Maundy Thursday, 2021

If you read the stories of our people in our scriptures, you will discover that we have always been a minority people. From the time that Abraham and Sarah left the land of their forebears, we wandered around the world finding ourselves small in number in comparison to the other people we met. That’s how we ended up as slaves in Egypt. We went there essentially as one family, fleeing famine, seeking a better life and ended up being labor pool for the ambitions of the Egyptians. We escaped that slavery with the help of God and ended up wandering for decades in the wilderness following the promise of our own land. It was doing those desert years that we discovered and refined the commandments about how to live as a free people. And during those years we learned to define ourselves as the people who had been brought out of slavery. When we entered the promised land, we lived among people who were more numerous than we. Even during the glory days of the united monarchy under the great kings David and Solomon, we had enemies who were more numerous and politically stronger than we. When we were carried off into exile in Babylon, we were surrounded by so many people whose stories were different than ours. The dominant religion and the dominant way of seeing the world was so present that we began the process of collecting the stories of our people and forming scriptures.

Thousands of years of defining ourselves by saying how we are different from others made it a habit for us to think of ourselves as different. We are not like those others. Other people might think that this world began in a violent conflict between conflicting deities, but we are not like them. We follow the one true God, who created the heavens and the earth. Other people might lie and steal and cheat, but we are not like them. We understand the commandments that guide the lives of free people. While our community has many stories of those from the outside who have come to be cherished members of our community and heroes of our stories, we have never fully assimilated into the dominant culture. We’ve kept our faith, and our stories alive for generation after generation of living among other people.

In the days of Jesus, this sense of being different from others had become a part of our language. We used terms like “Gentile” and “Greek” to describe those members of our society who came from a different background and who had a different language and who held different ideas from ours. It may not seem like it to contemporary readers of the Gospels, but Jesus stirred more than a small amount of controversy by reaching beyond the normal lines of our community to minister with those we think of as outsiders. Beyond that, he also told parables that encouraged us to consider those “others” as humans just like ourselves. For some, this notion that God’s love extended to folks who were not like us was a real challenge. Some even sought to silence the voices of Jesus and his followers in the public sphere.

It was at that time, when Jesus was nearing the end of his earthly life and ministry of teaching and healing, that he gathered with his disciples in an upper room for a meal. Ever since that time, sharing a meal has become a sacrament for our people. We tell the story of that supper over and over again in liturgy and song and ceremony. It was at that meal that he gave his disciples - and all of us who follow them - a new commandment. “This is my commandment, that you love one another.”

For those of us who grew up singing “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” this hardly seems like a new or radical idea. However, to the first generation of followers of Jesus, this was a very different concept. Defining ourselves by love rather than our differences from others was a challenge to their thinking. We knew the words of the prophets about how we should treat immigrants, strangers and sojourners in our land with care and respect, but to think that we might be defined by love instead of our unique history changed our perspective on everything.

We had to learn to think of God as the God of all of the people of the earth, not just “our” God. We had to learn to think of salvation as a gift offered to everyone, not just to the people who thought like us, acted like us, and spoke like us. We had to define ourselves not as the people who received ten commandments from Moses who received them directly from God, but as the people of a new commandment.

Every year we gather for worship and special ceremony to remind ourselves of that new commandment. We’ve been doing it for millennia now. We call the day commandment Thursday, Mandate Thursday, Maundy Thursday. On this night we are called to enact the most radical hospitality of which we are capable. On this night we throw open the doors of the church and proclaim that everyone is welcome - that the commandment to love isn’t just a private possession, but a way of embracing every one. Just as Jesus showed love to a Samaritan woman at a well and told the story that expanded our notion of who our neighbors are, we are called to show love to everyone - not just the people with whom we agree.

It has been a challenge for the entire history of the Christian Church. We’ve stubbornly hung onto the notion that “we” get saved and “they” get punished. Despite Jesus’ teaching about how we are all both sheep and goats, we somehow cling to a notion of “us” and “them.” It is a good thing that the traditions of our people established this particular reminder to be repeated over and over again. Every year we repeat the mandate: This is my commandment, that you love one another.”

And maybe, just maybe, the commandment is starting to sink in. Maybe, just maybe, we are beginning to learn how to live by that commandment.