Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia
Welcome this Maundy Thursday. Sometimes folks ask me why we call it this and how or if it differs from Holy Thursday. And the truth is both names refer to this holy night and are correct. The term Maundy Thursday, however, draws our attention to an important aspect of this night. The word “maundy” comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means “command.” And on Maundy Thursday we are recalling two things: the institution of the Holy Eucharist and the new commandment that Jesus gave to his disciples.
Within the general context and tone of Holy Week, when we hear the word commandment, we might expect this new commandment to be very serious and austere. We are taught to think of the commandments in the Bible in terms of the 10 Commandments filled with the “Thou Shalt Nots.” Mandatum is also where we get the English word “mandate” and as law-abiding members of our society, we, too, most often think of laws as things that tell us what we cannot do. But our modern understanding of commandments belies the meaning of the term as Jesus is using it tonight. The word “commandment” in our Maundy Thursday reading must be understood within its own context. On this last night, as Jesus shared this last meal with his disciples his public teaching and preaching to the crowds was done. His words and all of his attention was centered on his disciples. Those gathered together were his closest friends whom he loved. He had travelled with them and empowered them to share the message of Good News and hope. Tonight, although, he never overtly says the words, he is saying good bye. He is preparing them for the events that would intrude all too quickly into their night. And so, before he shares everything that he has with the world, he shares with them and those whom they will form and teach the Holy Eucharist. Jesus, at the blessing, as St. Paul would later share with the Christians at Corinth:
…took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
A little later, Jesus gets up from the table, removes his outer robe, ties a towel around his waist and begins to wash his disciples’ feet. After he had washed their feet and put on his robe again, he returns to the table and says, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right for that is what I am. So, if I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
Their meal resumes, and Jesus continues to teach them, knowing of course, that their time together is almost at an end. He knows, too, that one of them, Judas, will leave this shared meal and betray him. After Judas departs, Jesus gives them the new commandment, the mandatum that would come to mark the events of this evening. He says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” It’s worth noting that Jesus does this after Judas departs because, again, Jesus knew that Judas was to betray him. After two profound acts of self-giving love, Jesus’ new commandment again models for us what we should do rather than what we should not—namely, we should love one another even as Jesus loves us. Up until this point in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ love for his disciples had never been explicitly stated. But we read, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” On this night, during their final meal together, Jesus is speaking directly to his disciples. Jesus’ attention is centered on their friendship and community. And Jesus tells them: It is all about how we love one another.
Jesus’ new commandment was about this love and about the primacy of relationship—something that we talk about a lot here at Epiphany. In Mark 12:29-31 Jesus, when asked by a scribe about which laws or commandments were most important, replies: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” But Jesus’ new commandment goes deeper yet.
What is it that makes this commandment that Jesus gives us new and different? It is different because it is predicated on our personal relationship with God. We are not only asked to love our neighbor as ourselves but we are to love one another as Jesus loved us. Jesus is centering his new commandment on his special love for each one of us and out of the nexus of that love Jesus is asking us to pass that love on to one another – to our families, our friends, our neighbors and even those that we are harder for us to love. In order to follow this commandment, then, we first must receive and grow in God’s love for us. It is the only way for us to truly fulfill the commandment. We can only love one another as Jesus loves us if we are truly acquainted with how much Jesus loves us. Without knowing Jesus’ love for us, the new commandment will remain only partially observed.
For Jesus’ friends that night, they could not have fully understood what it was that Jesus was commanding them to do—because on that night, they did not know just how much Jesus loved them and were still unaware of how very deep, expansive and abiding the love of God is. They couldn’t have known, for example, what Jesus was really talking about when he broke the bread and blessed the wine. Can you imagine what those words would have sounded like the first time that they were heard? Without knowing what will happen next, what is it that you are to do in remembrance of Jesus? Imagine, too, having your teacher and Lord take the place of a servant and wash your feet. You might try to understand why Jesus is asking you to be willing to wash another’s feet—something rather degrading if not downright abominable. But about the command to love one another even as Jesus loves us? What did that mean to the disciples on the first Maundy Thursday and what did it mean to them later – and more importantly, what does it mean to us now? The disciples had to grasp the depths of it. We have to grasp the depth of it. “Just as I have loved you,” Jesus said. Now truly, the question is: how does Jesus love them? How does Jesus love us?
When John writes, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” what he is saying is that Jesus, the only begotten Son, loved us so much that he was willing to be born and live a human life, was willing to be accused and harassed by those he loved, was willing to wash the feet of his disciples – was willing to die so that they, so that we might live a new life. Jesus loved us with all that he is. What does it look like to love a person like that? Part of what’s so special about this night is that Jesus takes the time to show us.
He broke the bread. He blessed the wine. He washed their feet. And then, he made a commandment that they, that we are to love one another as he loved us. Tonight, let us listen to Jesus as he speaks directly to each one of us. Before you can aspire to Jesus’ command to “love others,” you have to allow yourself to be loved first.. “Just as I have loved you.” Are you willing to experience that love?