortly after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, Caiaphus the high priest said, “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” That fear, itself, was the power of death, it was the power of the Slanderer, the Devil. And that Devil had entered Judas, and Jesus knew it. But Jesus was not afraid, rather it was the time to teach his disciples about the resurrection from death.
He wrapped a towel around himself and he took on the role of the least respected servant, the one who washed the guests’ feet. No Peter, it’s not about a new baptism, a liturgical thing, or giving of honors—it’s about being the humblest of servants. Servants are among those who typically catch the brunt of the actions of the Slanderer—if those who have the power to push away discomfort, anger, nastiness, fear and guilt manage to avoid it, where does it end up? With people who don’t have any real-world power.
So Jesus took off his outer robe, tied a towel around himself, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet. He took on himself all the disrespect that servants get.
“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
The work of the Devil, the work of the Slanderer, breaks down the respect between people. And it leads to death. The resurrection from the dead is the breaking of this power of death, and it builds respect among those who have been alienated by this death. Yet the manipulations of the Slanderer can only be undone by giving up fear, ceasing to cling to comfort and privilege, and becoming a servant. The Lord’s Supper, our great feast of Thanksgiving (to translate that word, Eucharist) is living in this resurrection, in the servanthood of Christ. Our Gospel today says this: “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” And then: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
The suffering of Christ during Holy Week is very real; suffering in this world is very real, today at least as much as at any time. The devil that entered the heart of Judas is abroad in this world. The love that we are commanded to is not the power of nice people being nice and everything being OK. The resurrection is only by the power of God, the love of God, in the servanthood of Jesus Christ. The powers of the world do have power. But in Him, God is glorified.