Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” – John 13:34-35
I wonder, if it were up to us, how we would spend our last night on earth. What might you say and do with such limited time? Would you tell your family and friends that you would be leaving them soon?
We may well imagine that these are the questions running through the mind of Jesus on that Thursday night as he gathered with his friends and disciples in the Upper Room. What a heavy heart Jesus must have had that evening! He knew it would be their last gathering, their last meal, the last chance to help them understand all the events that were still to come – from the garden to the cross to the empty tomb. If only the disciples had known that this night would be the last – maybe they would have acted differently. Maybe Peter would not have protested the foot washing. Maybe Thomas would not have asked so many questions – or maybe the rest of them would have asked more. But, that is the hindsight of sudden loss. It leaves us wondering what we might have done differently, or what we might have said – the “if onlys” and “maybes” that we can never answer.
But Jesus knew. He knew it was their last meal, their last gathering before everything changed. And so he gave the disciples their final instructions: Love one another, as I have loved you. We call it a commandment, but it is more than that. It is a gift. Jesus gave these instructions as a final word to his disciples, so that they would have a way to survive the confusion and pain of the next days. Jesus spent his last time with his friends serving them, feeding them, and caring for them – and then telling them that they must always do the same.
Growing up in the church, I knew that Holy Week was an important time – the services were very different, between palms and processions and the stripping of the altar. In fact, I was so certain of the week’s importance, that I thought we celebrated Monday-Thursday so that none of the days would be missed! Of course, as I grew older, I learned that today is really called Maundy Thursday. Maundy is from a Latin word – mandatum – meaning “commandment.” Today is called “Commandment Thursday” because this new commandment – to love one another- becomes the framework for all of the events of Maundy Thursday. The love that Jesus demonstrates is the kind that is patient and kind: that will get “down and dirty” to wash the feet of friends. It is the kind of love that hopes all things and believes all things that is willing to serve and share a meal with the one who will betray – wishing it might be different, and offering love anyway. In the midst of pain, it was Jesus desire that the disciples love one another as deeply as Jesus loved them.
And it is still his desire. In the darkest hours of his life, Jesus demonstrated amazing love for his friends. Jesus calls us to love one another through the hurts and struggles of this life, to serve, to encourage, and to strengthen. On this night especially, we renew our commitment to serve the people we live with everyday – not just the faceless, the far away, the ones we can think of as “other.” We try to be in relationship with the people we serve – and, to serve the people that we are in relationship with, helping them wash the parts of their lives they can’t quite restore on their own. We renew our commitment to gather and break bread, practicing the love of Christ that calls us to let down our guard a bit, easing our suspicion and cynicism to make room for grace and hope, or at least at the altar rail.
What we learn in these holy days of violence and loss is the same lesson that is true every day in our communities of faith: God is present in the acts of genuine love we extend to one another: in loving service, in open arms, and in this meal. Tonight, as we reflect on his actions of love, and move together toward the cross and new life, we remember that new life in Christ begins here, among friends, with the new commandment: Love one another as Christ loved us.