Maundy Thursday

Some verses of Scripture echo throughout the centuries, drawing us again and again into the story and tradition they represent.

April 21, 2011

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Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Some verses of Scripture echo throughout the centuries, drawing us again and again into the story and tradition they represent.

On Maundy Thursday, there are two primary traditions that deserve our attention, and each is connected to just such a resonant line of Scripture. The most familiar begins, “While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread….” And the other, “A new commandment I give you.” The first is associated with the synoptic (and Pauline) accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper; the second with John’s account of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

Although we are in the “year of Matthew,” it is the Johannine tradition from which the lectionary draws readings for both Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, probably assuming the full reading of the Matthean Passion on Palm/Passion Sunday. Because each lectionary connected with Holy Thursday merits attention, however, after taking up the passage from John, I will also offer brief commentary on the story as it appears in Matthew.

John and the New Commandment
John begins the “second half” of his gospel in chapter 13, and for the next five chapters he will prepare his readers for the event and meaning of the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension (which cannot ultimately be separated in John). The meal John describes is not a Passover Meal in that John’s chronology is geared to have Jesus die on the Day of Preparation for the Passover — indeed, at the moment the Passover lambs are sacrificed — rather than on the Passover itself. The night, then, is not about a new Passover meal, but instead is about a new commandment (mandatum is the Latin word for “commandment” from which “Maundy Thursday” derives). This command institutes a new way of relating to others that is grounded in Jesus’ relationship with the disciples and his Father and that which is shaped by the example he sets.

The passage, indeed the whole of the Johannine Passion, is summed up in the very first verse of the “second book”: “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1). Having set the scene — the festival of the Passover — John tells us two important thing. First, Jesus is in control of this situation. The passion in John is no tragedy but rather the fulfillment and climax of the earthly mission of the Divine Revealer. Second, Jesus’ actions and mission are dictated by love (see John 3:16), expressed in one of the most haunting phrases of Scripture: “having loved his own…, he loved them to the end.”

This, then, is the theme of John’s portrayal of the last supper. It is a love (agape) feast in which Jesus exemplifies the sacrificial love he expects from his disciples in his washing of their feet. He sets for them a pattern of service, of humility, of bearing the burdens of another. At the cross he will institute a new Christian family by commanding two persons not related by blood (his mother and the beloved disciple) to care for each and relate as family because of their bond through him. On this night, he commands that those who would be his followers to serve each other for his sake.

But there may be more at stake in this action than simply setting an example. It may be that the salvation prepared by the Father and accomplished by the Son is in fact being played out right before our eyes. Salvation, in John, comes through God’s embrace of a hostile world, and therefore Jesus’ death on the cross is not for one moment considered defeat or tragedy; rather it is the moment of his triumph and glorification. It is not what we — not what anyone! — would expect, that grace is revealed in suffering, that power is displayed through weakness, that glory is disguised in humiliation. And yet the God Jesus comes to reveal shows up exactly where we would least expect God to be in order to redeem God’s beloved creation from the Enemy that has subjected it to slavery and darkness.

For this reason, discipleship is comprised of embracing an “upside down” understanding of God, grace, and salvation, as the disciples must be cleansed (baptized?) by Jesus so that they may also cleanse others. Their stature, it would appear, comes not through displays of power but servitude, a servitude modeled by Jesus. No wonder Peter is dismayed. He does not expect or, truth be told, need or want a Messiah who comes in humiliation. Yet only if he can revise his expectations of God and receive God hidden in humility can he have any part of Jesus.

What, then, of today’s disciples? Can we see the grace of God embodied in the form of the man hanging on a tree? More to the point on this night, can we step into the upside down picture Jesus offers of abundant life, life that is gained not by grabbing but releasing, not by hoarding but by giving, not by ruling but by serving others, just as we have been served by Jesus? The promise of this reading and night is that we are, in fact, those whom Jesus has called and that those who follow his story to the end will be redeemed to new life in this world and the next.

Matthew and the Promise of Forgiveness
Although those attending the Maundy Thursday service may have heard Matthew’s account of the Institution of the Lord’s Supper less than a week earlier on Palm/Passion Sunday, it would have comprised just a few verses of a much lengthier account. For this reason, and because we connect this evening so powerfully to the Lord’s Supper, it may make some sense to opt for Matthew’s account of the Last Supper on this evening (Matthew 26:17-30). If so, one detail in particular stands out.

While Matthew hews closely to the account as he received it from Mark of the Passover Meal Jesus shares with his disciples, Matthew veers in a slightly different direction at one significant point. In contrast to the other three accounts (in Mark, Luke, and 1 Corinthians — the epistle reading on this night), Matthew adds one phrase to Jesus’ words about the significance of this meal. Where the others describe the wine as signifying the “new blood of the convent poured out for all,” Matthew adds “for the forgiveness of sin.”

Interestingly, this exact phrase is precisely what is missing from Matthew’s account of the preaching of John the Baptist. In Mark and Luke, John the Baptist preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. In Matthew, John simply declares, “Repent.” It is as if Matthew, in redacting the tradition he has received, recognizes that Christians seeking forgiveness will not ultimately find it in John or his baptism but rather must come to Jesus. Indeed, come to Jesus as Jesus is made present to us once again in this meal, in order that we might receive the benefits of renewed and restored relationship.

This night, then, not only introduces to the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, but indeed the whole Passion and is therefore worthy of remembrance and proclamation as we listen to, wait, and watch for the promised deliverance of the nations that Jesus’ death and resurrection are about to accomplish.