A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery
A New Commandment
April 1, 2010
Holy Week is a time of great, solemn reflection for Christians around the world. Today we mark “Maundy Thursday,” the day before Jesus’ crucifixion, when he shares his final meal with his disciples. On this day, many of our congregations will share a meal together and some will do so with a reenactment of the Passover Seder meal. Most of us will celebrate Holy Communion, as Jesus instituted it on that night before his betrayal.
Given that Maundy Thursday’s observance is focused on Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper, it is intriguing that the Gospel reading traditionally designated for this day comes from the Gospel of John’s account of Jesus’ final Passover meal with his disciples — the only one of the four Gospels that omits reference to Jesus’ institution that night of the Lord’s Supper! The only mention of bread or wine in John’s account of the supper is the reference to Jesus dipping and sharing his bread with his betrayer.
John 13 shifts focus away from the meal itself onto Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, and the significance of that act. At the end of the chapter, Jesus charges his disciples: “I give you a new commandment, that you should love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) For hundreds of years, churches gathered to worship on this holy day heard the Gospel reading begin with this clarion call: “Mandatum novum…” (Latin for “A new commandment…”) Associating this passage especially with the liturgy for Thursday of Holy Week, worshipers eventually began to identify the day with a transliteration of the opening word from the Latin text: “Maundy (from Mandatum) Thursday.”
The Lord’s command is not merely to love each other, but to do so in the same way he loved his disciples that night. A command to love one another would have been no new command at all; but loving in this particular way was something truly unprecedented. It was a love expressed in attentive, self-diminishing service to the down-to-earth needs of those who, by all rights, ought to have served Jesus instead. These folk had walked dusty paths on a warm day and their feet were uncomfortably caked with mud. There may have been nothing more welcome – or more menial – that Jesus could have done.
I’ve been to a number of foot-washing services, but have yet to see any sign of dirty feet, or of socks with holes. The last thing the people at these services need is to have their feet washed! To love one another as Jesus loves requires us to be attentive and responsive to each other’s real needs. Foot-washing doesn’t address our neighbor’s real needs, but it might at least prompt us to ask: What does my neighbor really need? And, am I willing to get too close for comfort in order to help meet that need?
Jesus continues, “By this shall everyone know you are my disciples.” Such selfless service to each other – even (and perhaps especially) to those who have been treacherous to us like Judas was to Jesus – will establish like nothing else the credibility of our claim to be Jesus’ disciples. By the same token, when we refuse to get our hands dirty with the needy, or to reach out with open arms and hands to those who offend us, our witness to the Gospel loses its integrity.
Yours in the bonds of love,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Presbytery
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