Tonight is a night of remembrance, a night with deep historical roots, a night when we remember Jesus’ last night with his disciples before his death. This is the night when Jesus gathered with his disciples in the upper room. This is the night that he took a towel and washed the disciples’ feet. This is the night that he was betrayed and gave himself into the hands of those who would slay him. For Jesus, this was the night, when, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. For us this is a night of remembrance.
We call it the last supper. There’s a poignancy to that phrase. What would it be like for you to have a last supper with your friends? What would be the mood? If it was your last chance to tell them something, to teach, to give advice, what would you say?
Jesus’ final words to his disciples, after they have eaten, and before they head out into the night are these:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
You could say that this isn’t actually new. As far back as the book of Leviticus, scripture has taught that we should love one another, that we should love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
But what makes it new, what makes it radically new, is the example that Jesus gives that very night of what it means to love. It’s not just what Jesus does. It’s also who is in the room.
I think that with anyone other than Jesus that Last Supper would have been a showdown. An ugly confrontation. Because Judas was there. Judas, the one who had already made arrangements to betray Jesus that very night. In just a few hours he would lead the military police to the secret place just outside Jerusalem where Jesus would go to pray with his disciples after supper. And somehow Jesus knew all this, he knew that Judas would betray him. Imagine what Jesus could have said to Judas when Judas arrived for supper that night. How would you have reacted? What would you have said or done to Judas? What would Jesus do?
Jesus welcomes Judas to the table. He shares a meal with him. And right in the middle of supper, he gets up from the table, and ties a towel around himself. Then he pours water into a basin and taking on the role of a slave, he begins to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around his waist. And when he gets to Judas, knowing full well what Judas was about to do, he washes his feet also and wipes them with the towel.
Jesus had every reason to be angry with Judas. He could have been vengeful. He could have held him in contempt. But the God who is revealed in Jesus is not like that. The God who is revealed in Jesus made us in his own image and loves us as his children, and nothing, not even a betrayal that leads to death can ever separate us from the love of God.
There is a twofold purpose to what Jesus has done. The first is example. He has set us an example of what it looks like, what it means to love one another. We are to love one another as he has loved us. This is the new commandment, and this is what it looks like.
The second purpose to what Jesus has done is revelation. This is what God’s love for us looks like. Even when we are estranged, even when we turn away, even when we feel undone, God loves us as his children and nothing can separate us from God’s love.
On this night of remembrance, we need to acknowledge that we have a tendency to forget. We forget how to love one another. We’re not very good at this loving thing. We have a tendency to add our own strings and conditions, to struggle when loving gets hard. We forget the example that Jesus set for us. Perhaps, like Judas, we betray. Maybe, like Peter, we deny. Or maybe, like the rest of them when Jesus is arrested, we just disappear.
And often, and particularly in those moments when we turn away from Jesus, when we fail to love as he loved us, often we forget the other part of what Jesus reveals. That even when we fail, even when we’re down, God loves us, calls us his children, and nothing we do can separate us from that love.
We forget Jesus example, we forget to love others as he loved us.
We forget what Jesus has revealed to us about God, that nothing can separate us from God’s love for us.
But we never forget to eat.
Which is why on that night, Jesus gave us a very special gift. A brilliant memory aid for forgetful people. Something that will help us remember when we forget.
He gives us a meal.
Jesus knows that there are times when we will forget that God loves us. And Jesus knows that there are times when we will forget, or struggle, to love others in the way that he loves us. But he knows that we’ll never forget to eat.
And so he takes the most basic of foods, a loaf of bread, and he breaks it and holds it up for his disciples and says, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Every time we eat this bread, we do it to remember. To remember that we are loved, and that nothing can separate us from God’s love. To remember what that love looked like in all that Jesus did and said, even to the point of washing the feet of the one who was about to betray him. And to remember that we are to love others the way that Jesus loves us.
Then, having been fed, we go out. And sooner or later, like everyone else, we will forget Jesus’ love, and we will deny and we will struggle. We will forget that we are loved, we’ll forget that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We will forget. But then, before long, maybe even three times a day or more, we’ll get hungry, and we’ll return to the table looking for food. And we’ll eat, and we’ll drink, and we’ll remember again:
“This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
The food which we need to live reminds us of the one who gives us life. When we break bread, we do it in remembrance of the one who gave his life for us.
Because we will forget to love one another.
We will forget that God loves us.
But we will never forget to eat.
Every time we return to the table, we will remember.
This is a night of remembrance.
Homily: Maundy Thursday, April 13 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Exodus 12.1-14, Psalm 116; 1 Cor 11.23-26; John 13.1-17, 31-35
Image by Bjorn Bulthuis (Creative Commons)
Thanks to Anna Carter Florence for her commentary in "Preaching Year A" (2016 Luther Seminary)