This is a service bathed in Scripture. In addition to the passages already read, we will hear once again in the Tenebrae service the account in Matthew’s Gospel that takes us from the Last Supper in the Upper Room, to the Garden of Gethsemane, then to the courtyard of the High Priest Caiaphas, to the judgment hall of Pontius Pilate, to Golgotha, and finally to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Tonight our journey ends there, just as it does in the great musical settings of the Passion by Bach. Of course we know well how the story will end, and so we’re steeled to the pathos and have become somewhat immunized to the terrors of tonight’s account.
We just read the story that gives its name to this day, “Maundy” Thursday, a word that means “commandment” and is cognate with our modern English word “mandatory.” It refers both to the commandment to servanthood that Jesus gives us as He sets an example by washing His disciples’ feet, and to the commandment with which the passage ends: 34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you. 35 By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
These are words that strike a note of sadness in our hearts when we acknowledge the many times that Christians have failed to be identified by their love but more by their divisiveness, their separateness, their animosity towards persons who differ from them in even the slightest ways. We wince at the common barb that Christians are hypocritical, and our wincing comes from the recognition of how often this accusation is true. And if we are to ask God daily to forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, most of us have a long way to go before we can avoid any pang of conscience while saying that prayer.
Perhaps we let ourselves off the hook when we hear once again the story of betrayal and denial, false accusations, torture and death. We feel that we would have been unable to participate in any of those heinous things. But what if we had been in the Upper Room? We need to join the disciples in that space for a bit tonight. We need to imagine what it would be like to have the One we call Lord and Master coming to us to wash our feet. How many of us might have been like Peter, not wishing to accept such a humble gesture from the very One Whose feet we ourselves should be washing. We think of John the Baptist, who felt unworthy even to loosen the ties of Jesus’ sandals. What would we have said when Jesus approached us?
The greater question by far is this: how well are we doing at emulating the example of Jesus, of imitating His servanthood, of following His explicit commandment to do so? For the most part, we’re far too busy doing other things to have the time that servanthood requires. And at other times, when the occasion presents itself almost by surprise, our pride prevents us from jumping at the opportunity. Or is it simply our distancing ourselves, not as much from pride as from disdain or discomfort or perhaps the lack of genuinely compassionate concern?
How many of us are perceived by others as persons of servanthood? Think about that for a moment. This is not something Jesus threw out as a really good idea. He modeled it for us and passed it on as a commandment, right alongside that of distinguishing ourselves as persons who deeply love one another. If we think of servanthood and love for one another as “mandatory,” and not optional, we’ll begin to see ourselves as guilty persons in need of a fresh touch of the cleansing flow of Jesus’ blood. Then, instead of missing opportunities, we may find ourselves looking for them and having a heightened awareness of them. Many of them present themselves along our daily paths without our having to go out of the way or having to devote entire days to volunteerism. Servanthood does require action, but it begins as an attitude, a spirit, a conscious desire to be more like Jesus. Only then can it be lived out in the ways that we relate to others.
Let’s stay in the Upper Room a moment longer. As important as the servanthood lesson may have been, the deepest significance of this first Maundy Thursday lies in the meal that Jesus shared with His disciples. It was their Passover Seder. Obviously it’s not described in detail, though we know that Jesus had made arrangements in advance for the Passover to be prepared; and we can assume it was done meticulously.
The difference was that Jesus infused this meal with a new meaning, a meaning that made it not only a perpetual memorial of deliverance from the angel of death on the night before the Exodus from Egypt, but also a perpetual observance of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins. It became the meal that we celebrate at this table every Lord’s Day, the meal we celebrate this evening and again in the Easter Vigil, the meal where Jesus invites us to join Him in the Upper Room to feast with Him and to participate truly in His own Body broken for us and His Blood shed for us. It’s also our foretaste of that great heavenly banquet that we call the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
Try to meditate on all these things when you come to the table tonight. This is the Lord’s Passover. This is the Last Supper. This is also the First Supper. This is our supper in which we are united with Christ in His finished work on our behalf. It’s the foundation of our life in Him, our very salvation. This is the night, the night that’s different from all other nights, eternally different because it looks backward to our history, it looks presently at our union with Christ, and it looks forward to our eternity with Him. This is the night of the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
In our first reading for Tenebrae, we will find ourselves reclining at the table with Jesus as He predicts that one of us will betray Him. We share that moment of stunned silence when we say only to ourselves, “Surely I would never be one to betray the Lord Jesus Christ into the hands of sinners who are determined to take His life.” We look around the table furtively, trying to imagine which of our fellow disciples might be able to commit such a treacherous act. We even discuss it among ourselves. Then it sinks in. Jesus is not suggesting that one of us might betray Him; rather He’s saying clearly that one of us will in fact do just that. And then, one by one, we ask, “Lord, is it I?”
Despite my certainty that I could not be the one, I will ask the question along with each of the disciples. Most of you have heard me say that this very moment forms one of the most compelling, soul-searching and gut-wrenching parts of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Exactly 11 times, the question is asked, “Lord, is it I?” But before the twelfth person, Judas, can ask that question, Bach inserts a corale, literally having the entire chorus and congregation sing this text in response to, “Lord, is it I?”:
’Tis I should sin be bearing,
Both hand and foot be wearing
The bonds of sin in Hell.
The stripes and chains that bound Thee,
The grief and pain around Thee
My sin-sick soul deserved full well.
And there it is: not the spirit of looking around to see who else might be culpable for this betrayal of the Savior of the world, but in a spirit of looking ever more deeply within ourselves, we ask, “Lord, is it I?” And then we say, “Yes, ’tis I, gracious Lord. It may be Judas who will betray You, but mine is the sin that will nail You to the Cross. It is for me that You will die, willingly, painfully, sacrificially, in my place.”
As we prepare our hearts to meet the risen Savior at His table where He stands ready to commune with us in His very Body and Blood, may we recall with ever deepened understanding these words of Horatius Bonar:
Mine is the sin, but Thine the righteousness:
Mine is the guilt, but Thine the cleansing blood;
Here is my robe, my refuge, and my peace;
Thy blood, Thy righteousness, O Lord my God!
Too soon we rise; the symbols disappear;
The feast, though not the love, is past and gone.
The bread and wine remove; but Thou art here,
Nearer than ever, still my Shield and Sun.
+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen