"When Jesus wanted to give his followers–then and now–a way of understanding what was about to happen to him, he didn’t teach them a theory...He gave them an act to perform. Specifically, he gave them a meal to share."–N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone
The Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples on their last night together was full–as it always had been–of powerful, intentional reminders about their past. It took them back to when their ancestors had been slaves for centuries in Egypt, and then God had miraculously delivered them from their oppression as they began a long journey toward the promised land. Really, it was more than a way of bringing the old stories to mind. It was a way of participating in the story, a way of realizing, "We are the people who were brought out of slavery into freedom."
As well as looking to the past, their Passover meal also always helped them to look to the future in hope. Just as their ancestors had been, they had also been under oppression for centuries, and they needed God's deliverance anew. Their scriptures pointed toward someone through whom God would accomplish this, an anointed one (Messiah/Christ), through whom their oppressors would once more be defeated and the promised freedom would again come–this time, forever.
By the time that they came to the night of that Passover meal together in an upper room, Jesus' followers had come to believe that he, their Rabbi, who was leading them through the rituals of the meal was the one through whom these things would happen, though they hadn't understood many of the things he had tried to teach them. Much that had happened in the preceding days was strange to them, but they understood what the Passover meal meant. They all knew the meal's rituals well, as they had participated in them in the same way every year of their lives.
At least, they understood the meal until-at some point in the evening–Jesus changed the ritual. "Take, eat. This is my body....Drink from this cup, all of you. It is my blood...." Jesus took this meal about their past and their future and pointed it–in their present moment–to himself, to his own body and blood. "Do this in remembrance of me..."
John's account of that meal is very different, though no less memorable. In John's story, nothing is said about Jesus identifying the bread as his body, nor of the wine as his blood. Instead, John is the only one of the gospel writers to focus on something else Jesus that happened during the meal:
Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so 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 that was wrapped around him.
...When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
This provided the setting for the rest of the evening, in which Jesus gave his "farewell address" to his friends (though it was really more of a conversation), important enough that John devoted about 1/5 of his entire story to the dialogue (see John 13 through 17). On that night which he wanted his friends to remember for the remainder of their lives, Jesus reiterated something to them no fewer than three times:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another... My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you... This is my command: Love each other.
One meal, with two different accounts which each have an associated command: "Do this in remembrance of me" and "Love each other." These are the reasons this day in Holy Week uses the term "Maundy." The meaning would be clearer to us today if we called it "Mandate Thursday," as the root of these words, maundy and mandate, means command. So this is "New Commandment Thursday" when we commemorate, "Do this in remembrance of me" and "Love each other."
Just as the original night looked to the past and the future with a whole new meaning given in the present for the first disciples, it does the same for us. I hope that you are able to celebrate Holy Communion today with other followers of the Messiah, because when we do so:
- We are taken backward in time–back to that upper room with the astonished disciples when Jesus took the meaning of the ancient Passover onto himself. Each time we share the Jesus-meal, we again put ourselves into the old story of the people who are in bondage and desperately need God's deliverance. As the liturgy says, "On the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took bread...he took the cup..."
- We are taken forward in time–the only thing Jesus describes as something that will be done in the age to come–after all things are made new–is to share in this meal again: "I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom" (Matthew 26:29). Each time we share the Jesus-meal, we are getting a foretaste of that final/first banquet with Jesus himself. As the liturgy says, "By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet."
- We experience the wonder of what happens in those moments when we take the bread and cup together as Jesus instructed. He, the crucified and risen King, is with us, and his grace enables us to live more fully in him–and he in us. As the liturgy says, "Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood."
As Jesus undoubtedly knew was true of his first disciples on that night, we too need to be strengthened by this meal if we are to be able to continue following him through the rest of tonight and into tomorrow.
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane...
While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.
Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. (Matthew 26:36,47-50, NIV)
A Prayer for the Day:
Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.*
*From The Book of Common Prayer
[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]