Holy Week is a time of remembering. On Maundy Thursday, it is good that Christians gather for worship, to remember and to give thanks for our Lord’s redeeming life and death.
We can share in two special remembrances that bind us together as brothers and sisters in Christ – the Last Supper and the washing of our feet. As the “body of Christ,” we gather to praise and worship Father God, and to remember the gift of his Son.
We begin our story on Thursday evening. Jesus has already entered the town of Jerusalem to a roaring crowd. It is the time of the Jewish Passover, and the city is bulging with pilgrims. But on that Thursday evening, Jesus and his disciples find a private, “upper room” where they could celebrate the Jewish Passover meal together. In this upper room Jesus prepared himself and his disciples for his impending death – quite a contrast to the happy “Hallelujahs” heard on the previous Sunday.
Traditionally, the Jewish Passover is a feast of redemption and remembering: “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord – a lasting ordinance” (Ex 12:14). The meal is shared in family units, recalling God’s salvation and deliverance of the Israelite nation from their captivity and slavery in Egypt. It is a retelling of the story of God’s grace and love for his people.
The central focus of the Passover feast is the “Passover Lamb,” a perfect lamb which is slaughtered to eat. This pointed directly to Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The broken bread becomes a sign of Jesus’ broken body, which was beaten and scourged for our redemption. The cups of Passover wine become a sign of Jesus’ precious blood. In the OT, God required that sacrificial blood be spilled out for the forgiveness of sin. Life itself was thought to be in the blood….and Jesus came to bring life. The third cup of wine, the “cup of redemption” in the Passover meal becomes the “new covenant,” which is the reconciliation of God and humanity through the blood of Jesus. So, this sign of the new covenant is God’s promised gift of deliverance and redemption to all his people, sealed and paid in full by the shedding of Jesus’ blood.
Jesus said to his followers, “I eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer….” It was the last occasion he had with them to teach them, before he was slain as the sacrificial Lamb. He gave thanks for the bread and the cups of wine, visual reminders of God’s great mercy. Jesus did not want anyone to forget, so he said, “do this in remembrance of me.” Thus, he instituted the Lord’s Supper (or the Eucharist or Holy Communion) as a perpetual memorial fulfilling the meaning of Passover. Indeed, he is the Bread of Life and the Lamb of God, crucified, ransomed, for you and me.
Then, there is a change of focus. Quite unexpectedly, during dinner, as the bread is passed, Judas the betrayer quickly leaves the room because he had some things to do…The scene is somber, as Jesus predicts a night of betrayal and sorrow, and denial.
Suddenly, the next thing that Jesus does is also quite startling. He stripped of his outer garments and began to wash the feet of his followers. This was astounding! Walking the dirty roads of Judea in sandals left everyone with dirty feet. It was a menial task of a servant to wash the feet of arriving guests. But no one had volunteered to do that humble task. Even more amazing is the fact that Jesus’ action was done during the meal, not upon their arrival. This deliberate action was a vivid lesson in humility, for the Lord of the Universe stooped to wash their dirty feet. But this act was also a premonition: it was a deliberate illustration of the selfless service of Jesus. The writer of John’s Gospel alone tells of this incident, emphasizing Jesus’s life of selfless service and pardon that culminates – in just a few hours — on the cross.
Even so, Jesus’ asks, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” Do we understand it, today? Christians are not above their Master; he is our Lord and Teacher, and if he performed such a humble service to other people, so should we. Without question, we humbly stoop before our Lord and our God, and voluntarily perform service to others, grateful for what he has done for us.
Thus, the traditional, familiar Passover meal is totally disrupted by doubt, confusion and betrayal. The disciples were bewildered by the turmoil. Unknown to them, the chaos and commotion was just beginning.
Finally, everyone leaves the upper room; Jesus leads them across the Kidron Valley to a quiet garden. He continues to talk to his disciples on their walk –teaching them. There were so many things that still needed to be said, and Jesus tried to prepare them and to warn them. But they must have been overwhelmed and exhausted by all his words and instructions, for they fell asleep while he prayed, in agony, to his Father.
Quite suddenly, the scene changes again. Torches, soldiers, clubs, swords and shouts: a detachment of Jewish officials and Roman soldiers came prepared to capture Jesus and lead him away… John’s Gospel says that when Jesus peacefully comes forward, they draw back and fall to the ground. Boldly, Simon Peter comes to Jesus’ rescue with a sword, and cuts the ear of the high priest’s servant. But, Jesus rebukes Peter and says, basically, that this scene was way beyond Peter’s control; God the Father is in control of all the events.
And, the scene dramatically shifts again – to a bonfire in a courtyard – people milling around trying to stay warm on a chilly night. A slave girl questions Peter about being one of Jesus’ disciples. Frightened, Peter denies the charge three times, even as he denies his Master…
Meanwhile, Jesus is brought before the Jewish officials on fabricated charges. In fact, on Thursday night, his enemies put Jesus through three trials, which contained many illegalities, including the fact that none of it should never have taken place at night. By Jewish law, they could not reach a verdict that called for the death sentence within one day. The testimony against Jesus was too meager and too unproven to convict him, and he was accused only by false witnesses.
Pilate, the Roman governor, washed his hands of the whole sordid affair, but then he gives in to the fickle crowd, lest a riot begin. Jesus was flogged; the soldiers formed a crown out of thorns that wounded his head. They put a purple robe on him and laughed at him. Pilate, exasperated, finally tells to the Jews that he would, indeed, cooperate in their evil plot.
A dreadful Thursday night fades away, and an even more dreadful Friday morning begins. Jesus gave up his divinity to become a humble servant, a person like us, who eats and drinks, bleeds and suffers. He completely humbled himself — even to an agonizing death on a cross — for our benefit.
It is good on this night that we should remember the Gospel stories. But perhaps the most important thing is that we remember the very last command that Jesus gave to his followers on that Thursday night, just before his death: “A new command I give you. Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). It is not just a suggestion; there is no option — his very last and ultimate command is that we love one another.
If we can experience again, this Holy Week, the forgiving love of Jesus, then we can, as we must, compel ourselves to love each other even more. We can, and we must, forgive one another and love one another with the same kind of outrageous and relentless love of Jesus. With such a command in mind, we can participate in the two actions that are visible reminders of what Jesus did for us one Thursday night. Jesus said, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”
First, let us serve each other with the washing of one another’s feet, remembering Jesus’ humble service and his command to love one another:
“He got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No, replied Peter, you shall never wash my feet!” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part of me.” “Then, Lord,” Peter said, “not just my feet but my hands and head as well!” (John 13:4-9).
Second, let us break bread together and share the cup of redemption.
“The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:23-26).
Father, we cannot thank you enough for the gift of your Son. Thank you for loving us, even if we do not deserve it. This Holy Week, please help us to understand the darkest of days so that we can rejoice, and remember the light of your redemption. Amen.