In this world where we are often surrounded by harsh rhetoric, threats of violence and retaliation, and cries for “an eye-for-an-eye” type of justice, we hear a different message this evening. We hear gentle and enduring words about compassion and love and serving one another. It is an evening when we gather as Christ’s beloved community and listen again to the readings that foretell traditions that we are to remember and pass along from one generation to another. They are the words of Christ spoken more than 2000 years ago to his own disciples shortly before he would be tried by the Roman authorities and killed.
This story is imprinted on our Christian souls. In Jerusalem for the Passover, Jesus had gathered his twelve disciples. He alone knew what was about to happen to him – that one of his own would ultimately betray him to the authorities; one would deny him three times; and all would abandon him during his hour of greatest need.
Yet Jesus called his friends together – they shared a meal; and he broke bread and poured a cup of wine; he ate with his friends and blessed them; then knelt down before them and washed their feet; and showed them love and grace and compassion during a time when fear and anger might have seemed the more likely emotions.
What had Jesus done to deserve what was to come? He lived a life of non-violence; he healed the sick and restored sight to the blind; he freed the captives; walked among the outcast and ate with the scorned. He spoke up in the presence of injustice. He brought hope and life to those who needed it most.
Those were his sins in the eyes of the authorities. Jesus was to be killed because the goodness he brought to the world was more of a threat to the ruling government and religious authorities than any army could ever be. He had so radically upended the status quo during his lifetime that those in power decided the only answer for them was to put him to death.
Jesus didn’t run away as another person might; he didn’t prepare himself for a battle, arming himself with weapons. Instead he chose to spend his final hours with the ones he loved and who loved him. Jesus needed to be with them for they would be the witnesses to what would follow.
You and I know what is coming…and still we willingly gather here together as a community. We find comfort in being together as a Christian family as we enter into the ancient stories of these last days of Jesus’s life and death.
For tonight is the night when Jesus gave his disciples (and the world) two things that would forever connect us to him and one another: the institution of the Holy Eucharist and the mandate to love. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” We gather on Maundy Thursday not only to share a simple meal, but to share in the symbols of humility, love and service to one another established on that holy evening in Jerusalem. The physical acts of washing one another’s feet and hands and communicating one another with the bread and wine are both rich and intimate experiences. Perhaps we find it a bit uncomfortable; perhaps it makes us feel vulnerable. Yet if we allow ourselves the time and the space to enter fully into the liturgy, we are given an opportunity to draw closer to Jesus and ultimately to God.
It all comes down to love. The command to love one another sounds so easy, yet we already know how difficult it can be. For it is human nature to strike back at the ones who try to hurt us or hurt the people we care about. It’s natural to feel repulsed by evil and immoral acts and think of ways to punish. However, that’s not the mandate Jesus left for the world. Indeed it’s just the opposite. Love everyone, he said, even those who wish us harm; even those who hate us and fear us. Just love one another.
The challenge for us, of course, will always be to discover ways to live that love in our relationships and in our communities and to use this blessed force of goodness in service beyond our selves. This type of agape love is selfless, and always committed to the well-being of others first. To seek out the marginalized and welcome them into our life; to take in in the stranger; to feed and clothe the hungry and the naked; to care for the sick and visit the prisoner – these are the ways we love the world as Jesus did.
Love is more than a fleeting passion or an emotional high. There is freedom in the word “love” but it carries with it a responsibility, a commitment, a sense of dedication to someone, to some principle, some value or truth that we hold dear. It is our relationship to Jesus and our faith in him that will always create the space to love our neighbor in a way that is authentic – in a way that accepts that person fully.
Jesus didn’t give us an easy formula to follow. He didn’t spell out in precise terms exactly how to go about doing this – to love the unlovable; to forgive the unforgivable; to see the humanity in those who act in ways that are inhumane. But he did something even better. Through his life and his deeds and his words he gave us an example, a sign, a clue, a road map to follow.
And so, beginning this Maundy Thursday, my prayer is that we may be generous with our love and deliberate as we live out the mandate to love one another. The words are simple yet they demand our whole life and attention. When we wash one another’s hands or feet; when we share in the body and blood of Christ, may we remember that we are celebrating Christ’s great love for us. And when we leave this place tonight, may we remember to bring that love of Christ to others.