Many years ago a man named Rudolph Otto described what he called a mystic moment. He wrote: “[When] you feel something drawing you into the situation, something powerful like a magnet, and if at the same time something within you is afraid, resisting, wanting to move back . . . if you feel yourself wanting to run toward and away from the moment at once . . . you can be fairly sure you are standing on Holy Ground” (The Idea of the Holy, 1929).
Moments like that happen often in life. We experience them when we wrestle with big decisions and those times when we know the right thing to do but find it impractical or frightening to follow. We experience it when truth is easy to see but hard to say. We feel it when hope in a marriage or a career becomes vulnerable; when death in any of its many forms seems near. Mystic moments come when our hearts ache or break or itch and when that troubling sweet-sour mix will not leave our insides. It is what is going on when our minds keep returning to the same troubling thought. Institutions experience it when tradition and innovation collide. On a larger scale, Arab Spring was a such a time and the fury swirling out of Trayvon Martin’s death is too. There is something mystic about the sneaking suspicion that greed is not a sustainable economic goal for our country, or that aging has a common outcome for all of us.
Jerusalem on the first Maundy Thursday was mystic holy ground in Otto’s sense of it. Everyone could feel it from the man in the street to the ruler in the Temple to the twelve around the table. The time was pregnant with meanings that were only dimly known but deeply felt. Those who sensed the moment did very different things about it, and their reactions provide food for our minds and souls. There are two rooms I would like for us to look in this evening. One is the Upper Room where the story so familiar to our faith was enacted. The other is in a Temple Room where a story very familiar to our day-to-day lives took shape.
The Temple is where Annas, Caiaphas, and the Executive Committee of the Sanhedrin—the Temple governing body—met. They had a lot of responsibility and a lot of problems. If Jesus pressed his claim to be Messiah, a role that everyone knew was centered on rebelling against the Romans, Jerusalem would become a bloodbath. Their fears were not unfounded because that is exactly what happened several years later. Also, if Jesus kept challenging the traditional interpretations of the Mosaic Law, the authority of the Temple—not to mention its leaders—would be undermined. Their job was to maintain stability and Jesus was making that very difficult.
Their decision, like those of responsible people in every conference room in history, was to get things under control. They decided to get Jesus off the streets but maneuver Pilate and the Romans into pulling the trigger so that the Temple and tradition could continue unscathed. They checked to be sure their actions were legal. In the 13th chapter of Deuteronomy it says that if a prophet appears with signs and wonders but leads people to other gods (which can mean other concepts of God), then the prophet is testing your faith and should be put to death. The Legal Department signed off on the plan. What finally sealed the deal was Annas’ persuasive argument that it is better for one man to die than the whole nation suffer, a point of logic that still rings true today. Responsible people have to maintain control, plans have to be made, cost-effective steps have to be taken and that is just what the responsible people in the Temple Room did.
Across town in the other room we call Upper, the same Spirit could be felt. It was not like other Passover meals. Something was stirring, there was a solemnity, an eerie quality, a wisp of doom. The unknown was standing so close behind the familiar they could almost hear it breathe. But around that Passover table, as opposed to the conference table in the Temple, the focus was inward rather than outward. The emphasis was on relationships rather than plans. While Caiaphas strategized, Jesus washed feet because the best preparation for the Spirit’s movement is care for others. On holy ground the question is ‘How can I love?’ not ‘Whom can we blame?’ The operative word is faithfulness, not strategy.
In the Temple Room they made their decision with the letter of the law in support. In the Upper Room Jesus knew that the law, as important as it is, can do little to interpret the paths of the Spirit or illumine the contours of holy ground. So Jesus used signs that point beyond themselves, things like bread and wine that point to body and blood that point beyond to the generosity that is in God’s heart.
We sacramental Christians look with wonder on the actions in the Upper Room this night and give barely a glance to the actions in the Temple Room. Yet the Temple Room is where most of us live and work, for we are responsible people. We respect those who must make hard decisions to keep our institutions running. We understand the occasional need to manipulate and the constant pressure to minimize costs. Ours is a city of laws. We make them, interpret them, use them for our purposes. The Temple Room was a place of institutional responsibility, strategy, law, and logic—all things we rightly respect. But institutions like governments, corporations, schools, and churches can barely comprehend, much less contain, the movements of the Spirit. Our institutions are often built on holy ideas but remain ill equipped to stand on holy ground.
But there are mystic moments in life. Times when something begins to pull us deeper into life—to where we want to run toward and away at once. At such times the real need is for love and service, relationship and generosity, sign and symbol; things that go far beyond the confines of strategy, law and logic. Because those mystic moments still happen in life, we gather to wash one another’s feet and be thankful for what was done in the Upper Room instead of what was done in the Temple Room. Amen.