Thursday, March 24, 2016

A New Commandment

Maundy Thursday
Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 116.1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 13.1-17, 31b-35
Thursday, March 24, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

For a long time, I thought Maundy Thursday was all about the Last Supper. Perhaps it was because the church I attended during my later high school years only had one service during Holy Week. It was on Maundy Thursday and the highlight was a tableau of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The chancel was set-up with a backdrop that looked like the background of the famous painting. Men in the congregation would dress up in costumes, wigs, and makeup, and sit around a table, posed just as the figures in the painting. During my senior year, I had the opportunity to participate. I was Andrew. During the service, my father would read a narrative about Jesus’ Last Supper. At the appropriate time, the curtain would open to reveal the tableau, while we held our poses for something like five minutes. In the dimly lit sanctuary, we really did look like the original painting.

It was only later that I would learn that Maundy Thursday, while set within the context of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, is not so much about the meal itself. Now, admittedly, the scripture readings for this day all focus on meals. Our Old Testament reading from Exodus is the institution of Passover and the Passover meal. The meal of which God commanded the Jews, “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance” (Ex 12.14). The celebration which Jesus shares with his disciples for the last time on the eve of his crucifixion.

Our Epistle reading is Paul’s account to the church in Corinth of Jesus’ Last Supper. This gives not merely a narrative of what occurred, but also provides the theological basis for the holy meal. These are the same words we know as the Words of Institution that we continue to use to this day in our own celebrations of the Eucharist.

And of course, our Gospel reading gives John’s version of the events of the Last Supper. But the surprising thing is, John doesn’t any details about he Passover meal. There is no taking of the bread, giving thanks, proclaiming that it is Jesus’ body, breaking it, and giving it to the disciples. There is not taking of the cup of wine, proclaiming that it is Jesus’ blood, and giving it to the disciples. Instead, all we are told is that during supper Jesus “got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him” (Jn 13.4-5).

Based on this account, the supper was merely the venue for some other action. It was the backdrop against which the main event occurred – the washing of the disciples’ feet. Jesus then wraps up the scene by saying, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Jn 13.34).

This is the true meaning of Maundy Thursday. “Maundy” is derived from Latin term mandatum, which means “commandment” – the first word of the Latin translation of Jesus’ statement to his disciples. This new commandment that is more important than even the meal which preceded it – at least from John’s perspective. For John, the primary action at the Last Supper is Jesus washing the disciples’ feet as a symbol of love and service – a model of how they are to relate to each other. In the washing of the disciples’ feet, Jesus performs the duty of a servant. He is modeling that the true sign of discipleship, of being his disciple, is not leading but serving.

But even more significant to the understanding of this new commandment is Peter’s reaction when Jesus tries to wash his feet. When he initially refuses, Jesus tries to get through to him by saying “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (Jn 13.8b). What Jesus is saying, and what Peter is missing, if that the act of washing of feet is really one of hospitality, of inviting him into fellowship. It is an intimate act of humble service allowing full participation in Jesus’ life. This act is symbolic of the personal relationship that Jesus seeks to establish between humanity and himself. This act, however, is not one of ordinary hospitality, but rather one of eschatological hospitality – hospitality that extends to the end of the ages, through which Jesus shares his home, his Father’s home, with his followers. For Jesus, to keep this commandment is to demonstrate in word and action the love that he has for God. He is inviting Peter, and us, to participate in that love. He is inviting us into an eternal relationship. This is the offer of a gift that leads to eternal life.

Peter’s subsequent request that Jesus then also wash his hands and his head indicates that he still misunderstands. That he thinks the value of what Jesus is offering is in the cleansing power of the water, not in Jesus’ offer of relationship. One based on humble, loving service.

Now, in reality, Jesus is not teaching the disciples anything new. This is not really a new commandment. It is actually one that is at the very heart of the Torah. By calling it new, Jesus is placing renewed emphasis on it, giving it greater meaning. That is, that the disciples are being asked to truly enter into the love that marks the relationship of God and Jesus, which is evidenced, as Jesus shows, through humble acts of service. And he notes that keeping this commandment is what identifies his disciples because it is a tangible sign of their abiding in Jesus, and thereby abiding in God, as well.

The Gospel for today puts the foot washing in the context of the Last Supper. Given the significance of the foot washing as a model of service, and the commandment to love one another and to demonstrate that through acts of service, what if we put the holy meal in the context of this renewed commandment?

At its essence, the meal we commemorate this night, and every Sunday for that matter, signifies the Body of Christ. This is done by providing the body and blood of Christ – symbolized through bread and wine – to the physical bodies that form the community. In eating the bread and the wine, Christ’s body and blood, we become the Body of Christ. And as the Body of Christ, in full relationship with him, we are called to live out our lives in the same humble service that he demonstrated to his disciples in the act of washing their feet. As he commands them to love one another, he is modeling for them the behavior he is referring to. And so he models for us.

In the ancient church, Christian worship did not end with a postlude or a dismissal. It did not even end with a blessing or a post communion prayer. It ended with the people taking communion. People received communion at the altar then turned around and walked right out the door into the world. Now, part of this was purely pragmatic. Before Christianity was legal, Sunday was a work day. And Christian worship was held early in the morning before work started. So, as soon as people received communion, they left to go to their jobs. But there was also a theological reason for this practice. The worship service was for the purpose of feeding the believers, to give them the strength and resources they needed to then go out into the world to minister in Jesus’ name. To do what we are required to do in Jesus’ new commandment.

Today we talk about our Sunday worship being a mini Easter, recalling and celebrating the Resurrection. And while that is true and theologically sound, in some ways we miss the point. What was done at the Last Supper, what we do in Eucharist, is not just about the meal. It’s about what we do after we are fed. Each celebration of the Eucharist is also a mini Maundy Thursday, in which we are fed at God’s table and then walk out the doors to begin our real acts of Christian service. To be the Body of Christ in the world. As Christ ended the Last Supper with an act of humble service, so too do we end our partaking of the holy meal with acts of humble service, fulfilling our Lord’s command to love one another just as he has loved us.

No comments: