by: Keith Howell
I write to you on Maundy Thursday 2020. As always, I trust you are well in the Lord, in good spirit, and patiently coping with the social isolation that continues due to the coronavirus. One day the horizon will dawn. For now, we must be vigilant and careful in this uncertain and unchartered wilderness.
I can safely say that this Maundy Thursday will go down as the most memorable of my vocational career. There will be no Maundy Thursday worship service later this evening. There will be no gathering of the faithful, no bodily communal presence as we assemble to worship. It is a strange, hard grief that I feel. I miss the gathering, miss the energy of each other’s presence, miss the power of togetherness in the Lord. Kent and Sue Didriksen’s son-in-law, Kris Gorden, is an Evangelical Lutheran pastor at Olivet Lutheran Church in Fargo, ND. Kent and Sue sent me one of Kris’s blog posts from a few weeks back when his Fargo congregation first went into social isolation. I commend Kris’s reflections to you. They are attached to this letter. Kris has beautifully and skillfully captured for me, and perhaps also for you, the grief we feel in absence of each other.
The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin mandatum, meaning mandate or commandment. It is the first of the three Holy Week services known traditionally as the Triduum – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday or Easter Vigil. The traditional gospel lesson for Maundy Thursday is John 13:1-17, 31b-35. In John’s gospel, Jesus is in an upper room somewhere in the bowels of Jerusalem where he celebrates Passover with his disciples and then gives them the Lord’s Supper to remember him by.
The gospel writer John gives no details of the Lord’s Supper. John has another interest at this point. John’s memory is of what Jesus did that evening during supper, when he took a bowel of water and washed his disciples’s feet. It is a moving, very visceral enactment of love. It is also a foreshadowing of what is to come. The Lord of all eternity takes the form of a household slave and stoops to wash his disciples’s feet. Soon, the Lord of all eternity will stoop even to the humility and degradation of a Roman cross as an embodiment of servitude to God, and love for the world.
After washing the disciples’s feet, Jesus gives the disciples what Jesus calls a new commandment: “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” (John 13:34-35). It is important to note that Jesus is speaking to the disciples here. The disciples are the first church, the gathered community around Christ. Thus, Jesus’s actions and words on Maundy Thursday are intended for the church, those of us on the inside, those of us who dare call ourselves Christian and seek to follow Jesus and his way of embodied justice, love, and mercy.
This is what is so meaningful to me about the Maundy Thursday worship service. It is a time for “internal affairs” as I call it. The focus of the church on Maundy Thursday is not the outside world, the world going on outside the church. Jesus had plenty to say about the church’s involvement in the world. But on Maundy Thursday Jesus’s singular focus is on internal affairs. Jesus is concerned that we get it right internally, that we know how to be the church internally, that we know how to speak and act and interact with each other – internally.
Internally, among ourselves, we must love. We must do the hard work, internally, of love. We must be willing to take the form of a slave and in humility think of our fellow church member, first. We must be willing, internally, to love as Christ loved us. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 13, we must be willing to embody love in actions that are patient and kind, actions that rejoice in the truth. Actions that show a love for our fellow church members so strong, that we are stretched to bear with each other when we are not at our best, believe the good in each other when we are not so good at the moment, hope the best for the other at all times, and endure with the other no matter what may come. (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
Maundy Thursday is the night Jesus gave us the Lord’s Supper. It is the night he embodied love to its fullest measure. It is the night of internal affairs when the church is commanded to love our fellow church members as Jesus loves us. If we get it right, there is a blessing. Jesus says the world will know we are his followers when the world looks at the church and sees a love so richly and deeply enacted among its members, that the world is astounded and transformed.
Be safe, well, and in the words of the Apostle Paul, “…my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord our labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Grace and Peace, Pastor Bill