I am glad to share this Maundy Thursday meal with you. It is a meal that evolved from the Passover supper. You may not know this but the Passover supper has a tradition of asking questions. Tonight, I’d like to look specifically at the first question: “Why is this night different from any other night?” That is the question I’d like us ponder. “Why is this night different from any other night?”
I was reminded a few weeks ago by a friend of mine, that the beauty of the Maundy Thursday service is that it was a gathering of friends; sort of like us, here, tonight. It was a gathering of Jesus followers, who, it turns out, had come together, unwittingly, to witness his final meal.
This year we hear Jesus words from the Gospel of John. I was surprised as I read the passages to see that this Passover dinner is 5 chapters long. Now the entire Gospel of John is only 21 chapters, so, this Passover meal takes up about 25% of the Gospel. Something significant is going on here. This night is different from all other nights.
The Passover supper has been celebrated for thousands of years. Even when the disciples were gathered in the upper room, it was an old tradition. Passover is the celebration of the Israelites’ freedom from slavery in Egypt.
The book of Exodus quotes God as saying to the Israelites: “I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land, both human and animal. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live…when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Exo12:12-13).
Blood was spilled for liberation; the blood of sacrificial lambs from the Israelites; the blood of every firstborn human and animal from the Egyptians.
This is a scary story. It struck fear into the hearts of the Israelites and the Egyptians. The Israelites feared God enough to kill a lamb and wipe its blood all over their door posts. The Egyptians were freaked out with the blood of their children and animals on their hands; so panicked that they paid the Israelites gold and silver to leave their country. And so, the Israelites left and every year since they celebrate the Passover meal to remember their liberation from slavery.
But freedom from slavery doesn’t mean freedom from fear.
Soon fear gripped the Israelites again. “Why did you bring us out here to die?” they complained to Moses as they traveled through the wilderness. When they arrived at Mount Sinai, they were again gripped with fear as the mountain shook and burned. They sought to allay their fears by making a golden calf, but that didn’t work. So, they developed laws, which were good laws; but that didn’t work. So, they sought the rule of judges, and then kings; but that didn’t work…the fear remained.
It is hard to shake fear. We live in a world of fear. Fear too often determines how we live and move and have our being, and where we walk, and how we walk in the world…fear soils our feet.
There are a lot of different types of fears, but at this Passover Supper we encounter a common fear, the fear of abandonment. It feels horrible to be abandoned…to be the last child standing in an empty school parking lot hours after the final school bell rang. To be dumped by a boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife. To be fired or furloughed. To plan a party and have only a few people show up. We all know something of abandonment and to avoid it often determines how we walk in the world.
Jesus knows the fear of abandonment. It troubles him. So, he brings it up with his disciples at this Passover dinner. “One of you is going to abandon me,” he says. Jesus names the fear, he confronts it, and then he inserts, almost immediately in the text, the countervailing force to fear, which is love. “I give you a new commandment, that you shall love one another as I love you.” Love is the antidote to fear. Love drives out all fear.
If you remember nothing else, Jesus says, remember this… love one another. Jesus says, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; where I am going you cannot come.” This is when the dinner party gets weird. Fear rips through the room.
The disciples freak out. Peter declares, “I’ll go with you wherever you go.” Thomas cries out, “How can we go where you are going?” Philip implores, “If you have to go, show us the Father before you take off.” And Judas, the other Judas, asks, “How will you reveal yourself to us, if you have gone away?” Fear grips each of them. “Don’t abandon us! Don’t leave us!”
And so, for the next four chapters Jesus tries to extinguish their fears. This is the heart of the Passover section in the Gospel of John, to move the disciples from a place of fear to a place of love.
Jesus gives images to help. There is a mansion with many rooms. “I’ll be back,” Jesus says, “I’m going to prepare a room for you in my Father’s house. I am setting it up just for you. And, if I am setting this room up for you, you can be sure I’m going to come back and get you. I am coming back for you. Do you believe this?” “Don’t abandon us!” the disciples cry.
There is the Advocate. “I’ll send you an Advocate,” Jesus says, “the Holy Spirit. He can’t come unless I leave, and you really want him to come, because he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have taught you. Do you believe this?” “Don’t leave us!” the disciples beg.
There is the true vine; one that nourishes you and connects you. “I am the true vine,” Jesus says. “If you abide in me and my words abide in you, then ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. You have my words; speak them, learn them by heart, and whatever you ask it will be done for you.” Jesus says this six times during the dinner. “Do you believe this?” “Don’t abandon us!” the disciples plea.
“Your pain will turn to joy,” Jesus says. “You are like a woman in labor. She has pain because her hour has come, but when her child is born she no longer remembers the anguish because of her new-found joy. You will rejoice in a little while. Do you believe this?” “Don’t leave us!” the disciples implore. And he doesn’t, not then. He stays, and explains over and over again for four chapters…because he loves them.
Finally, Jesus says, “If you are still afraid, if you have forgotten that the Father is in me and I am in the Father, then just do what I do.
Follow my example, wash each other’s feet. Do what I do, wash each other’s feet.
“The one who is bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet,” he says, because it is our feet that brush the ground of this world which is dusted with fear. The grime of fear clings to our feet. The water of love washes them clean.
Everyone’s grime is different, all love is the same. “Love one another as I love you,” Jesus says. “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you, and those who keep my commandments love me. This is my commandment, this is my Passover message, that you love one another.”
We have been given to each other … to be part of this Epiphany family… we are friends. We are friends with Jesus, which is why he says: “You are my friends if you do what I command you, Do what I do… love one another.”
We’ve walked to this place, tonight, each on our own unique path. And grime clings to our feet. Fear and abandonment may have singed our lives, somewhere along the way, but we have each other, so, love one another.
The last line Jesus speaks to the disciples at this Passover meal is this: “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. The world is full of fear…” (The world right now is full of fear in this time of the Great Timeout.) “but take courage,” Jesus says, (to them and to us) “I have conquered the world!”
This night is different from any other night, because tonight, we remember, that Jesus has conquered the world with love!
The Passover celebration has changed, and become, at least for Christians, a meal we eat weekly to remember Jesus. And while this is still a celebration of freedom, the freedom is no longer specific to a time in Egypt for a particular people. The freedom is now about our universal liberation from fear.
Love conquers fear. Jesus has conquered the world…fear not, love one another.