I remember vividly the very first Maundy Thursday service I attended. I was 17 years old and a freshman at Samford University in Birmingham. The choir I was a member of sang “Create in Me, O God, a Clean Heart” by Johannes Brahms at the Maundy Thursday service at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. Dr. Betty Sue Shepherd, a member of the piano faculty at Samford, was organist at that church at the time, and she played “Jesus, Name of Wondrous Love” for the offertory. The solemnity of the service, the stillness, the reverence, are all still with me, 26 years later. It was at a Maundy Thursday service a few years later that I first witnessed, and participated in, a foot-washing ceremony, which was an incredibly moving experience. It was at a Maundy Thursday service that I first chanted the entire Nicene Creed. Maundy Thursday has been a service, over the years, that has been an occasion for my introducing many, many people to liturgical worship for the first time. One of those is a friend of mine from college who is now the editor in chief at one of the leading Episcopal publishing houses. I was thinking about it last night, and I can tell you, in detail, about every single Maundy Thursday service for the past 26 years. The night means a great deal to me.
Why is this night so full of meaning for me, and for millions of other believers around the world? After all, I would imagine there are many here tonight who have never been to a Maundy Thursday service, indeed who perhaps have never even heard the term “Maundy Thursday” before a friend invited you tonight. The importance of this night is summarized in those words from the Book of Common Worship that I read at the beginning of the service:
On this night, Christ was betrayed.
On this night, Christ gathered with his disciples in the upper room.
On this night, Jesus took a towel and washed his disciples’ feet.
On this night, our Lord gave to us this holy feast, the Eucharist, so that this night, above all other celebrations of the Eucharist throughout the year, can properly be called the Lord’s Supper.
And on this night Jesus gave his disciples a commandment. He said it was a new commandment: “As I have loved you, so ought you–so MUST you–love one another.” That is the heart and soul of this night: so much so that it is from this commandment that tonight derives its name. “Maundy” comes from the Latin “mandatum,” which means commandment, so tonight is Commandment Thursday, the night of the new commandment. “As I have loved you, so ought you to love one another.”
“As I have loved you.” John tells us that on this night, Jesus “loved them to the end,” which doesn’t mean he loved them till the day he died (although he did): it means he showed them the end, or the full extent of, his love. He demonstrated to them exactly what lengths he would go to out of his love for them–for us.
Everything about Maundy Thursday prefigures the Cross. As Jesus wraps himself in a towel and washes the dirty feet of a bunch of fishermen–a slave’s job–he is telling us that nothing is beneath him. He would go to any lengths for them, and for us. “Greater love has no man than that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus, our Lord and Master, becomes a servant, because that is how love behaves. We sing that wonderful song from Ghana on this night, “Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love,” that includes the line, “Master who acts as a slave to them.” That is the kind of Master we serve: one humbles himself to serve us. And he tells us that we ought to serve one another that way too.
As Jesus takes the unleavened bread of the Passover Seder and the third cup of wine, the Cup of Redemption (or the Cup of Salvation), he endues them with new significance. “This is my body, given for you.” “This is my blood of the covenant, poured out for you.” The creator of our mortal bodies, giving his body for us, pouring out his own blood, his own life, for us. And he continues to give himself to us through the bread and the wine! St. Paul tells us that the bread that we break is a communion in, a participation in, a sharing in, the Body of Christ, and the cup of blessing which we bless is likewise a communion in, a particpation in, a sharing in, the blood of Christ. Such is his self-giving love that he deigns to give himself to us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, every time we share in Holy Communion. He continually pours his life into our lives. How about you? Have you poured your life into others? Are you habitually pouring yourself out for other people? Or is our faith simply about our “personal walk with Jesus” or our “personal relationship” with him–two phrases that we never encounter in the pages of Scripture? We should ponder on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday the depths of Jesus’ love for us and marvel that he would stoop as he did to redeem us, but to stop there is to disobey the one commandment that Jesus gives us on this night: “Do as I do!” “As I have loved you, so ought you to love one another.” The life of a disciple of Jesus is to be a life lived for others, a life poured out for others, a life of selfless service to others, because that is the life that our Lord and Master lived for us.
As Jesus wrestled in prayer in Gethsemane, agonizing at the prospect of drinking the cup of God’s wrath, he finally says to God, “Not my will, but your will be done.” Why? Again, his love for his disciples, for you, for me, was stronger than his apprehension of what lay ahead of him in the next few hours. Can we say that of ourselves? Can we say, along with St. Paul, that the love of Christ constrains us, that it is the driving force of our lives?
As Jesus allows himself to be arrested and to be put on trial overnight, a trial that was, by the way, illegal–trials under Jewish law were always to be conducted by the light of day–he shows himself to be one who does not insist on his own prerogatives. He had committed no crime, and yet he allows himself to be treated like the vilest criminal, for us. I’m reminded of that incredible hymn by Samuel Crossman, “My Song is Love Unknown,” that says “Yet willing he to suffering goes, that he his foes from thence might free.” We, like those who arrested and mistreated Jesus, were his foes: rebels against him. Yet he willingly suffered, so that he might set us, his foes, free from suffering.
In the Passover Seder (and remember that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder), a child at the feast traditionally asks, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” How would we answer that question about Maundy Thursday? Yes, it is the night of the Last Supper (your bulletin says as much), but we don’t call it Last Supper Thursday. It is the night of Gethsemane, but we don’t call it Gethsemane Thursday either. It’s not Footwashing Thursday either, even though I guess we could call it that if we wanted to. But we don’t, because we don’t relive those events for their own sake. This isn’t a History Channel documentary. We remember, and revisit, these acts of our Savior partly because they are illustrative of his love for us, but also, perhaps primarily, because they are instructive of the love we are commanded to show to one another.
“He loved them–he loved us–to the end.” So ought we to love one another.
In the name of God. Amen.