Maundy Thursday The Reverend Jeffrey M. Halenza
|April 9, 2020 Christ Our Hope Lutheran Church
Maundy Thursday is the day on which we remember Jesus and his disciples having a meal together, the meal they ate together on the night of his arrest and trial, the night before his crucifixion – the last meal they ate together, the Last Supper as we have come to call it. During the meal, Jesus took some bread and gave it a name – his body – and took some wine and gave it a name too – his blood – and he gave the bread and wine to his disciples and told them that he was giving his life so that they could have life; he told them to take his life into their lives so that he would live in them and they would know true life. This giving of the bread and wine is what we now to call Communion. Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
And that is what we are to do on Maundy Thursday: remember that night long ago, and remember him.
But the truth is that we sometimes forget Jesus.
If you’re anything like me, then by Tuesday or Wednesday you have forgotten him in the midst of all the demands and pressures, confusion and chaos, pain and loneliness. Even as a church we sometimes forget him – in the midst of all the busyness and meetings and goings on we can forget that finally the only reason the church is here is Christ and that what we are to be is him, Christ one to the other.
So let us remember, remember Christ.
And the place to begin, I think, is with trying to picture the room in which Jesus and his closest followers gathered. It is a plain room. The walls are bare and the night has painted them with shades of gray. Candles burn to hold the darkness back, but they only barely hold it back. There is a cooking fire in the corner and the smoke from the fire has made the dim light in the room thick and heavy. There is a wooden table and on the table there is what remains of a meal of fish and bread and wine. And around the table sit some men, while off to one side stand some women who are looking on. Some of those at the table seem tired and can barely keep their eyes open. Another one seems very nervous and keeps looking towards the door. A couple of them are smiling as if they had just remembered a joke they had heard that morning. And at the head of the table sits One whose eyes are alive. But not with laughter. He is leaning forward. He is saying something. And you get the feeling that whatever he is saying, he wants with all of his heart for the other ones to hear it. You get the feeling what whatever he is saying somehow it could make all the difference in the world to them if they could only hear it and believe it.
And now try to picture those who were gathered in that room.
But just who did gather that night?
Well, sitting over here are James and John.
They are brothers, the sons of Zebedee.
They can barely keep their eyes open they are so tired. Jesus called them “Men of Thunder”, probably because they were big, loud, boisterous fellows. But tonight they are tired and unusually quiet.
Really, we don’t know much about them, except that they were a couple of mama’s boys. You see, they were the ones who got their mama to ask Jesus to give them the top spots in the kingdom of God, they were the ones who wanted to be promoted over all the other disciples and “be named Executive Vice-Presidents of the kingdom.” They wanted the plush offices right next to his. They “wanted keys to the executive washroom.” Of course, Jesus knew who put mama up to asking him and so he looked right past her and asked the boys, “Do you have any idea what you are asking? Do you realize you’re asking for big trouble when you ask to be made great in the kingdom? Can you drink the cup of suffering I am about to drink?” And the boys gulped hard and said they could. But you get the feeling they really didn’t mean it, that it never dawned on them what they were asking for, what they were in for. And, as you might expect, when the rest of the disciples got wind of what was going on, they really got steamed because they figured they were being aced out of the prime spots. So Jesus had to sit them all down and try once again to get it through their thick heads what this kingdom thing was all about. And what he told them was this: if you want to be great, then you have to serve others; if you want to be first, then you have to be willing to be last; and what the whole thing boiled down to was not being served, but serving and giving and even suffering for the sake of another. Now whether the other disciples finally got the point, I do not know, but it seems that James and John missed it again. You see, in a few hours, they would fall asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane while Jesus was a few feet away sweating blood over the suffering he was facing. And what they were dreaming about, I have no idea – maybe those big offices right next to the boss’ office.
Well, anyway, picture them sitting there, tired, their heads almost too heavy to hold up.
And now, picture Andrew.
Andrew was the brother of Simon Peter. And, of course, Simon Peter was the center of things, “the one who in the group photographs,” was always seen standing beside Jesus, the one whom Jesus called “the rock”, the one whom Jesus felt he could count on the most. And so picture Andrew “living in the shadow of his brother.”
Do you know what it’s like to live in the shadow of a brother — or a sister? Do you know what it’s like to feel that your brother or your sister is the favored one?
And so picture Andrew figuring out a way to get some attention, picture him thinking about a joke he heard that morning, thinking about telling that joke to the others the first chance he got.
And maybe thinking too that he feels like a joke sometimes, that he is a joke, a bad joke.
And who else is there?
Well, Matthew is there.
Saint Matthew as we refer to him.
But Matthew was no saint. At least not when he first hooked up with Jesus – when he first hooked up with Jesus he was an out and out crook. Matthew had been a tax collector for the Roman government and working for Rome as a tax collector was a sweet deal. Rome would set the amount it wanted from a particular district and, as long as the quota was met, the boys in Rome were happy – if the tax collector could squeeze more out of the people, well, that was his to keep. So the idea was to beat the people out of as much as you could. Needless to say, “when Matthew came oiling down the street, any self-respecting person would cross to the other side.”
His own people saw him as a traitor, Rome saw him as a stooge, and what Matthew thought of himself, we do not know, but chances are he did not like what he saw in the mirror every morning as he shaved.
And, oh yes, there is Thomas.
“Doubting Thomas” as he has been called down through the centuries.
And Thomas has been called that because following the resurrection of Jesus, when the other disciples claimed that they had seen Jesus alive, Thomas said that he would not believe it unless he could “see the nail marks for himself and touch those ruined hands.” Thomas preferred to stick to what he could see and touch. And he was never short on questions.
It was hard for Thomas to believe, so hard.
But little did Thomas know, sitting there that night, that in a few days he would see and touch those ruined hands and not have a question left to ask and only be able to stammer, “My Lord and my God”.
And then picture Nathaniel.
He’s “wearing glasses as thick as a bottom of a Coke bottle” and he’s as blind as a bat without them. His nose is buried in a book.
But now he looks up and you can see butter on his chin. He takes his glasses off and as he’s cleaning them with his sleeve he squints in the dim light at the One who is sitting at the head of the table. Nathaniel is perplexed because everything he has read says that he can’t be the One.
Nathaniel keeps wondering, can anything good come out of Nazareth, can anything good come out of Smyrna?
He puts his glasses back on and returns to his book not realizing that even with his glasses on he’s blind as a bat because sitting there right in front of him is the One, the One he’s been looking for all his life.
And then, standing off to one side, is Mary, Mary Magdalene.
“Painted up like a cigar store Indian she stands there. A retread if there ever was one. She has more miles on her than a ‘57 Chevy. Mary’s been around. Old tart, old wreck, old brokenheart.”
But Mary knew a thing or two about love and she knew a thing or two about courage also and Mary had more love and courage than the rest of them put together. She stuck it out to the end and even beyond. In a few hours, all the others will have hightailed it into the hills leaving Jesus holding the bag.
But not Mary. Last friend, best friend, she will stick it out and stand at the foot of the cross.
And on Sunday morning you will find her standing outside an empty tomb and whatever dark doubts you might have about what happened that morning, “one look at her face would be enough to melt them all away like the morning mist”.
And over here is Martha, busy as always.
Martha is cleaning up.
She wants to fuss at the men for being so messy, but she thinks better of it. She also wants to fuss at the One at the head of the table and tell him that he needs to take better care of himself, but she is afraid to say anything.
She wipes her hands on her apron and sits down for the first time since morning. She is worn out. Weariness washes over her like a great wave. She knows the men laugh at her fussiness and think she’s foolish. But staying busy is the only way she knows to keep back the emptiness and deadness she feels down deep inside.
And as she sits there wanting to rub her aching feet, she wishes with all of her heart that he would put life in her like he once put life into her brother Lazarus and raise her up out of all that is dead and empty inside her.
And then, of course, Simon Peter was there, Simon the Rock.
But you have to wonder sometimes just why Jesus did call Simon “the rock.” Maybe because he could be as dense as a rock. Half the time Simon didn’t know which end was up and he was always making a fool out of himself. Simon had a big mouth and “he was always putting his foot into his big mouth and having to eat his big words.” But you have to hand it to Simon. He was always willing to stick his neck out. While the other ones played it safe, Simon was willing to put it on the line. On another evening, when the disciples were out in the middle of a lake in a boat, Jesus came to them walking on the water. While the other disciples cowered in fear, Peter stepped out on the water and actually made it a few steps. But then he took his eyes off Jesus and Peter the Rock sank like a rock. But at least he risked it, stepped out into the unknown with faith. And maybe that’s why Jesus called him “the rock”, because he could count on Peter to stick his neck out, and maybe that’s what Jesus figured the church needed most of all, what you could build a church on — somebody willing to stick his neck out, step out into the unknown with faith, and make a fool of himself for Jesus’ sake and not just be a plain fool.
And so picture Simon Peter sitting there ready to open his big mouth, ready to tell Jesus that he can count on him, that even though all the others might run away and try to save their own skins, even though all the others might deny him, he wouldn’t, no sir, not him.
And now picture Simon Peter standing in the darkness of the morning with tears “rolling down his face like rain down a rock” because in spite of his own big words he saved his own skin, he denied that he even knew Jesus.
And thus you have a picture of how hard it is not to play it safe, how hard it is to risk all, how easy it is to kid ourselves about this commitment business. And you also have a picture of why it is that we so desperately need God’s forgiveness.
And then there is Judas, nervously eyeing the door.
Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus.
Now do not picture Judas as evil; picture him as having the best of intentions.
Judas never meant to hurt Jesus; he never meant for it to turn out like it did. He just wanted to force Jesus’ hand, to force Jesus to use his power the way he wanted. He figured that once Jesus was confronted by those clowns from the Temple, Jesus would act, let loose, use his power to take over and be a real king. Judas was so sure that if he just forced his hand, Jesus would do what he wanted him to do, be what he wanted him to be. Judas never figured that Jesus would just stand there, just stand there, and say and do nothing. Judas never figured what they would do to those hands, what Jesus would let them do to him.
And Judas also probably never figured that very soon he himself would be hanging from a tree, hung by his own good intentions.
And then, at the head of the table, sits The One whose eyes are alive.
He has a scrap of bread in his hand and he is leaning forward. He is saying something. And you get the feeling that whatever he is saying he wants with all his heart for them to hear it. You get the feeling that whatever he is saying somehow it could make all the difference in the world to them if they could only hear it and believe it.
And what he says is this: “Given for you.”
“Given for you old crock and crook, given for you big mouth and bad joke, given for you mama’s boys, doubter and blind man, weary one and empty one, even for you betrayer.”
What he wants with all of his heart for them to hear are the words, “Given for you.”
Because they are the words that can make all the difference in the world.
Because to hear those words is to hear the words of life and hope and to believe those words is to somehow have life and hope.
And so once again we observe Maundy Thursday.
And the words we hear in the story are the words we have heard so many times before: “Given for you.”
They are simple words, and yet perhaps they are words which we still do not fully understand.
It is a terribly difficult thing to understand how one life willingly given can bring life to all. Perhaps all we can say is that there is tremendous power in those words – there is the power to transform life, to transform old crocks and crooks, big mouths and bad jokes, mama’s boys and doubters and blind men, weary ones and empty ones, even betrayers.
The power to transform even you and me.
Maybe if we could finally hear those words, truly hear them, hear that we are loved, forgiven, we might even want to give ourselves to him and let him live in and through us.
Just picture that!