Maundy Thursday, 2019

The mandate is simple: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Almost anyone can memorize it. Jesus did make other requests of his disciples: “Do this in remembrance.” Today, however, even though we will celebrate Holy Communion, our mental focus is on the mandate to love one another. It is the mark of a Christian - that we love as Jesus loved.

I think it would be safe to say that we struggle with that mandate. Maundy Thursday is an annual event in which we confess that the struggle is real and that we need help to truly love one another.

I’ve lived all of my life inside of the church. I’ve seen some beautiful examples of faithfulness to the mandate. I’ve witnessed selfless giving as volunteers rallied together to help a family move. I’ve seen folks provide loving care for others’ children so that the parents could have an evening out. I’ve witnessed folks helping others out of a financial crisis. I’ve walked with grieving families as others rallied around, arriving with gifts of food and compassion. I could tell story after story of times when the love of faithful people for one another has been powerful and beautiful.

And I have seen times when we have fallen short of the mandate. Usually our failures have to do with the things we have left undone rather than the things we have done. We failed to visit when we could have. We’ve forgotten those who are out of sight. We’ve asked institutions to provide care for aging elders. We’ve not been present for single mothers struggling to meet rent. We’ve turned our backs on injustices in our community.We’ve been too tired to respond to yet another appeal for help.

Critics of the church don’t have trouble pointing to times when we have been hypocritical. We’ve said one thing and done another. You don’t have to look far to find complex and sometimes cruel politics in the church. There are abusers in our midst and angry words have flown within our institution.

We don’t really love one another like Jesus loved.

Saying the words is simple. Living the life is a big challenge.

So, once a year we remind ourselves of the original story and its context.

In the 13th chapter of the Gospel of John we find the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Simon Peter protests Jesus actions, saying that the roles should be reversed. It is the disciples who should wash Jesus’ feet. Jesus, however, insists. The ritual washing that precedes the celebration of the Seder usually focuses on the washing of hands, but Jesus offers a traditional and long-standing symbolic gift of hospitality to his disciples. Then he speaks to them, predicting that he will soon be betrayed. After that, before he speaks of Peter’s denial, Jesus gives the disciples his new commandment: “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.”

The word translated commandment in English is “mandatum” in Latin. Thus we have our annual recognition of Maundy Thursday.

There will be plenty of worship services in the Christian Church today where the mandate is not the main focus. I was speaking to a person who is not Christian yesterday about our observance of holly week and from his perspective the week is an extended passion play for Christians. I don’t experience it that way, but that is how it seems to at least one outsider. We spend the week going over and over again the story of Jesus arrest, trial, condemnation and crucifixion. He is accurate that we do read the passion story multiple times during Holy Week. I read it out loud during the liturgy of the passion and will read it again out loud during our Good Friday service. And we will celebrate Holy Communion this evening. It is our tradition. I’ve celebrated communion on Maundy Thursday every year that I have been a pastor. And we used to have our own version of a passion play as the setting for our celebration. In the congregation I serve, that passion play has given way to an evening of choral music and a focus on a cantata for the occasion. A few years ago an associate pastor wrote a service that centered on tenebrae, the extinguishing of candles, sometimes observed on Good Friday. That tradition has lingered and is incorporated into the cantata we’ll share this evening.

Foot washing never caught on in our congregation. We used to do a symbolic reenactment. I remember the rancher who said. “You’ can pretend to wash my feet, but I’m not taking off my boots.” I guess it was his own version of Peter’s response. Recruiting actors to play the roles of the disciples became a real challenge and optional foot washing ceremonies have been offered without any of the faithful taking us up on the offer. I guess we’d prefer to show our love fro one another in different ways.

Our traditions are living and that means that they change. Even things that seem to us to be nearly identical repetitions of things we have done before are subject to subtle changes in tone or emphasis. Sometimes a new action or new words are introduced and they stick. I’ve joked that our congregation’s tradition of a blues concert during Holy Week is one such tradition. It won’t be easy for future pastors to forego the concert. We like it and that enjoyment of the music will continue after the current generation has passed. There is no biblical mandate that we gather to listen to the blues together. It is just something that we’ve decided we like to do. New traditions emerge.

In that midst of all of the change, however, our mandate remains: “Love one another.” When all else is said and done, we are still challenged by this teaching. It is worthy of one day each year and more.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!