A long time ago, the Church declared this day... this night... “Maundy Thursday” - Maundy being a form of the word mandate... as in mandatory... or commandment... something that must be done!
And Jesus’ mandate - to his disciples (to you and me) is about as simple, and to the point as you can possibly get: “As I have loved you... so also you MUST love one another.” Comprehending Jesus’ command has never been the problem... it’s the application of his mandate that gives us trouble.
Of course, the story of this night, includes a meal with friends, the washing of feet, a call to stay awake and pray... betrayal, violence, fear. It’s a night of unity and division... of coming together and ripping apart.
And the stories we most often associate with this day... the ones we most fondly remember... are the stories of the Last Supper (where Jesus calls his disciples to remember) and the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet (where he commands us to love).
So on Maundy Thursday we gather to remember Jesus’ mandate to love... and we gather around Christ’s table in Holy Communion.
But if that’s all we take away from this night, you and I are the less for it!
Mark’s Gospel tells us that on this night... “they all left him and fled.” (Mark 14:50) On the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested... all of his disciples abandoned him... Jesus had decided to pray... His closest friends at his side. He’d asked them to pray, too... along with him (in one accord with him)... to keep watch. But they couldn’t do it.
They wanted to! I think they honestly, sincerely desired to stay alert, to pray along side Jesus... but... it was late... their heavy eyelids were waging war with their best intentions... and sleep won. Of course, while Jesus prayed... and Peter, James and John slept... Judas was making his way to the garden, too... carrying out his end of a deal that would hand Jesus over to those who wanted him gone (Mark 3:6). At the Passover meal, their last supper together, Judas removed himself from the fellowship... leaving the table... and turning his back on his teacher... for a price. Later that night Peter, the Rock, would cave in at the accusation of a young girl. He would call down curses and deny... and deny... and deny... that he even knew Jesus. And a cock would crow. Of course... these are the stories we know. As for the others (the other disciples), they simply fled. No one stuck around. They all left Jesus.
New Testament scholar Robert H. Stein says that one of the most overlooked tragedies of Thursday night is the way Jesus’ friends failed him. Stein remarks, "How encouraging it would have been as he faced the cross to know that his followers had shared his agony at Gethsemane." That's not what happened. Of course, there’s no need for us to be too hard on the disciples tonight... because all too often, we’re no different.
As well-intended as we are... we sometimes fail to follow through, too... don’t we?
Of course, we have our excuses (that we convince ourselves are reasons) for not sticking around, for not keeping our end of the bargain... like Jesus’ disciples... but in reality... honestly... broadly speaking our reasons are not all that different from theirs.
Maybe we just get tired. Like the disciples who fell asleep instead of praying, we are often worn out by life! Even when we manage to maintain the habit of church-going... how many times have we stopped tending to our souls? We stop being disciples of Jesus Christ. We doze off. Fatigue eclipses faith. And then... like Peter... sometimes fear takes over. We sense that following Jesus really isn’t popular. It may not be particularly advantageous to us professionally, at school, or at a club on Friday night. So we find a way to do our religion quietly (or anonymously), lest anyone really know! We're afraid... and in our fear... we slip into a quiet denial. And, of course, for some of us... like Judas... we’re often simply disappointed. Maybe we joined a church or some ministry with high hopes... with grand ideas about what we should experience. And our expectations fall short... so we blame everyone... except ourselves.
Maybe to our dismay, people in the Church turn out to be not much different than the people we deal with all week long... not much different than us.
And... then sometimes... it’s just too hard... too difficult... too demanding... to live up to Jesus’ teachings... his commands... you know... like “turning the other cheek” - “going the extra mile” - “forgiving to be forgiven” - and the hardest of all... “as I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
Just before he was arrested Jesus posed a question... and an observation... to his drowsy disciples... the ones he’d asked to pray only to find them napping. The question: “Could you not watch one hour?” (Mk. 14:37). It had only been an hour. But many of us know how three minutes of trying to pray can seem like an hour. We bow our heads for what seems like a prolonged prayer time, only to be amazed and humbled when we look at the clock. Or maybe we bow our heads and get sleepy. Regardless: “The Spirit is willing... but the flesh is weak” (Mk. 14:38). We know it’s true... we’ve all experienced it! We’ve all had the best of intentions and the sincerest of desires... but we don’t execute. We don’t follow through. As the apostle Paul acknowledged, “the good I want to do, I don't do” (Romans 7:19). Our faith traditions speak of “backsliding” or “falling from grace.” Which is to say, it’s possible to begin the walk of faith with Jesus and then fall away, possibly slipping back into old ways and habits, or outright ditching Jesus all-together...
And that’s what Maundy Thursday forces us to consider... like the old hymn says, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it... prone to leave the God I love.”
But there’s Good News for those “prone to wander!” God loves us! NOT because of our good intentions or our best efforts at being faithful. To say “God knows my heart” isn’t very good news for most of us! God doesn't look at our willing spirit. And God doesn't use a stopwatch when we pray. He doesn't keep a record of wrongs... or test us for Bible comprehension. God looks at us and sees the perfections of his faithful obedient son. And that's all because of what happened during this holiest of weeks. And it begins here... at the table... Christ’s table...