John 13. 1-17, 31b-35
Gospel isn’t rite and ritual; it’s love!
In the night in which he was betrayed,
our Lord Jesus took bread, and gave thanks;
broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying …
We haven’t heard those words, much, for over a year, now. Used to be we’d hear them every time we got together. We’d eat of the bread. Drink from the cup. That this night, this moment, might be re-present-ed. That this night, this moment, might be re-member-ed. Tonight’s that night, again. The night in which he was betrayed. When the past came crashing down. When the future was being born. A night of memories, to be sure. But a night of dreams, even more. And thanks to the virus, this is a second year of a maundyThursday without holyCommunion. A second year of a maundyThursday without the lord’sSupper. But that’s, probably, why I noticed something I’d never seen before.
We’re guided by a thing called the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s used by most mainline denominations, here in North America. Lutherans. Presbyterians. Episcopalians. Methodists. Catholics. The Revised Common Lectionary is what prescribes the passages we read, Sunday after Sunday, one season to the next. As far as gospel readings go, last year was Matthew’s moment. Next year will be Luke’s. This year, the third reading has come from the gospel according to Mark. John doesn’t have a year all to himself. So he’s thrown into the mix, here and there, now and again. Anyway, it’s a routine we observe. And each year, every year, holyWeek rolls ‘round. With it, maundyThursday. And without fail, we read the exact same twenty-two verses! The exact same five-hundred-or-so words! No departure! No deviation! John. Chapter thirteen. Verses one to seventeen and the second half of verse thirty-one to verse thirty-five. And funny thing … There’s nothing about a last supper. Only last words.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke – the “synoptics” – is where we get our words of institution. “In the night in which he was betrayed …” But they’re not in John. Not even a little. John’s holyThursday is more about Jesus tying up loose ends. More about leaving nothing unspoken. Sure, there’s a supper. And there’s a table. But nothing about bread. Nothing about wine. There’s a supper, but it only provides the setting for a farewell discourse. Five chapters of it! Thirteen! Fourteen! Fifteen! Sixteen! Seventeen! A hundred fifty-five verses. Thirty-six hundred words. And it all begins with a story. A story that’s told by John and John alone. The story of how Jesus – during supper – gets up from the table, takes off his outer robe, and ties a towel around himself. He pours water into a basin and washes the disciples’ feet. One. After another. After another. Drying them with the towel. Not so much a commandment. Or an example. As it was – as it is – a revelation! Not so much something to emulate or obey. As it is, simply, to witness!
You see, THIS is god! This is OUR god! This is what god looks like! This is what god does! Gets up from tables… Falls down on knees … And worships! Worships us! Think about that! God worships us! Respecting! Revering! The creator before the creature! The savior stooping the saved! It’s all backwards from what we expect! Inside-out! Upside-down! Peter didn’t understand! He didn’t get it! Neither do we! Maybe that’s why most of us avoid this night. Why we’d rather leap over it all! From palm fronds to lilies! From hosannas to alleluias! This night is just too painful to see. Too agonizing to witness. A teacher without arrogance. A Lord without privilege!
And when Jesus returns to the table … when he sits back down … he looks around at his friends and he says, “That! That is love!” It’s setting aside your reward, your advantage, and doing for others what needs done. It’s getting up from the table! It’s rolling up your sleeves! It’s tying a towel around your waist! And there’s nothing about the bread. Nothing about the wine. There’s only the love! Only the love! It’s not a last supper that matters to John. It’s the commandment! The new commandment! “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another!” That’s where the name of this night comes from. The new commandment! Mandate – Maundy – Thursday!
And it’s the love! It’s always been the love! It’s the love that brings Jesus to his feet! It’s the love that drives him to his knees! It’s the love that led him – that leads him – to the cross! And it’s that same love that brings us together! That same love that keeps us together! In spite of all our good intentions! We overlook – or maybe, we conveniently forget – that on this night, Jesus washed the feet of the one who would betray him! And the feet of the one who would deny he ever knew him! And the feet of all those who would run away! Washed them and dried them with the towel he had tied around himself. And he told them – as he tells us – that this! THIS is love! It’s not a feeling of happiness. Warm. Content. But a willingness to sacrifice. Even more so, a willingness to look foolish! A willingness to look ridiculous! That new command is John’s message. The message of John’s Jesus. “Love one another! Just like me! With all your heart! With your entire mind! With all your being!
So, tonight is the night. The night in which he was betrayed. But it’s so much more than a pinch of bread and a sip of wine. So much more than a rite or a ritual. This night is love! Love that creates! Love that redeems! Love that renews! And by this, Jesus says. By this everyone will know you are mine … If you have love … when you become love …