Friday, April 6, 2012

A New Command - Maundy Thursday Sermon

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Tonight it is Maundy Thursday. Tonight we remember the events that took place the very night before and the day of our master’s crucifixion. That night our master and his disciples celebrated the Passover,
remembering themselves how the blood of lambs had spared the firstborn of Israel in Egypt, and how God led them through the waters out of slavery and into a new life as a new people with new laws and new commands. Tonight, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, remembering, as commanded by our master, how his body and his blood, the blood of the lamb of God, was given to take away the sin, not only of Israel, but of the world. We remember that Jesus, by the power of His Spirit, leads us through the waters of baptism, out of slavery to sin and into a new life as a new people with a new command. We gather together tonight, not only to remember the events of Holy Week, but also to hear the words of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Word who was, is, and ever shall be. We listen to His words the night before his death and His words on the cross. Let’s look together at our primary passage for tonight, John 13:31-35.

When he was gone, Jesus said, "Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once. "My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come. "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

Jesus begins, with this passage, what is commonly called his “farewell discourse.” Jesus is having an intimate gathering, a passover dinner, with his disciples and, knowing what the events of tomorrow, Good Friday, will bring, he prepares them as much as he can for that day of suffering and beyond. Some take special note of the first phrase “When he was gone”. Who was gone? Who had just left the feast? Judas Iscariot, the one who went to betray Jesus and set into motion the events of that evening and following day. Just moments before, in verse 27, the bible says “Satan entered into him [Judas]. ‘What you are about to do, do quickly,’ Jesus told him.” So Judas leaves and Jesus, knowing where Judas was headed, to betray him to the authorities, takes a moment to comfort his disciples, to say farewell, and to teach them. He describes in verses 31 and 32 what is about to happen in a great summary of the events of the cross and resurrection. Jesus uses the messianic title for himself, Son of Man, and talks about how God is going to be glorified. Jesus will be obedient and suffer the penalty of death and suffering that belongs to us, to humanity, the rebellious children of God, thus meeting the requirements of justice. The cross which looks like shame and defeat is in actuality a moment of victory, where God is glorified because the salvation of the world will be wrought through the cross. Yet also our passage says: “God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.” Jesus doesn’t separate the cross from his own glorification but rather combines the two. The glory of the cross and the glory of the resurrection are inseparable. The Cross tomorrow on Good Friday, and the Resurrection on Sunday are united as phases of a single redemptive event by which the purpose of God is completed and his righteousness vindicated. Having described that redemptive event, of the glory of the Father and of the Son, Jesus takes a moment of tenderness with his disciples.

He calls them “my children” in verse 33. Now, in the Passover meal setting, the leader of the meal was usually the father as this was usually a familial setting. The father, or the leader, was the one who explained the significance of the Passover. Thus, appropriately Jesus, refers to his disciples as his children as he explains the new significance in his own death as the Passover lamb. Knowing that he must go to the cross and eventually to the right hand of God the Father in heaven, he explains, “where I am going you cannot come. “ Then, in the final two verses of our passage, Jesus gives them a new commandment.

This is, by the way, where most historians and scholars believe that we get the name for Maundy Thursday. Most agree that the word Maundy comes from the Latin mandatum, which we get many words in our own language like mandate, demand, and command. Command Thursday, or Mandate Thursday doesn’t really ring as well in our ears, so we’ve stuck with Maundy Thursday, but really we do remember tonight that as Jesus prepared his disciples for the events of the cross and the resurrection, as he spoke to them as children, he said a “new command I give you.” As Jesus describes himself leaving he says this is how people will know you. This is how, even though I’m gone, people will see me. The disciple, like the Master, reveals the Father. Jesus says in the next chapter, if you still have your bibles open, please keep them open, in verse 14:4 “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus revealed who the Father was, who God was, when people encountered Jesus, they encountered His Father in heaven. So also, when people encounter the disciples of Jesus they should encounter their Master, the Christ, and encounter God. Even though Jesus is gone physically, the new mandate, the new command given on Mandatum Thursday, Maundy Thursday, was intended to continue the mission of the incarnate God. He said “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Many secular historians have noted that one of, if not the reason for the ability of the Christian movement to not only survive but flourish in the pagan Roman empire was the genuine love exemplified by the early Christian community. One historian, E.R. Dodd, again not Christian, writes that “Love of one’s neighbor is not an exclusively Christian virtue, but in our period [from 2nd century AD to Emperor Constantine] the Christians appear to have practiced it more effectively than any other group.” We find that the early church took their new mandate, their new commandment, received on Maundy Thursday night very seriously. They became a new people, freed from the slavery of sin by the blood of the lamb, and they loved one another.
This love of one another and for neighbor is what changed the world. Tertullian, a church father from this time wrote of what the Romans said about the Christians, “See, they say, how they love one another…how they are ready even to die for one another.” It wasn’t a particular theological position that they took, it wasn’t by economic force, and it wasn’t by political power that the world responded. The world responded when it looked upon the disciples of Jesus Christ and saw an incomprehensible love. A new love. They saw, in the love of the disciples, that Jesus Christ had won.

Now, as history went on eventually the emperor of the Roman empire, Constantine, declared that Christianity would be the official Roman religion and in doing so, the requirements, the essentials of the faith, the Maundy Thursday command to love all became watered down. As the Christian faith became a cultural Christianity, and tied to the political state, some of the distinctiveness, such as this unique historical expression of love, became more difficult to detect. We call this era, Christendom, combining the words Christian and kingdom, Christendom, and it basically refers to any situation where you have a place or a people where the dominant culture is Christian. This creates a unique situation of cultural Christianity and a unique group of people, those who choose to be Christian not because of love or the spirit but because it benefits them culturally. Interestingly enough, historically we find ourselves entering into a post-Christendom time in the United States. With a rise in secularism, atheism, agnosticism, and post modern spirituality, followers of Christ are rapidly finding themselves in the same situation as the early church in the pagan Roman empire before Constantine. We not only remember tonight the words of Maundy Thursday, the new command to love, but we listen ourselves. We recognize that if the church is to point people to Christ, is to point people to the one, true and living God, then we must love one another, not just with feeling, but with action. We will not change our Rome through political force, through economic power, or by theological debate, but through loving one another as Jesus loved us. “By this all will know that we are His disciples.” Now, clearly as our passage says love one another Jesus is speaking about the love within the community that is the church, but also clear throughout His teachings and the experience of the early church is that this love that exists within the church is meant to overflow and spread to our neighbors, even our enemies. I read an article recently about an atheist in Texas named Patrick Greene.
Patrick is an atheistic activist who has a history of bringing lawsuits for the public display of Christian imagery, like a nativity scene in front of a courthouse at Christmas. He ended up dropping that particular lawsuit because he found out that he had a detached retina and might lose his sight. His family couldn’t afford the operation and certainly couldn’t afford the lawsuit or investment of time against the Christians. Now you might think that this is a good moment to thank God, that God acted in a way to prevent this atheist, this anti-God person from removing expressions of faith in that community. A local church, responded differently than that, and actually reached out to this man and helped him financially. Patrick was surprised, he said “My wife and I had never had a Christian do anything nice for us.” Let’s stop for a second here and realize how sad this is, that in a community surrounded by churches and Christians, Christians who are to be known by their love for one another, for their neighbors, and for their enemies, this atheist had never had a Christian do anything nice for them. That statement reflects the sad case that is the reality of many Christian communities. Patrick goes on “These people are acting like what the Bible says a Christian does.” Patrick the atheist was so affected by the love demonstrated by these Christians that he’s been sharing this story with the media and is considering even writing a book entitled the real Christians of Henderson County , Texas. A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

This is the command that Jesus gives his disciples as he prepares them the night before. Yet we read later that he doesn’t leave them alone. Jesus says in our passage “where I’m going you cannot come.” Later in chapter 14, verse 15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth…You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” Jesus leaves. He eventually goes not only to the cross, but ascends to heaven. Those who remain, receive another Helper, the Holy Spirit. This Spirit of God indwells us and grants us the power by which to love not only one another, but our neighbors and our enemies. This command that Jesus gives on Maundy Thursday is a “new” command. It’s new in the sense that the love of God has been mediated in a radically new way, and the sharing in that divine love, through Christ and His Spirit, now becomes possible in a manner and to a degree unlike anything the world had seen up to this point. The command to love becomes new, it becomes fresh, even though it comes from the Old Testament. I pray that tonight, it would become new and fresh for us as we experience the Spirit of God together. Tonight we finish our journey of forgiveness. If you’ve been with us at all this last month then you know we have been on a journey for the last 40 days as we’ve explored the various aspects of forgiveness, like Forgiving God and Forgiving When You Can't Forget. This Easter Sunday is a new day and a new series Recognizing Resurrection Here & Now. Tonight we will write on our bookmarks anything that we need to forgive, or be forgiven for, any failures to love as we have been loved, anything we need to let go in order to be reconciled with each other and with God. In just a moment we will physically enact the events of the Last Supper by the sharing in communion, so later we will physically enact a moment of forgiving, letting go and nail that bookmark to the cross.
In doing so, tonight we proclaim to God that we want to remove any barriers in our relationships. In doing so, tonight we accept the promises of Jesus to receive another Helper, to be with us forever, who dwells with us and in us, granting us the power to be true disciples of Jesus, following his Maundy Thursday command, a new command, a fresh command, to love one another and by this all will know we are His disciples.

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