Passover eve must have had a lot of mixed feelings for Jesus. He knew this would be His last such celebration with these 12 men with whom He had shared the past 3 years. Jesus knew what agony was ahead of Him. Jesus knew He was about to be betrayed, and by whom. Jesus knew there still were important things to teach His disciples, and some reassurances He needed to communicate. All in just a few hours!
As an aside, if it isn't already obvious, this is not going to be a normal Maundy Thursday message. But I wanted the meditations for this year to look at what Jesus was thinking, and that is what I will try to do do in this.
These men were to become the leadership core for the church - His body. Jesus knew that the type of leadership with which they were familiar would not be right. The world around them had leaders that ordered around and kept above those they led. Taking advantage of their host's lapse in proper hospitality, Jesus showed His disciples what spiritual leadership should look like. And then He taught them.
Unlike "normal" leaders and rulers, leaders in the church are to serve those they lead. The purpose of church leadership is not to sustain and grow one's own authority or to support and perpetuate an institution. The purpose of the church is to make disciples, to enable new Christians to grow so that they become disciple-makers and leaders. Leadership that helps believers learn and grow spiritually means working with them and serving them, not aloofly lording it over them.
Jesus was also trying to prepare His disciples both for His death, which, for a few days, would feel to them as if He were gone, and then His ascension to heaven, when His presence with them would be less obvious and visible. Toward these ends, Jesus tried to let them know of His coming death, and promised that they would not be alone, but that the Holy Spirit would be with them, dwell in them, teach them, and empower them when Jesus would no longer be visibly present. They probably didn't understand at that point much of what Jesus was telling them, but He knew they would recall it when the time came.
John 17 is commonly called Jesus' "High Priestly Prayer", because Jesus was interceding, as their leader, for His followers, present and for all time to come. One thing for which He prayed was that His followers would be in unity. It's not exactly a brilliant observation that Christians, for more than 14 centuries, have not obeyed this imperative. Personally, I think many believers (past and present) have a skewed vision of what Jesus meant.
Taking the New Testament as a whole, Jesus and the writers of the New Testament neither prescribed institutional authority structures nor proscribed spiritual authority entirely. The church the New Testament reveals was, to use a modern term, a network of relationships and giftings, with authority structure that was local and as needed. To use Paul as an example: most of his letters were to people he had worked with and churches he had started (direct relationship); two of his letters, Galatians and Colossians, were to churches in cities he had never visited, but the authority of his letters rested on their recognition of his being an apostle (his gifting, Ephesians 4:11); Paul's MO in ministry was to come into a town, evangelize, organize new believers into a congregation and teach them their faith, appoint leaders in the congregation, move on to the next town while keeping in touch with the church he had started, and keep repeating. When a church in a city grew large enough there would be multiple congregations whose leaders had relationships with each other, usually with a leader who was apparently called a bishop. But regional, national and church-wide structures came later.
Getting back to Jesus' actual point, He wanted believers to minister (serve!) and fellowship in unity. This is far more difficult, meaningful and powerful than having a single authority structure. It requires people of different giftings, personalities and cultures to learn to get along and work together, using those differences for ministry rather than for carrying on personal squabbles. Think it can't be done? The church in the New Testament exploded in the Roman Empire, reaching and uniting peoples of multiple languages, cultures and economic status. Many para-church ministries today unite the efforts of believers of similar diversity and denominational background. It can be done today. It is powerful! It is what Jesus asked for in prayer!