This is the message I preached Maundy Thursday, March 29, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC. Weekly Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC. For folks hoping to join Easter Sunday, we have a different schedule that Sunday: an Easter Sunday service outside at 7 AM, with breakfast following; then Sunday school at 8:15, and our full Easter service at 9 AM.
Exodus 12:1-4, 10-14
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, 2 “This month will be the first month; it will be the first month of the year for you.[a] 3 Tell the whole Israelite community: On the tenth day of this month they must take a lamb for each household, a lamb per house. 4 If a household is too small for a lamb, it should share one with a neighbor nearby. You should divide the lamb in proportion to the number of people who will be eating it.
10 Don’t let any of it remain until morning, and burn any of it left over in the morning. 11 This is how you should eat it. You should be dressed, with your sandals on your feet and your walking stick in your hand. You should eat the meal in a hurry. It is the Passover of the Lord. 12 I’ll pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I’ll strike down every oldest child in the land of Egypt, both humans and animals. I’ll impose judgments on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. 13 The blood will be your sign on the houses where you live. Whenever I see the blood, I’ll pass over[a] you. No plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
14 “This day will be a day of remembering for you. You will observe it as a festival to the Lord. You will observe it in every generation as a regulation for all time.
Before the Festival of Passover, Jesus knew that his time had come to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully.
2 Jesus and his disciples were sharing the evening meal. The devil had already provoked Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. 4 So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing.6 When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7 Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.”
8 “No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!”
Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.”
9 Simon Peter said, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!”
10 Jesus responded, “Those who have bathed need only to have their feet washed, because they are completely clean. You disciples are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 He knew who would betray him. That’s why he said, “Not every one of you is clean.”
12 After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. 14 If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet.15 I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. 16 I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. 17 Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them. 18 I’m not speaking about all of you. I know those whom I’ve chosen. But this is to fulfill the scripture, The one who eats my bread has turned against me.[a]
19 “I’m telling you this now, before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I Am. 20 I assure you that whoever receives someone I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”
21 After he said these things, Jesus was deeply disturbed and testified, “I assure you, one of you will betray me.”
22 His disciples looked at each other, confused about which of them he was talking about. 23 One of the disciples, the one whom Jesus loved, was at Jesus’ side.24 Simon Peter nodded at him to get him to ask Jesus who he was talking about.25 Leaning back toward Jesus, this disciple asked, “Lord, who is it?”
26 Jesus answered, “It’s the one to whom I will give this piece of bread once I have dipped into the bowl.” Then he dipped the piece of bread and gave it to Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son. 27 After Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” 28 No one sitting at the table understood why Jesus said this to him. 29 Some thought that, since Judas kept the money bag, Jesus told him, “Go, buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor. 30 So when Judas took the bread, he left immediately. And it was night.
31 When Judas was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Human One[b] has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify the Human One[c] in himself and will glorify him immediately. 33 Little children, I’m with you for a little while longer. You will look for me—but, just as I told the Jewish leaders, I also tell you now—‘Where I’m going, you can’t come.’
34 “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. 35 This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”
Still-speaking God, whose Word echoes not just through the pages of holy Scripture but also in every corner of world, each moment of our lives, each person we encounter, and even in our deepest selves, we know you have yet more light and truth to break forth from your holy Scriptures. Open the eyes of our minds, and ears of our hearts, so we might see and know what Word you have for us in these words of Scripture. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts by acceptable in your sight, my God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
“You are a Friend of God”
As I meditate on not only on tonight’s Scriptures but also the whole night they point to, which we remember this evening: the night of Jesus’ last supper, of his night of prayer at Gethsemane, of his betrayal, his being hauled off to be tried on trumped up charges, this year I notice as never before that this night was not just Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper for us, nor just his making precious promises, but it was also a last meal with close friends, followed up by a final night he sought his friends to stand by him one final time.
John’s Gospel is unique in using language of friendship to describe Jesus’ relationship with the women and men who sit around table with him for Passover dinner on this last night before his death. A few chapters after today’s Gospel reading, while Jesus is still gathered on this night with these women and men he had spent day after day and night after night working side by side with, in close quarters, Jesus says in John 15:
“11 I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. 12 This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you.”
Jesus sat with his friends, knowing he is nearing the end, and chose to spend precious time with them.
More and more in my life, I am struck by the power and significance of friendship, the power our friends have in helping us stand through life’s storms and in helping us remember who we are when the voices of sorrow, grief, and shame clamor around us silencing the voice of our deepest selves.
Perhaps this is why friendship is something Scripture elsewhere celebrates, saying in Proverbs that “Friends love all the time, and kinsfolk are born for times of trouble” ( 17:17) and also “[t]here are persons for companionship, but then there are friends who are more loyal than family” (18:24).
Over the last few years, I can point to countless times that the voice of a friend, their hand on my shoulder, and their presence lending a hand in trouble was just what I needed to get through.
I will never forget those friends who showed up the day my late wife Katharine died, helping me not be alone in my darkest moment; those who stood by me as I moved through the shadow of grief into embracing life again. Those who lent a hand in the days I cared for my mother as she died of cancer. Those who listened to me vent after difficult work days, celebrated advancements at work and the finding of love again after my loss, and those that took me out of my sorrow by pulling me into times of joy and laughter when this or that new love didn’t last or when the stress of the week got me down.
We’ve all known those who have been such friends in our lives.
One of my favorite spiritual authors, the late Henri Nouwen, speaks movingly about the importance of friends in steadying us through life’s storms and helping us awake to whom God has called us to be, capturing some of my own experience of friendship and likewise also some of what Jesus is seeking this final night from the women and men gathered around table with him:
“A friend,” Nouwen writes, “is more than a therapist or confessor, even though a friend can sometimes heal us and offer us God’s forgiveness. A friend is that other person with whom we can share our solitude, our silence, and our prayer. A friend is that other person with whom we can look at a tree and say, ‘Isn’t that beautiful,’ or sit on the beach and silently watch the sun disappear under the horizon. With a friend we don’t have to say or do something special. With a friend we can be still and know that God is there with both of us.
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
What does it mean to think of this night as being a time Jesus both offers and seeks out true friendship with those women and men we call disciples, and by extension, each of us who follow in their paths?
First, what Jesus is about to go through, beginning with his betrayal by a friend, leading to his trial, torture, and execution, is about extending friendship to us. “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends…”
In Jesus, God has come in our midst, put on flesh and blood, heart and mind, weakness and vulnerability, hunger and longing. And in Jesus, God is reaching out to all people, starting with this little group gathered around the dinner table with Jesus, showing us that we do not have to know God as far away, unreachable, distant, but can know God as near as breath, ready and willing to listen as a friend, to sit with us in our pain, to be moved by the pains and joys of our life.
The writer to the book of Hebrews in our New Testament puts it well:
“14 Also, let’s hold on to the confession since we have a great high priest who passed through the heavens, who is Jesus, God’s Son; 15 because we don’t have a high priest who can’t sympathize with our weaknesses but instead one who was tempted in every way that we are, except without sin. 16 Finally, let’s draw near to the throne of favor with confidence so that we can receive mercy and find grace when we need help.”
God in Jesus fully experienced our pain, sorrow, and joy – even betrayal, torture, guilt and shame, and death. So we can now come boldly to God, knowing God will understand, knowing God will sympathize, knowing God will not dismiss or reject our pain.
This change in relationship to God is pictured in the Gospels by the veil separating the holy of holies of the Temple – the same veil which only the high priest could pass through and, only then when having completely purified himself by being able to check every box on the check list of laws of Leviticus – this veil ripping in two at the moment of Jesus’ death, so that now there is no longer distance or separation between any one of us and God. We can now come directly to God as a friend.
And in Christ we know God is always there, as Jesus promised, never leaving or forsaking us, being with us through the end. Later on this night, according to John’s Gospel, Jesus promises God to come as another helper and friend, God the Holy Spirit, who through Jesus’ going to the cross which come on all people who open their hearts to God, making God not just with us, but in us: dwelling as close as within our hearts, minds, very lives. God always with us, always in our corner, as our closest help and friend.
To be a friend of God, which is what Jesus is extending to each and everyone of us and all people through going to the cross willingly for us, is the gift Jesus offers this night.
Yet Jesus also comes seeking friendship.
My mother used to tell people when they came over to her house something along the lines of “come on, put your feet underneath my table and sit a spell. When you sit under my table, know you are no longer a stranger. You are family. You are welcome”. There is something to sitting at one’s table, joining in a meal, with a friend that can be a comfort, a reminder you are accepted. This is part of what Jesus seeks in this last supper – even though, one who breaks bread with him is even then planning to betray him.
Jesus also asks his friends to simply sit with him in his pain, as Nouwen described, staying by his side as he prays in sorrow and pain in Gethsemane. Yet, to a person, they falter. They cannot stay present with Jesus, cannot look into his pain as companions. Instead, they fall asleep – and when the betrayer comes to arrest Jesus, they scatter and deny Jesus,
Tonight is about Jesus seeking friendship – and Jesus’ friends letting him down and failing him.
If the story ended here, on Thursday night, what bad news it would be for all of us! Yet, as we will celebrate in a few days, betrayal and death are not the end of Jesus’ story – or the story of Jesus’ friends. Rather, Jesus will rise early Sunday morning and, again and again in the days after, will appear reaching out to his friends. And to a person, when Jesus appears to these who each scattered or betrayed, he extends something beautiful to them: the gift of forgiveness. An opportunity to start again. Space to discover with them the friendship they each thought they shattered. Desmond Tutu once said that in the face of shattered lives and relationships, there is no future without forgiveness. Jesus makes another future possible for them, through extending the option of restoring their relationship, not just to the friendship they had before, but to an even deeper level of friendship.
In the call to let us be washed by Jesus that Jesus’ example of footwashing and the church’s sacrament of baptism give, we are reminded that the forgiveness Jesus offered to his first friends extends to us also — and to all people. None of us have gone too far or done too much to be welcomed back by Jesus. He is a friend who forgives, accepts, and helps us find our way back to his side.
A part of what it means when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper as we will in a moment is that, just as Jesus set a table to welcome them into friendship then, so he did so again by extending his forgiveness. And now, through the gift of his offering himself for us and all people on the cross pictured by the bread and cup, Jesus again opens up a space at the table for us through the gift of forgiveness.
We always can return, find that freedom to go to God open and free as a friend again, no matter our failings or mistakes.
Experiencing such a rich friendship from God, invites us to freely learn to not just be a servant to all as Jesus says in our Gospel text, but also to learn to be a friend to all as Jesus did. To reach out and welcome all kinds of people, from all walks of life, even the ones our world considers the last, the lost, and least, in as our friends and to our table of friendship as a community. To also not be quick to give up on others when we feel they have broken friendship with us, but to learn how to extend forgiveness, and be open to at least act with love toward them even as they may take on a role of enemy, and be open to working toward reconciliation with them if they are willing to walk that road with us. Being a friend to God means learning to be a friend to each other and all God’s children in just the ways God has modeled that friendship to us in Jesus Christ.
May we experience and share such friendship not just tonight but all our days. Amen and amen.