Thursday, April 13th, 2017 – Maundy Thursday
Central Christian Church, Lexington, KY
Scripture: John 13:1-15,31b-35
“The Monday Thursday” – a Maundy Thursday meditation
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.
Many, many years ago, in a strange and far away place known as Arizona, I had no idea what Maundy Thursday was all about. All I knew was that I accompanied my parents to church, where we sat through what seemed to be an interminably long service, often including a bunch of grown men re-enacting the Last Supper, and ending with communion. Indeed, as a child, I didn’t even quite say it properly. For years, I thought everybody was saying “Monday Thursday”, and because I’m a perfectionist who refuses to admit when I’m wrong, I just went about my business thinking that until I was eleven.
It wasn’t until fifth grade that I realized that everybody was saying “MAUNDY Thursday”, and then I felt like a bit foolish. I never did find out what it meant, though – after all, these were the days before the Internet. Throughout middle and high school, I knew what the word was, but I had no idea why the night that we commemorate each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper was called “Maundy Thursday”.
When I was in college and began spending time with more liturgically-minded folk, however, my understanding began to shift. You see, I spent four years worshiping with the Lutheran college ministry, which would in turn visit the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in downtown Flagstaff each year on Maundy Thursday. Paying rapt attention, I absorbed the elements of the service, right down to stripping and shrouding the altar at the end of the service. And it was my junior year of college, sitting in a pew of that church, that understanding finally came to me of the meaning of Maundy Thursday: “Mandatum novum,” the priest said, “a new commandment is given to us.”
When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
On the night in which Jesus was betrayed, he did much, much more than institute the meal that we have handed down, generation to generation. When the disciples gathered in the upper room that night, the Gospel of John doesn’t tell us that he began the evening by offering a prayer, by greeting them, or with any particular liturgical ritual. Instead, he assumed the posture of a servant, kneeling before them and washing their feet, one by one. He washed the feet of John, the apostle who he loved. He washed the feet of Thomas, the apostle who would doubt him. He washed the feet of Judas, the apostle who would betray him. And then he came to Peter.
“You will not wash my feet, Lord.”
Oh, Peter. More like a rock than Chevrolet could ever hope to be. He was a rock in the sense that he provided the firm foundation upon which Christ built the church, but he was also like a rock in the sense that sometimes he just didn’t get it. Here, the Son of Man knelt before him, offering him a uniquely humble expression of servanthood, and Peter said, “You will not wash my feet, Lord.”
“If I do not wash your feet, Peter, you have no part with me.”
This was not just meant to cleanse the feet of the apostles, it was meant to be symbolic. Metaphor. Jesus showing them what he expected of them instead of just telling. And indeed, demonstrating what he expected was the entire point of what he would say later:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.”
Jesus washing the feet of the apostles was his demonstration to them of love in humility, a love which he then expected them to carry out to those around them, so that all the world would know that they were his disciples. It is a call that carries down through the ages, as well: we are to love one another, just as Christ first loved us, so that all the world would know that we are his disciples.
And yet, so novel is it for us to carry out that commandment that it becomes newsworthy when Pope Francis humbles himself to wash the feet of prisoners, of refugees, of Muslims. So far have we separated the last supper from the rituals of the meal that we carry out the communion meal but then fail to go out and show love to one another as Christ has first loved us.
So it is that the mandatum novum, the new commandment that Christ gave us, is new again each day. Each time we partake of the communion meal, we must also remember the commandment that we are given, as though it were the first time.
And when you think about it that way, the child-like idea of “Monday Thursday” actually makes sense. Each Monday, we set forth from the weekend, renewed and refreshed, prepared to start a new week. So perhaps this Thursday each year should be like Monday for the year to come: the day on which we take forth the new commandment to love one another, and live that commandment to each of God’s children who we meet.
May our Maundy Thursday remind us of the love of Christ, and renew it within us, that we may go out and express his mandatum novum to all those who we meet.
Let all God’s people say, Amen.