Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Meditation for Maundy Thursday

OK, I’ll admit it. Despite growing up in a traditional Lutheran church, I had to look up the word “Maundy” (I did know how to spell it, though). Basically, “Maundy Thursday” means “Foot-Washing Thursday”. Onward …

Then one of the twelve, named Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, "What are you willing to give me to betray Him to you?" And they weighed out thirty pieces of silver to him. From then on he began looking for a good opportunity to betray Jesus. Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Where do You want us to prepare for You to eat the Passover?" And He said, "Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, 'The Teacher says, "My time is near; I am to keep the Passover at your house with My disciples." The disciples did as Jesus had directed them; and they prepared the Passover. (Matthew 26:14-19, NASB))

Judas has become an almost world-wide metaphor for a betrayer. To the best of my understanding, though, Judas violated no law. He got paid what amounted to 5 weeks’ wages to identify a certain person to the authorities: there were no false accusations, no perjury was involved. It was “just” an economic transaction. Judas got something he valued; the authorities got something they valued. The greatness of the betrayal wasn’t that a crime was committed, as none was, to the best of my understanding. Nor was the greatness of the betrayal in the number of people betrayed or the social position of the one betrayed. It was WHO Judas betrayed.

But why would the Jewish leaders need Judas to finger some one with whom they’d been debating for much of the past week? I don’t think darkness fully accounts for the need (it was full moon, Passover being always at full moon), though that may have played some part. My opinion is that the leaders didn’t want to risk an encounter with any crowd that might be present. They sent minions who may not have known Jesus at sight, and they did not want their purposes frustrated or exposed prematurely by a case of mistaken identity. Also, western artworks to the contrary, Jesus was probably a Jewish “everyman” Whose outward appearance was unremarkable.

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, "Lord, do You wash my feet?" Jesus answered and said to him, "What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter." Peter said to Him, "Never shall You wash my feet!" Jesus answered him, "If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me." Simon Peter said to Him, "Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head." Jesus said to him, "He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you." For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, "Not all of you are clean." So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.” (John13:3-16, NASB)

Hence the name, “Maundy Thursday”. Various denominations have understood this command differently. Some literally do this, annually (e.g. Grace Brethren). Others understand the command as referring to the kind of love, forgiveness and service Christians should extend toward each other in the course of daily life and fellowship. Without arguing with those who practice literal foot-washing, I think the latter is Jesus’s point, one He made, clearly, while doing the foot-washing and later that same evening. The disciples didn’t get it the first time, and maybe not even the second time. But were they so very dumb? I wouldn’t claim I'd do any better!

When the hour had come, He reclined at the table, and the apostles with Him. And He said to them, "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He said, "Take this and share it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes." And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me." And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood. But behold, the hand of the one betraying Me is with Mine on the table. For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!" And they began to discuss among themselves which one of them it might be who was going to do this thing. And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called 'Benefactors.' But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant.” (Luke 22:14-26, NASB)

Here, as the culmination of His life approached, Jesus took the time to define real leadership. I think plaques with this passage should be hung on every wall of every pastor's or other church official's office and over every door into those offices! I also think supervisors and managers in the business world would likewise benefit from reflecting on Jesus's description of true leadership.

Taken literally or metaphorically, in foot-washing Jesus had demonstrated for His disciples what real Christian leadership was to be - serving those who are being led. Having just gone through several days or conflict with arrogant "leaders," Jesus's demonstration must have been doubly poignant! We've had 2 millennia to practice and get this leadership concept down, so how are we doing? My answer would have to be that I've known and know of some good servant-leaders, but lordly leaders have been too common in church history and now. Too often, this imperative from Jesus has been gamed and weaseled into near meaninglessness! And I do not have any single group in mind in saying that!

I won't go into the Transubstantiation – Real Presence – Symbols debate. Better and smarter Christians than I have disagreed and debated that issue for centuries, and it would be a distraction in this context. I do think people of all three (two-and-a-half?) understandings could learn from each other. What Jesus did that night is interesting. The bread and the wine Jesus used were not brought there for His special use to institute Communion. Jesus used things already on hand from use in the Passover meal. Jesus didn’t totally break with Judaism and institute something utterly new, utterly foreign to it. He did something new, to be sure, but using what existed. The alienation between Jews and Christians these past too many centuries is a tragedy, utterly unnecessary, an estrangement in which Christians (and people using the name “Christian”) have played by far the larger part, in my opinion. The Christian Bible has the older Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, and the New Testament. Has anyone else noticed the curious fact that ~75% of the Christian Bible is the Old Testament? In churches that practice more formal catechesis, the Ten Commandments are part of the core "curriculum". Thus, Christianity is, as taught by Jesus and the New Testament writers, a fulfillment of Judaism. The bread and wine Jesus used in the now-famous “Last Supper” is a "small" further illustration of this.

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