A New Commandment

Today Christians of many denominations are celebrating Maundy Thursday…

Jesus Christ’s entry to Jerusalem was celebrated by crowds on Palm Sunday, and the Gospel account continues through the week, as Jesus taught in the temple and spoke to his disciples privately -on Maundy Thursday, which takes its name from ‘mandatum‘ the latin for ‘commandment‘, Christians recall how Jesus had supper in an upper room with his disciples, and during the evening he got down on his knees and washed each person’s feet… and he gave the New Commandment from which the day now takes its name:

‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.’ John 13:34

God… rolls his sleeves up, hunkers down, and cleans your feet… a strange thought… Interesting too, to think that only a day or two before, Mary Magdalene had done just such a thing to Christ’s own feet, anointing them with perfume and wiping them with her hair…

It is nigh on impossible to imagine, what God has done… I would say ‘impossible’ but perhaps from time to time we can grasp bits of what God has done, though doubtful if anyone could really imagine it all… we human beings simply don’t have a wide enough angle lens to get a sense of the perspective… no wonder the Bible describes the Gospel message as ‘foolishness’ in comparison to the wisdom of the world… let’s have a re-cap…

God creates everything out of nothing… then he creates humanity particularly to have a relationship with himself, but humanity wants more of what earth has to offer, not knowing that ‘more’ in earthly terms will mean turning away from God…  So we hide ourselves away from God, feeling guilty and ashamed, and then trying to make the most of the earthly stuff we’ve chosen, and drifting further away from God until we can ignore God and pretend he doesn’t exist… But now and then people hear God, and once in a while they remember to thank God and even to obey God… eventually, after millenia of nurturing a strange nomadic tribal people, God is incarnate…born to a young, unmarried girl, in a stable… not a victorian tudor affair but probably more like a caravanserai…the Biblical equivalent of a petrol station, since the Holiday Inn was full. There are angels, awestruck worshippers and then life goes on.

The child becomes a refugee, fleeing ethnic cleansing from a local despot. He grows up in relative anonymity, in a small town like Grimsby, then goes to be baptised in the Jordan by his cousin, John the Baptist… an arguably more obviously strange character who eats insects and wears camel skin. There’s a voice from heaven and a dove, and Jesus goes off into the wilderness. He returns and with a band of disciples, he suddenly begins teaching and preaching, healing people miraculously and answering people wisely, in such a way as to intrigue and alarm all the local bigwigs and politicos. But though there are some definitely unusual things that go on, miraculous feeding, resuscitation of one or two dead people… he seems to keep a fairly low profile -actually going out of his way to avoid the crowds, and keep people quiet about his miracles…

…whether this was because the clamour of adoring people impressed by his activity would detract from the more important task, or if he was rather shy…who knows… it’s an interesting thought, that God might be shy, quiet, not secretive exactly but… well anything but brash.

So then he sets his face towards Jerusalem… it sounds grim, and Jesus knows it will be… on Maundy Thursday, after feeding and washing his disciples in an act embarrasing in its humility, one of them will go straight out… he knows very well which one… and will offer to denounce him to the authorities.

Whether Judas felt simply that Jesus was not the sort of Messiah, the sort of saviour he wanted: after all what kind of a king or hero feeds his motley gathering of disciples and then washes their feet -isn’t that shameful?… how could Judas be expected to do the same, or to worship someone who would do that?

Or whether Judas thought that Jesus could easily defend himself against the Sanhedrin council, and that in fact, getting him up in front of them would do Jesus a favour -give him a platform from which to announce his manifesto and start a revolution… either way, Judas did not understand what sort of Messianic mission Jesus Christ was on… as we see on Good Friday.

So tonight we remember what Jesus has asked us to do, what has been done by Christians ever since, and what will be done until Christ returns at the end of the age… we share in a strange meal, of bread and wine, knowing that we also deny God as Peter does, we doubt and test God as Thomas does, we rage pridefully at God, as James and John the ‘Sons of Thunder’ do; and we too turn our backs on God for worldly gain, we seek to find an alternative to the humility and gentleness of God, we choose time and again to turn from God and play by the world’s rules… just as Judas did.

So the liturgy of Maundy Thursday is a strange beast… if you are celebrating it, chances are you are familiar with the Gospel story, almost certainly a committed Christian or Christian seeker, but at the same time you are there to face the humility, betrayal, denial and total abandonment of Christ, by humanity…

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About Jemma

Learning to be both a priest and a human being in the Anglican Church
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