The following is a brief reflection given on Maundy Thursday 2016 at our local ecumenical early morning service.
John 13: 31b – 35
31b Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. 32 If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.
33 ‘My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: where I am going, you cannot come.
34 ‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’
Picture the scene at Brussels airport: a family are saying goodbye to a parent. There are hugs and tears, and the parent says, ‘I love you, and remember you be good to each other – I want you to love each other the way I love you.’ The family turn and start to make their way home; the parent goes to the check-in, and all of a sudden there’s an explosion. Death tears the family apart, and the final words the family shared take on a much greater significance than they did when they all expected to meet up again before long. I don’t know if this scenario played out the way I’ve suggested, with exactly the words I used, but it’s likely that something very similar took place when a mother said goodbye to her husband and children.
On that first Maundy Thursday, when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, he told them to love one another the way he had loved them. They were expecting life to go on much as usual after the Passover festival. It has been an exciting and exhilarating time for them over the last few years – a roller-coaster experience of highs and lows as they accompanied Jesus on his mission to the villages of Galilee, or were sent out in twos to put into practice what they had learned from him, or stood beside him in his conflicts with the religious leaders of the day. That conflict seemed particularly intense this year. And round the Passover table he had said a few confusing things about the bread and wine as his body and blood. It will all blow over soon the way it had before.
But it didn’t. Instead, there was the trauma of Jesus being arrested, taken from them because of the kiss of Judas; then Jesus was tortured, humiliated and crucified. They had thought this was going to be just one more Passover in Jerusalem, but they were wrong, and Jesus was snatched away from them by betrayal and death.
So these words came to mean much more to them than they ever imagined: a command from Jesus, for us to love one another. And not just love one another, but love one another the way I have loved you.
When, Tertullian, the early Church Father from North Africa, imagined the pagan people of his time speaking about Christians, he wrote, ‘See how these Christians love one another.’ For the people of his time seemed to be more interested in plotting against and killing one another. The contrast between pagan and Christian was stark in his society, to the extent that it spoke volumes to those with ears to hear. Could we say the same today without the words being coated with a heavy layer of irony? Too often in the West, Christians have become known for violent rhetoric and political shenanigans. ‘See how these Christians love one another,’ as another Christian bites the dust, torn asunder by the congregational lions. Perhaps I exaggerate, but only just.
If ever there was a time when society needed its Christians to show love, and to show others how to love, it is now. We are encompassed with suspicion and terror; migrants and asylum seekers are being demonised and blamed for many of the ills we have created; political rhetoric is engendering aggression rather than reasoned debate. Society needs its Christians to heed the command of Jesus to love one another. It is a command, not to have a nice warm feeling about other people, but to live out in action the kind of sacrificial love he had for us that led him to the cross.
We will find that in loving one another that we cannot stop with one another. Loving our Christian sisters and brothers will prove a good testing ground for loving those whom our society discards so readily. Our Mission Impossible is to spread Christ’s loving action, but it becomes a Mission Possible through the power of his resurrection and the indwelling of his Pentecostal Spirit.
May it be that the people of our time will be able to look at the Christians in this area and say, ‘See how they love.’ Amen.