I confess from the start, I’m an eternal optimist and always try to look at things in a positive light. Yet as I reflected on the importance of this week and the readings for this Maundy Thursday evening, try as I might, I couldn’t help but think about death, about the purpose of life here on earth and to think back to my time as a chaplain last summer at Beverly Hospital. As I read tonights readings, I was left wondering; wondering what Jesus might have been thinking as this time with his friends and followers was coming to an end this night, as he shared what was to be his final meal with them.
Part of doing of Chaplaincy work is becoming wholly present for the person you are ministering to, to be able to focus just on them and their concerns in the moment and connect in a way that enables you to walk with them in their time of need. A big part of this walk is simply listening, hearing the other person express their hopes and fears, the fear they sometimes won’t always share with those close to them. I met many wonderful people and a few that challenged and puzzled me. It takes time for people to grow comfortable in talking to you. With hospital stays becoming shorter and shorter, it proves to be difficult to make deep connections with people who you may only see once or twice, so it’s important to put away assumptions and be fully engaged and to listen for the message being sent your way. I was overwhelmed at times as I walked with people who knew their time on earth was coming to an end. They frequently talked about being remembered, of not being forgotten, and shared their hopes that their time on earth had some meaning. And many spoke with was a grace and acceptance that I don’t know if I would necessarily have if placed in a similar circumstance.
Jesus in our readings tonight is at this point. He knows death awaits him and time has run out. And in this darkened room tonight, he again puts the needs of others before his own and continues to teach his disciples, trying in the last days of his life to make them understand what their vocation will be. Being as human as he was Divine, he must have experienced the sadness of wondering if they’d remember him when he was gone, and he must have felt some frustration with their frailty and stubbornness. He’s spent a long time with this group, walking town to town, talking, teaching them, eating with them. So at this gathering tonight he must have wondered… will they get it? Did his being with them and living with them make a difference? Will they understand what it is he has groomed them for?
Gathering to share a meal wasn’t uncommon, it offered them all a moment of comfort after all the busy-ness of the past week. Yet the air is heavy, there’s something different about tonight. The disciples have been witness to some amazing events over the past few days, and have heard some prophetic words from Jesus. They’ve been witness to miracles, most recently Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and then later sat at a celebratory meal with this very same man alive and well. When the heavens glorified Jesus’ name, they watched in awe as people still refused to fully accept who he was. They witnessed an exhilarating entry into Jerusalem. Jesus has been greeted with palms and great fanfare as he rode into the city, with crowds proclaiming “Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, Blessed is the king of Israel.”
Now this night they gather to share a meal, as they’ve done many times before. And then Jesus gets up, pours water into a basin and begins the heartfelt act of washing his disciples feet. Surprising them yet again, with an act of servitude so counter to their view of how things should be, that Simon Peter is prompted to try and change it. Jesus responds, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
And after he had washed their feet, he put on his robe, and returned to the table and he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?”
In Jesus’ time, in the culture of this time no host would wash his guests feet. It was a menial task, a dirty one, one meant for a slave or to be done personally. No one deliberately picked up a towel to wash another’s feet, But Jesus did –he took the task of a slave and turned into one of the most humble signs of strength and love imaginable. And with it, Jesus, showing by example, offered his Maundy, his last final commandment to his disciples. To do for others that which he had just done; to share the kind of love he had for them, love that at time startles and surprises, when someone least expects it. An act catching them off guard; an act not of power or prestige, but of ultimate love and humility.
It can be difficult in our society to experience this kind of love, a love so intense, that it encompasses everything in our life including our enemies. Jesus in that room shared this inclusive all encompassing love by washing his disciples feet… ALL of them, Judas included, with a simple invitation formed in a question… “Do you know what I have done to you?” An invitation without any strings attached.
Christ’s goal at that night’s Last Supper wasn’t simply just to enjoy one final evening with His friends; it was also to prepare them for what he knew was to come; and he prepared them by giving them tools He also gives us: community, service, and prayer. He knew that they would be the ones who will struggle to continue his work and all that God commands. The rituals of this evening are all meant to help his disciples as they work to understand who they are and remember their purpose. These rituals today continue to remind us of our purpose also as Christians; to help us define ourselves, just as the disciples had to so long ago. Whether we choose as churches communities to wash feet, to have an agape meal and celebrate the Eucharist as we are tonight, these symbols of service, communal life and all encompassing love continue to teach us today. Each week we remember Christ as he hoped we would in the celebration of the Eucharist. We are reminded of this night and the so wonderfully simple yet hard to follow last commandment of hope and love he gave us; “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.”
We today know the ending of the story of course, It wasn’t one with an entirely happy ending. The lives of the disciples were changed dramatically by knowing Jesus. They never got back to the kind of life they lived together before, but they were left with a clear message and vocation, a challenging and difficult one, but one full of hope. We celebrate this hope with Christ every Sunday as we approach God’s table, knowing we stumble in life and that we sometimes fall short, yet we come. This meal of hope is always there for us, always waiting, in the bread of life, the cup of salvation. We see the risen Christ in these gifts as we celebrate Christ’s supper tonight together, knowing we are not perfect, we are needy, but knowing that we are loved by each other. That we are loved by God, and invited by Christ as his disciples were to share in this meal of hope together.
The invitation of our gospel this Maundy Thursday is for us to come; to come to this meal as we are, vulnerable, confused, hurting, perhaps hoping to be remembered, where ever we are in life. Just to come and allow God’s endless love to be poured out over us, as Jesus poured his over his disciples. When we do we live into a renewed sense of this call to “Love one another”, and gain strength to depart into the world, sharing the same all encompassing love we find here, finding opportunity to say to someone: “Do you know what I have done to you?”