What shall we say tonight, when we remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, in the awareness that this is our own last “Last Supper” as the congregation of St. John?
There are many resonances between this most important of Christian stories and our own, which is perhaps as it should be when we define ourselves as ones who follow Christ. The feelings we have in our own situation are amplified by the feelings evoked by the events of that night so long ago. In return, the lessons of Maundy Thursday are more deeply felt.
First, in recollecting this Last Supper, there is a feeling of betrayal. The disciples felt betrayed by Judas––he was one of them, he journeyed with them, ate with them, saw Jesus’ miracles with them. Up to that point, he was a disciple as surely as the rest of them. But, for some reason, he betrayed Jesus, and by extension, everyone else. Why couldn’t he hang in there with them? Why did he have to take it upon himself to end this entire movement? If he had been silent, the disciples would still have Jesus with them.
This feeling of betrayal exists when a church closes, too. Where is everyone else? Why didn’t they stick with us? How can this end while I’m still here? We may accuse someone, or a group of people, of betraying the ideals of the church and leading it to its demise, forgetting that, at least in the story of Jesus and his disciples, this betrayal brought them all to Easter resurrection.
There is also the feeling of denial. Peter’s “Not I, Lord,” is a denial that he would, in any way, participate in the abandonment of Jesus. He could not believe that he himself would leave Jesus. And yet we know he did. The disciples themselves seem to have been in denial that Jesus would die. True, no journey lasts forever––everyone knows that––but there is no sign that they accept that this is truly the last supper they will have with him. Like all of us, when faced with the death of someone we love, we cannot quite comprehend that it is happening now. We know that we will all die–all things come to an end––but now? It can’t possibly be now. One day, of course, but not today.
And there is, of course, the feeling of confusion. Peter doesn’t understand why Jesus is serving them by washing their feet. Later on, Thomas says he doesn’t understand where Jesus is going or how they are to follow him, and Philip asks for further proof that Jesus is from the Father because he just can’t quite believe any of it. They hear Jesus say that he is going to die, and they hear him say that his death will be a revelation of the glory of God, and they hear him say that will be raised again, but none of it makes any sense. How can death reveal God’s glory? How can death lead to new life? How can this be God’s plan? How can anybody be expected to go along with all of this dying business?
The Gospel of John opens with the words, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And yet to the disciples, it must have felt as if the dark was creeping in from all sides. Judas, the religious leaders intent on holding on to their power, the Roman occupiers who would have peace at all costs––all of this darkness was threatening to extinguish their light––to extinguish Jesus.
And in the middle of all of this, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” This was his mandate––the “maundy” in Maundy Thursday comes from the latin word mandatum - mandate––that those who follow Jesus would love one another. In the midst of this ending, with its feelings of betrayal, denial, confusion, overwhelming darkness, Jesus commands his followers to “love.” To love the betrayer, to love the one who denied Jesus, to love those who have somehow allowed the darkness in. And, so, to show them that it was possible, Jesus did it first. He loved them. All of them. The betrayer, the denier, the corrupt clergy, even the soldiers of the political empire. His entire ministry was built on serving them, healing them and washing their feet, and he fed them, with his very life, and, at the end, he forgave them.
This love is too much. Of course we will do it––there’s no question of that. We will follow Jesus’ mandate to love. Or at least, we will try. We will try to love the betrayers. We will try to love the deniers. We will try to love those who usher in the dark. We will try to love those who bring death, and have brought about this “last” moment.
I cannot tell you how we will do it, though. I do not know how. There is no magical formula for making this kind of love appear. It helps that we know how this night will end, in the blaze of light that will shine forth on Easter morning, but I could not tell you how the disciples did it. And I cannot tell you how we do it now, when this story is made real in our time, when we cannot yet see the Easter of our own lives. That is, though, one of the mysteries of this night and of tomorrow: that God enables us to do as Jesus mandates––that God filled Jesus with such love for us that somehow it spills over into us, so that we might love one another with the love of Jesus, even as we end. Like all of God’s mysteries, to try to put it into simple words is impossible. We must let it be what it is. We must let God do what God does.
Darkness is falling. We stumble forward into tomorrow blindly. This is our Last Supper. At the end of this service, the sanctuary and the table will be stripped bare, like our hearts, like our Lord. And yet, even with all of these feelings, amplified in the darkness, you are here. I am here. And, most importantly––perhaps the only important thing at all––the love of Jesus is here. For the world. For you. Forever.