Holy Week Meditation: Maundy Thursday

If you and I had been with the apostles on Thursday evening of that first Holy Week, this is the kind of conversation we might have heard.

“Sunday was the day. I could just feel it. People were ready. If he’d have called us to take Jerusalem back, thousands of men would have responded. Just the Galileans outnumbered Roman forces five to one, maybe ten to one. And the Judeans would have joined us. Oh, man, he had them in the palm of his hand. If he had said: “Today is the day we back the holy city from the infidels,” it would have happened right then. Instead, he started crying! Sunday was the day. I just don’t get it.”

“Yeah, Sunday was great, but Monday was the day. I mean, he single-handedly took control of the temple. He was a lion! No one could stand against him. And, look: It’s not enough to fight Rome. We can kill every Roman in Israel, but they’ll be right back unless we get rid of the aristocracy, the priests.

“Yeah, if he’d called people to arms on Monday, there wouldn’t have been a Roman left alive in the city by nightfall. By the time they heard about it in Caesarea, the entire countryside could have been mobilized. The aristocracy would be in prison. But instead of calling people to arms, he started teaching from Leviticus and the Psalms. I just don’t get it. What he is waiting for? The blacksmith doesn’t wait for the fire to die down before he forges the sword.”

The days leading up to the Feast were non-stop, edge-of-your-seat exciting. Each night was spent decompressing in Bethany, but each day was filled with conflict, tension and the prospect of revolution. On Sunday they marched into the city accompanied by cheering throngs. On Monday, Jesus took over the temple for an entire day. On Tuesday and Wednesday, he met one challenge after another, all day long. The priests, the teachers of the Law, the Pharisees, they grilled him, searching for a weakness, for anything they could use against him. It was almost like the High Priest inspecting the Passover lamb for a blemish. No, it wasn’t almost like that – it was just like that.

On Wednesday, Jesus stunned his disciples by telling them that the temple would be torn down, block from block and the city destroyed. Dumbfounded, they asked when this would happen, and what the sign of his coming would be? When we hear that, we think of Jesus’s coming at the end of the age – what we call the Second Coming, or the Return of Christ. And we assume that the disciples were thinking the same thing.

But they didn’t know about a second coming. They weren’t expecting a return of Christ; he was already with them. The word they used, Parousia, was used as a technical term in Greek culture to refer to the official visit of a king or ruler. When the Roman Emperor made an appearance in your city, it was called a Parousia. Jews used the term to refer to the ascendency of the Messiah and his conquest of the nations – especially the Romans. So when the disciples asked what will be the sign of your parousia, they weren’t thinking: how will people living 2,000 years from now know you are about to return? They were thinking: Tomorrow or the next day, when you make your move and declare yourself king, what sign will we have that it is time to act?

As Wednesday – and what a day that was – wound down and they all returned to Bethany, something happened that pushed Judas over the edge; at least that is what he told himself. He was already impatient and upset with the way Jesus was handling things. That evening, when Lazarus’s sister Mary broke a bottle of crazy expensive ointment and poured it on Jesus, he got mad and got everyone stirred up. “This is outrageous. It is offensive. And it is a terrible waste. We talk about helping the poor – well, this could have been sold for three-hundred denarii; that’s more than most people make in a year. Think of the good we could have done with that much money!”

Judas got the other disciples all riled up, and some of them were complaining too. Until Jesus told them: “Leave her alone –what she did was beautiful and will never be forgotten.” That was too much for Judas. He went out – the disciples probably assumed he was going to visit old friends; after all, Judea was his home – but instead he went to see the chief priests. He was furious. He felt mistreated. Nobody ever listened to him. They treated him like he was a second-class disciple.

But his motives were so knotted up that even he could not have told you what was going on in his head. He may well have told himself that Jesus was never going to take a stand until he had to; well, now he would have to. He’d be forced to fight, and the revolution would finally begin. And so, Judas was really doing him a favor. He worked it around, as people always do, to justify himself.

On the Day of preparation, Jesus told Peter (probably the oldest, and certainly the boldest of the disciples) and John, (the youngest and possibly the most introspective) to go into the City to prepare the Passover. But here is the weird thing: he didn’t tell them where they were going. It was like something out of a spy movie. He told them to go through the gate into the city and they would be met by a man carrying a jar of water. That was odd, because in that society, men didn’t carry water – that was woman’s work. They were to follow him right into the house he entered and ask the household manager for the guestroom where they could prepare the master’s Passover.

Why not just give them the address? Why all the secrecy? Because Jesus knew what Judas had done. If he had simply given them the address, the special guard would have had the place surrounded before he even got there. That would ruin everything.

When they arrived early that evening, Judas was jumpy as a cat. Did Jesus already know? Why else would he keep this place secret? When they entered the upper room, everything was ready. The low tables and the reclining couches were in place, and each disciple had been – as was Jewish custom – assigned a seat. To Judas’s surprise, he was seated right next to Jesus – one of the two places of highest honor. What was going through his mind when he saw that? Maybe he should call the whole thing off? But he’d already made a deal with the devil. If he backed out now, they would throw him in prison – or worse. What had he done! Was there any way out? His mind must have been going a hundred miles an hour, but he was trying to act like everything was fine. And here he was, sitting right next to Jesus! He would know something was wrong!

The table placement must have bothered some of the others too. Why was Peter, the leader of the disciples, not sitting next to Jesus? Instead, Judas and young John bar Zebedee had the places of honor. There must have been some trouble about this because, as the evening progressed, the disciples got into an argument about which of them was the most important – which would hold the most authority after the revolution.

Can you imagine how Jesus felt? After three years of teaching and modeling love and servanthood, these guys were arguing about who was most important! It was enough to make you throw up your hands in despair. But that is not what Jesus did. He didn’t throw up his hands; he took off his clothes, stripped down to his waist, wrapped a long towel around himself – looked just like a minor household slave – and began washing each of the disciples’ feet, including Judas’s. The disciples were mortified. Embarrassed. Jesus knew what they had been arguing about, and this was a rebuke.

But it was more than a rebuke. It was an object lesson. “So after He had washed their feet and had put his clothes back on and sat down at that table, he said to them: “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call Me the Teacher, and Lord, and you’re right – I AM. If then I, the Lord and the Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”

Not long after that, Jesus said to them: “One of you is going to betray me.” All of them – except one – were surprised. Each wondered – except one – if he would be the one. At this point, it hadn’t occurred to them that the betrayal would be anything other than a slip-up. The idea that one of them would intentionally betray Jesus hadn’t cross their minds – except, of course, Judas’s. As the meal was wrapping up, Jesus looked right at him and said, “What you do – do it quickly.” The others thought Jesus was talking about giving Passover alms before the day was through. Judas used the opportunity to run off and tell the rulers where Jesus was.

Can you imagine what Judas was thinking when he left? “He must know! But maybe he doesn’t! Maybe he wants me to give alms. But, if so, this is the first he mentioned it. He knows. He knows. He must know … but maybe he doesn’t.”

Jesus knew how long it would take Judas to reach the chief priests. He knew how long it would take for them to put together a strike force. He knew how long it would take for them to return. He was determined to use every moment he had, preparing his disciples for what was about to happen. He told them to love each other – it was the most important thing. He told them God would take care of them in his absence. He told them how the Holy Spirit would come into their lives. He talked to them about prayer. Warned them of trials. Assured them he would come back.

And while this was going on, Judas was walking as fast as he could to the government offices. He was afraid, confused, and angry. He kept telling himself that this wasn’t his fault; that he had no choice.

When he got there, he intended to give the rulers the location, get his money and leave. But they insisted he was coming with them. The first time he talked to the rulers, they treated him like he was someone important; showed him respect. Now they treated him like dirt – like a low-life traitor.

They told Judas to wait, and the waiting seemed to last forever. Every minute felt like an hour. When they finally got – for lack of a better word – a posse together, Judas had to lead them to the upper room. He was so worried that he couldn’t think straight. What would Jesus say? What would the apostles say – he’d spent three years, day and night, with them? There would be a fight. Some of them might be killed. Whatever else happened, Jesus would know Judas had betrayed him. He had burned his bridges.

As they approached the house, the commander sent people around back. When the place was surrounded, he and his men went quietly up the steps, burst through the door … and found no one. Jesus had timed it perfectly. He and the apostles were already gone, on their way out of the city to an olive grove on the side of the Mount of Olives.

The commander stared daggers at Judas. Suddenly, all this became very real and very dangerous. The commander snarled at him: “Where is he?” and Judas tried to think of where Jesus might go: Bethany, to Lazarus’s’ place? The temple? Where? Perhaps Judas suggested two or three locations. One of them was Gethsemane – the Olive Press.

Between the time Judas left them in the upper room and the time he found them in Gethsemane, Jesus was preparing his people. He told them that things were going to get tough and he was going to leave them, but he also told them they would have God’s Spirit and each other. They must stick together; must love each other – that was crucial. He painted them a dark picture of the present, but a bright picture of the future. He warned them that he was going away but promised he would come back. In the meantime, it was vital they remember and keep his teaching. They must obey his orders; they were their directions for living in God’s kingdom. He told them how to request help from God and promised them the Holy Spirit would remind them of all of this. Then he prayed for them to have unity.

It wasn’t long after that prayer, the Judas-led posse arrived, the disciples scattered, and Jesus was arrested. He was led off to a kangaroo court and, only a few hours later, the trial was over. Before the apostles even knew what was happening, Jesus was on his way to a state-mandated execution.

Everything he’d taught them that night and for the three years leading up to it, seemed to fly right out of their heads. They were terrified – for good reason: the chief priests had been trying to learn what they could about them – and horrified and profoundly, painfully, unimaginably confused. This just couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t be real.

But the things Jesus taught had not really flown away. They remembered now, in a way they could not have before, how Jesus took the unleavened bread and while he broke it he said, “This is my body.” They remembered how he held up the cup and said, “This is my blood of the New Covenant, poured out for you,” and had them drink it.

Just as the Passover gave Jews their identity as a people, this bread and cup identified the disciples as the new people of God, the people of Jesus. They did not understand – they would not understand until Sunday – but they had his promise that the meal they ate now in token they would someday eat in its fullness.

We have that same promise – we, the new people of God, the people of Jesus. When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we identify with him. We say – and choose yet again – to be the people of Jesus, in good times, in bad times, and for all times.

This entry was posted in From the Pulpit, Holy Week, Sermons, Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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