|Then he poured water into a basin |
and began to wash the disciples' feet.
(Kirsten Malcolm Berry)
As I read this story through this Maundy Thursday, I was particularly struck by the somber finality of the scene. Jesus has gathered his disciples for his last meal, something emotional and jarring if we think about its parallel - the last meal ordered and eaten by a prisoner prior to execution. To be quite honest, thinking about the simultaneous finality and yet insignificance of a prisoner's last meal makes me feel rather disturbed and even queasy. How strange it must feel to have to decide what the last thing you eat will be, knowing that on the other side of that meal is your own death. It makes me shudder.
Here, Jesus is eating his own last meal, in the company of his disciples, and ever movement of the evening feels sad, sore, and final. There is grief behind this story. Jesus gives his last exhortations to the disciples, with grief in his voice that he will soon be taken from them. There is grief in his actions as he chooses to serve his disciples, letting that be the last image they have of their time together.
He serves them in the meal - blessing the bread, offering the wine, giving them himself in the guise of grapes and grain. He serves them as a common slave, emptying himself, kneeling, washing their feet. He serves them in his words, showing for them great love and urging them to be blessings to the world, as he has blessed them to be. Each movement in this last scene is deliberate, done with great care, crafted by Jesus in the same way that you craft your goodbyes to dying loved ones as you gather at their deathbeds. Each moment needs to be meaningful, memorable, weighty, and not trite.
The reason that these movements carry such weight is because of the immense love that is behind them. I firmly believe that on Maundy Thursday, Jesus is not thinking about resurrection or reunion with his disciples (and the whole world!). Rather, he is only focused on the imminent inevitable. He is about to be separated from those whom he loves. He is about to face troubles and trials and sufferings. He is on his way to dying. For real dying. Dying and all of the emotional and physical pain that go with it.
So this last meal is his last chance to make sure the disciples know how he feels about them, and about all the world that he has come to love and serve and save. As he gathers the disciples for the Passover meal, we read that Jesus, "having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end." Everything that happens at the table and on the floor happens in the context of this great love, a love that prevailed in Jesus' heart all the way through his final moments to his last breath.
After he washes the disciples' feet, he returns the table, asking gently, "Do you know what I have just done to you?" He goes on to tell them the heart of his mission in the world: that they, who have been loved and served by Christ, are the ones who are blessed to love and serve the world. He says, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
The final moments of Jesus' life, his final moments with his disciples, the finality of his time on earth as he looks ahead toward the threat of defeat and death, are spent talking about love. I don't think this is just an emotional man getting sentimental. I think that, for Jesus, this is his last chance to boil down his whole life's mission into a few words. All the miracles, all the teachings, all the meals, all of them have at their heart this one message: I, Jesus, came to love and to serve. You, my disciples, must carry on this legacy. Love one another. Love one another enough to get your hands dirty. Love one another enough to cross boundaries. Love one another enough to get in trouble with those who don't understand. Love one another, even to the point of death.
This, friends, is the message of Maundy Thursday. It is not time to rush ahead to the cross, or worse yet, to rush ahead to the resurrection. Tonight is the part of our three-day worship when we remember, deeply remember, the heart of Christ and the heart of his life among us. The bread and wine of Christ's body are given for us, out of his deep love. Christ stoops to live among us and serve us, out of his deep love. And Christ sends us out to be blessings, wrapping our own arms around the world in nothing other than Christ's loving embrace.