Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
Here we are in our holiest of weeks, on the first day of the triduum, the Three Days: Maundy Thursday. There’s a lot of fancy church words happening right there, but Maundy is just a shortening of the Latin word mandatum, which is how the word “commandment” was translated in the Latin version of the New Testament.
The choice to call this Maundy Thursday, or Commandment Thursday, is to underscore that the core of what Jesus offered his disciples at the Last Supper was that new commandment—love one another.
This is maybe like starting with the punch line, but since we tell this same story every year, and I just read the Gospel lesson to you, I hope it comes as no surprise to you that Jesus says, “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.”
This is where we get our bumper sticker slogans like “Love Your Neighbor” and our camp songs like “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” On a really important night—the last of his life—this is what Jesus wanted his friends to remember him by.
Because of the way each culture keeps its calendar, every once in awhile, our Holy Week coincides with the festival Jesus and his disciples were about to commemorate, Pesach—the Passover. The eight day celebration of the Passover this year began on Monday night of this week, and will last until the Tuesday after we celebrate Easter. At the meals that Jews around the world have been sharing this week, called seders, a question is asked. “What makes this night different from all other nights?” The answers to the question are about the various practices of the seder celebration, and how they are different than regular meals shared throughout the year. To be clear, the Last Supper was probably not a seder, because it took place before the festival began. However, I wonder if we can’t still ask the question, what made this Maundy Thursday night different from other nights?
On this night, Jesus ate a meal with his friends. Not that different from all other nights. On this night, Jesus spoke cryptically about his friends’ behavior and confused them about his impending death. Not that different from all other nights. But during dinner, Jesus did something different. He got up from the table and knelt in front of his friends and began to wash their feet. This sounds like a super weird thing to do, for us, because we do not routinely have our feet washed as part of the hospitality provided by our dinner hosts. In Jesus’ time, however, this was something that people expected, but they expected it from the servant of the household, not the Rabbi. This flipping of expectations is Jesus’ signature move.
To a world that expects isolation and individualism, Jesus says, “love your neighbor.”
To a world that expects its leaders to show strength through military might, Jesus says, “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
To a world that expects illness and suffering, Jesus says, “your faith has made you well.”
To a world that expects death and destruction, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
And to a room full people who expect to be served rather than to serve, Jesus says, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
In our world today, just as in the time of Jesus, there are a lot of competing systems of morality and authority. This week we consider the power of the state and the power of the people. We contrast the reality of death and the reality of life. We ponder the uses of violence and the uses of forgiveness. This is a week of wonder. So on this night, Jesus makes it as simple as possible: love one another.