Maundy Thursday: Commandments as a Gift from God

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Maundy Thursday is a time of transition in the course of Holy Week. Our readings portray a lull in the action, a place that feels like the top of the hill on a roller coaster – that place where everything stops just before the car goes careening down the track and then veers sharply to the left. There’s that moment of anticipation at the top of the hill, when you’re not sure if what comes next will be scary, exhilarating, or both. That’s the position in which the disciples find themselves tonight. Like a slow climb up the track, the events of this week have been building in intensity such that at any moment things are bound to break wide open. There was the entrance into Jerusalem, then the night when Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume, and then all the discussions the disciples have been privy to that seem cryptic and yet overflowing with meaning. This is the night when time seems to stop for Jesus’ final meal with the disciples; we glimpse that instant right before events take on an unstoppable momentum.

It’s not the first time the people of Israel have been on the precipice of something larger than themselves. There was that night in Egypt, when they prepared for their liberation. God’s instructions were followed with haste, and yet I suspect the anticipation that filled the night made time seem to drag on forever. Tensions had been building higher with each plague. And now the instructions took on an unprecedented urgency. A lamb for each family, slaughtered at twilight, blood placed on the doorposts and the lintel of the house, roasted that very night and eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, shoes on their feet and staff in hand. It was to be a meal eaten on the verge of something that would change their history forever. It’s the same for the disciples on this night.

In a way, we in the Church live perpetually on that edge, at a point of transition. We remember the promises God has made to us in scripture and in the life of God’s people. We know that Jesus ushered in the new age. And yet we still wait for its fulfillment. We live in the tension of knowing that the kingdom of heaven has already come in the person of Jesus and of knowing also that, when we look at the world and at our own lives, many promises have not yet been fulfilled. We’re in what many have called the “in-between times.” It’s a difficult place to be – times and places of transition always are. 

When children are in the midst of transition, parents are often counseled to: 1) keep as much of a routine as possible, 2) let the child take familiar or comforting items with them. It makes sense – we need an anchor during times of transition. I think Jesus understood that. 

What happens on the last night Jesus spends with his disciples differs between the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the gospel of John. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the last supper takes place on the night of the Passover meal, and Jesus is crucified the day after the Passover. In the gospel of John, the last dinner Jesus has with his friends takes place on the day before the Passover meal, and Jesus is crucified on the day of Passover. He becomes the sacrificial lamb in John’s gospel. 

But in all accounts, Jesus leaves the disciples with a commandment. In fact, the name Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means “commandment.” In the synoptic gospels, Jesus breaks bread and passes the cup of wine and tells the disciples to “do this in remembrance of me.” In the gospel of John, Jesus actually gives the disciples two commandments – wash the feet of one another, and love one another as he loves us. This isn’t a “to do” list. These aren’t just duties to be carried out, or rules to be followed blindly. They are the rituals that will anchor the disciples and the Church in the years ahead. They will provide routine, they will link back to a time when Jesus was physically with them, and they will connect the disciples to a love that is strong enough to weather the betrayals, denials, and desertion that are to come as the week goes on.  

See, Jesus’ last instructions were born out of love for those he would leave behind; they are evidence of the grace of God. Even as Jesus sits with the one who will betray him, and the one who will deny him, and the ones who will desert him, his concern is for the future of all these he loves.  From now on, Jesus is saying, this is how you will know my love for you – in the care you have for one another and in the Eucharist. And in both, I will be with you. What a gift of perpetual presence, so strong that almost two thousand years later we still come to this table and we still wash the feet of one another (metaphorically when we can’t do it physically). It’s one of the reasons why this past year (with largely virtual church services) has been so difficult.

In the words of one pastor, we partake of this meal and footwashing “with the beloved disciple, knowing that the identity that marks us most is not the noun (disciple) but rather the adjective (beloved).”[1] In other words, we come to this table not because we will never betray Jesus, not because we will always proclaim by word and deed our love for him, and not because we will always have the strength to follow God’s will or even know what God’s will for us is. We come not because we have proven our worthiness. We come simply because we are the beloved.  After all, Jesus’ command is “to love one another as I have loved you.” In the mysterious and yet familiar rituals instituted this night so long ago, we come face to face with this love, we come to know what this love is like, and we learn to share this love with others. 

So let’s go back to the roller coaster metaphor. It’s as if on this night Jesus stands with us at the very top of the hill just before we start our rapid descent, holds out these two commandments and the rituals they bring, and says to us “There will be new life along the track, but the ride can sometimes be a little rough. I think you’re going to need these.”  Thanks be to God.

[1] James E. Lamkin, “Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008) 278.

Maundy Thursday: Commandments as a Gift from God
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