I preached this meditation at the First Presbyterian Church of Tuckerton on Maundy Thursday, April 17, 2014. Although I wouldn’t tell the congregation for another two and a half weeks, I knew then that I would be leaving them in June. It was a difficult message to deliver, but heartfelt nonetheless. It’s about community and the value of intimate friends in Christ. I believe every word — to the core of my soul.
Maundy Thursday has a special feel to it. Do you agree? We have sort of claimed Maundy Thursday in this church as the high point of our worship experience during the year – it commemorates a unique moment when our Lord shared an intimate meal with his closest friends in a borrowed, upper room. In reflecting on that night so long ago, it seems to me that they were poised on the very edge of this world, on the ledge of the chasm that separates our physical world from the next…on the very brink of the Kingdom of God. The room, the food, their bodies around a table…it was still very physical and concrete, but the spiritual realm was also very present as well…it is an “already not yet” moment when Jesus of Nazareth the Man is about to be glorified as Jesus the Christ, the Messiah of God, to be fulfilled not even 24 hours from now, tomorrow, on the cross. The hours in between this meal and then are hard. The hardest in eternity. But for now, and in this moment, Jesus, our teacher, minister, friend and traveling companion is celebrating Passover with his friends. Real people whom he loved.
Imagine the friendly banter about the table, the easy exchanges that happen when people are really familiar with one another. Between friends, there’s a lot of cajoling and inside jokes going back and forth. Jesus knows them all very well…he knows their personalities, their strengths, their fears. He even knows their personality quirks and who’s grumpy in the morning, and who gets a little emotional when they drink too much.
And they know him too. Imagine, knowing what Jesus’ favorite foods were, and how he tied his robe, and his mannerisms and his favorite expressions. Imagine knowing him so well that you could read the look on his face. I suppose that much of the time, they knew what he was thinking without him saying a word, through smiles and a furrowing of his brows…they knew their friend Jesus.
It’s that intimate scene we remember tonight. Good friends, gathered to celebrate a sacred, holy meal. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples that evening. It’s a strange and intimate experience to have your feet washed by another – to have someone look after your physical needs in such a personal way. As I wandered around Israel, I gained a whole new appreciation for foot washing. At the end of a long, hot day, the first thing I wanted to do when we got back to the hotel was to wash my feet, which had turned gray from the dust and the sand. They were hot, and gritty, dirt had worked its way between my toes.
This was the setting when Jesus said: “Love one another, just as I have loved you.” Jesus desires that they be known, in fact he wants them to be famous for their love for each other. This little fellowship that’s going on around the table is very, very important. It’s not just easy banter among friends, it’s something higher, purer, finer because Jesus is with them. And the footwashing puts a whole new spin on it. The disciples sense that something new and different is happening here. And it worries them a little.
Peter says, "Lord, where are you going?" and Jesus says "Where I am going, you cannot follow now; but you will follow afterward." Jesus is carefully, lovingly preparing them for what’s about to happen. He’s easing them in to the pain of separation that is to come, assuring them that the fellowship that they are enjoying will not come to an end. Peter doesn’t understand… none of them do…and so he says, "Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you." But Jesus knows Peter better than he knows himself, and he asks gently, without judgment or rebuke, “Will you, Peter? Will you lay down your life for me? Because before morning dawns, you’ll deny knowing me, not once, but three times.”
Intimate friends talk this way with one another. Honestly, openly, and lovingly, no matter how difficult the issue. Immediately after this difficult revelation about Peter’s weakness, Jesus says, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled.” In other words, “Don’t worry about this too much. You’re making it harder than it has to be: Believe in God, believe also in me – that’s all.” It’s one of my favorite verses in the whole bible. Because here the Lord of the Universe assures us that despite our own shortcomings and weaknesses, it will be all right. Because it doesn’t depend on us…it all depends on him. His goodness, his sacrifice, his love. Believe in God, believe also in me. That’s all there is to it.
He comforts them further still, telling them something about the Kingdom of God, another treasure from this farewell discourse. It’s a rare glimpse beyond the veil: he speaks of a palace with many mansions, and he says he’s preparing a place for his friends to be with him. They will all enjoy this fellowship they feel around the table again. He tells them, “You know the way to the place where I’m going.” And then another one of his closest friends, Thomas says: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?" And Jesus says, am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
In the midst of trials and the struggles of life, there are no more comforting or welcome words. Regardless if we understand, regardless of whether we have strength to persevere, regardless if we live or die, we will be with the Lord. The final outcome matters not one iota on us, or on our own strength or understanding. Our struggles and our strivings are fruitless. All we need is to do is follow Jesus. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Jesus does not promise us glory and honor in this world. He knows how hard life can be. He knows that we face situations that challenge our sense of self-worth, that our bodies are frail and that we will suffer from illness. He knows that we will fall short in times of testing. He knows that people will not always treat us fairly or give us recognition for the good things we do. But he tells us not to worry so much. Take heart. Because he knows us, and He will never leave us alone. He promises to walk with us through these struggles. He faced these same struggles himself.
During this dinner, this lovely, intimate moment between close friends, Jesus was betrayed by one of those friends. Turned over to those who wished him harm. He was beaten, ridiculed, and put to death. Imagine the weight of that pressing down upon him as he washes their feet and breaks the bread.
His patience and love for his disciples never wanes.
We are about to enter the time of trial with Jesus. When we leave here tonight, let’s leave as he left: to go and pray. Do you remember? His closest friends could not stay awake with him. Before the night is over, he is arrested, beaten and tried as a criminal. The hard journey begins tonight. Let this meal, among close friends, strengthen us for the journey. Enjoy the warmth around this table. Feel the fellowship between close friends. The Lord is here, among us.