Maundy Thursday – Meeting the End with Love

Maundy Thursday – Meeting the End with Love
David R. Weiss – April 16, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #21 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

John 13:34-35 – “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 followers of the Way: because you love one another.[1] Part of Jesus’ long farewell discourse in John’s gospel, these words have given us the name for Thursday in Holy Week: Maundy. The Latin behind “commandment” in this verse (echoed again in 15:12-17) is mandatum (from which comes our word, mandate. This is “Mandatum Thursday”: “Commandment Thursday.” It might better be called Love Thursday, since Jesus calls his friends[2] to love many times more than he uses the word “commandment.”

Overall John’s gospel is noteworthy on several counts. Considered by scholars to be the last of the biblical gospels authored, his telling is often regarded as the least historical and most theological (which is not to say that he ignores history, that the other gospels ignore theology, or that the others present history the way we think of it today). But, even a surface reading of John reveals no parables, multiple lengthy discourses, and a self-focused Jesus (as opposed to a focus on God’s kin-dom), all of which place him in stark contrast to the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so-called “synoptic” because they view Jesus through the same lens).

One might make the case that John is thus less interested in historical fact, but he remains supremely interested in Truth. John’s gospel—which, like the other gospels aims to communicate good news to his original readers/hearers in a way that fosters the experience of good news in the hearing itself—is finely crafted and reflects both the lived experience of his community and John’s own nuanced theology. Of particular note is John’s commitment to “realized eschatology,” a fancy theological mouthful for saying that John believes that the redemptive/liberatory impact of Jesus on us and our lives begins right now—in all its fullness. Whether John regards another layer of fulfillment in an afterlife is not the point. He believes that the full power of the gospel is unleashed in the world through the Spirit moving in our lives today.

Two features of John’s Maundy Thursday narrative stand out to me. First, contrary to the Synoptics (and likely contrary to history), John does not have Jesus eat the Passover meal on Thursday night. He pushes Passover back by day: a small bit of “historical license” with theologically seismic implications. Not much is changed about Thursday evening, but the absence of a Thursday Passover means that on Friday afternoon throughout Jerusalem Passover lambs are being slaughtered in preparation for the meal … a slaughter that aligns with Jesus’ death on the cross. It is John’s way of profoundly linking Jesus to the Passover lamb (whose blood, in the original Passover tale kept Jewish homes safe during the final plague in Egypt).

It’s a symbolic connection that (in my mind) has disastrous echoes in atonement theology for millennia to come: in assertions that say our forgiveness/redemptive hinges on the spilling of Jesus’ blood. Given the scandal of Jesus’ death on the cross—which surely rocked his friends’ and followers’ worlds in way we cannot imagine—John’s daring interpretation of the death is understandable. His logic, I suspect, is quite different from ours. We often begin the story of Jesus with the assumption he came to die and skip over the very messy theology that undergirds that assumption. The earliest communities of believers began with the inexplicable fact that he DID die—for which they were utterly unprepared—and then find themselves making daring efforts (that are hardly consistent across the gospels or the early church!) to reconcile the profound goodness of Jesus’ life to the irreconcilable(!) character of his death.

It’s possible—in light of John’s realized eschatology (where redemption happens NOW, among the living)—that he identifies Jesus with the Passover lamb not to make his blood key to redemption, but to include his bloody death in the redemptive power of his life. As though by finding a place for Jesus’ death within the Passover story of God’s liberating work, John insures that the cross cannot become a cause to doubt the power of Jesus’ life. Like the Passover lamb, his death is one piece of a much larger tale of liberation.

The other intriguing feature of John’s Maundy Thursday account is this. We commemorate Maundy Thursday as the night when Jesus instituted Holy Communion at the end of his last supper and before his arrest and crucifixion. But, although Thursday in Holy Week gets its name from John’s gospel, in his telling Jesus never celebrates Holy Communion. He has a final meal followed by a famous foot-washing scene, but there is no lifting up and breaking bread, no pouring and sharing wine. How can it be that this meal—so emblematic of our faith … so sacramental … is simply missing in John?

No one knows for sure, but I’m persuaded by a suggestion I heard decades ago (alas, uncredited because my memory recalls the insight but not the origin): in John’s community they gathered to read aloud pieces of this gospel each week. And each week they did this while celebrating communion, themselves taking and breaking bread, pouring and sharing wine. John wrote for their lived experience, so he wrote a gospel to compliment the meal already at the heart of their gathering. No need to describe the meal itself.

Whether that’s the real reason or not will likely never be known. But it fits with how I see this night in this week intersecting with our experience of climate change. Put yourself, even if just momentarily, in Jesus’ sandals. He sees the end—his end—rapidly approaching. It’s not that he wants to die, but that he will not compromise the power of compassion that dwells in him. And he sees the rising powers of the world determined to preserve themselves at the cost of his life. This isn’t divine foreknowledge. It’s simply the sober commonsense insight accessible to most every person who’s been a prophet/martyr.

But Jesus’ primary concern on this night in this week is to ensure that the compassion birthed in and through him continues to be realized in the world after his death (that’s realized eschatology). And how does he do that? He tells his friends to love one another. Relentlessly. Fiercely. Even at great risk. Love. Jesus’ death would seem to undermine the usefulness of this counsel. But before we race ahead to the resurrection and see there some miraculous overturning of death, before we do that—just wait. Because on that first Maundy Thursday there is as yet no resurrection. No gospels have been written. No Sunday School lessons learned. No Hallelujahs hurled heavenward. No Easter lilies bought. None of that is “real” yet. There is ONLY a daunting, messy, chaotic end racing toward Jesus. And he meets that end by sharing a meal and asking his friends to persist in loving one another.

Perhaps that love is central to what happens on Easter morning. (I happen to think it is, though in a very unorthodox way.) But I want to hold us in the shattering uncertainty of Maundy Thursday for a moment. There is a strand of eco-awareness today that looks at the unnerving science and the damning math and assesses it with the same sort of sobering certainty that Jesus did on Maundy Thursday: we’re screwed. And who knows whether it is alarmist (as we like to hope) or just … inconveniently honest. But I ask you, today, to put yourself in an ecological Maundy Thursday moment. What if there’s ONLY a daunting, messy, chaotic end racing toward us? If so, how will we meet that end? Here is the thin, profound, powerful good news of Jesus: Let’s meet it gathered with friends, sharing a meal, and pledging love.

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!
drw59mn(at)gmail.com

[1] This is mostly NRSV translation, but I have replaced “my disciples,” which is certainly what the Greek says, with “followers of the Way,” which is what the church came to understand and which resonates with my sense that Jesus never saw himself as having a monopoly on “the Way.”

[2] There’s a whole theology behind this one word, which links Jesus directly to the Hebrew notion of God’s Wisdom. Jesus says his ministry will be (can only be?) carried on, not by followers or disciples, but by friends.

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