No matter how well we know the story Easter does its mysterious powerful work in us – unravelling us, disturbing us, challenging us, breaking us open to hope, grief, shame and fear and then we trust to new life, love, light and truth. (John 13:1-17, 31b-35) Just days ago Jesus’ dramatic entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey stirred the religious and political fever of his day and we have sought to grasp some of that significance. And as Jesus and his disciples gather on the eve of the Passover those great and disturbing themes swirl around us still. But here in the gathering dark we slow the story down; we focus inward, and enter into the story our selves.
As it were we too are disciples gathering for a meal that we find out at some point is to be our last shared meal. We too feel the disturbance, the fear, the seeds of darkness and dread that might lead to betrayal and abandonment and other personal failures of courage and conviction. We too reluctantly give our feet and hands over to be washed by a Lord who disturbs us by insisting on kneeling before us.
Up until now Jesus’ life has kind of made sense. He was a healer, a provider of food for the hungry and table fellowship for the dissatisfied, he was an includer of those excluded by religious rules and social mores, and he was a prophetic teacher of authority. He was a good man worth listening to and following.
But now it’s getting crazy, frightening, and terribly serious. Jesus has stirred up all of Jerusalem and his disciples seem to be divided. Some want the fight and hope he will be their Captain, the great leader who will lead them to reclaiming their promised land as their own. Some want him to quiet down and avoid the conflict, live to fight another day. Every human hope and fear runs through the disciples at this time. It is all coming to a crux, it is getting terribly real. Jesus himself seems to be struggling to convey all that he feels he needs to before it is over. And we know that shortly he will struggle himself as he wrestles with what is asked of him in the garden of Gethsemane.
According to John, Jesus says many things on this last day and night with them. And then he shares this last meal with them. Mathew, Mark and Luke witness that it is the Passover meal itself, John has it on the night before Passover (so that Jesus dies at the same time as the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in preparation for the Passover). All make it clear that Jesus sees the symbolism and message of Passover as the most appropriate time and context in which to give himself over to death.
Jesus stated in word and action that the gift of the Passover lamb – that became for the people food for the journey to liberation, and for the blood of the lamb that became a sign that people of faith lived here who claimed the protection of God from the angel of death – was the way Jesus understood the meaning of his forthcoming death. We participate in that understanding and make it real every time we take bread and wine – body and blood – in the Holy Eucharist.
But as the disciples of our Lord, our brothers and sisters in spirit, gather together with Jesus to share this special meal they seem fragmented and out of sorts as they miss the point, argue, jockey for position, and prepare to betray and abandon, all the while letting their last moments with our Lord slip by. Given the week they have just had – the mounting tension as they approach Jerusalem, Jesus frequent references to his need to suffer and die, the increasingly menacing attention of the powers that be, and then the exciting entrance to the city … no wonder they are jittery and fragmented, filled with as much anxiety and apprehension as they are love and purpose. We who through hindsight know where this is going want to say: listen, notice, savor, be tender, gather your strength, and let him know how much you love him, need him, and will miss him. But they seem to miss the moment. And we know how that feels.
Quietly, urgently, Jesus speaks last words, and when long lessons seem to miss the mark he kneels at their feet and washes them, and making it simple he commands that they love one another as he is about to love them. And later they will remember him, his words, his actions and his touch. Later when they are confused and overwhelmed they will look back and remember his servant touch, his teachings and his impossible commandment to love as he had loved them.
The simple elements of this night will sustain them when they are bereft, when they are scattered, when they have matured into leaders in their own right. These confused and distracted disciples will learn so deeply and truly the lessons of this night that many will give up their very lives in servant service, will be so convincing in their certainty of Jesus as beloved son of God and the one that won life out of death that they will convert the known world. But all that is later. For now there is only the urgent tenderness of Jesus for his friends.
And so we come with our faithful certainty and our confusions, our dedication to service and our weariness, our love of Jesus and our faint heartedness. We give our all to the great mystery of these days. We give ourselves to the process of suffering and dying leaning into the promise of resurrection and new life to come, trusting the process of dying and resurrection.
So let us go into this night, into our lives and communities and these three great days, keeping company with Jesus and the disciples and finding our own place in the sacred story so that we too might know resurrection and renewal on Sunday morning.
Remember, it ends well – very well. Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come give us the courage and the desire to journey with you.
You might like to see what I wrote last year for Maundy Thursday.