The various Christian holy days that occur during the season of Lent and Easter were never a big deal in my family when I was a kid. Of course, we attended church on Palm Sunday and Easter, but I don’t recall ever attending an Ash Wednesday or Maundy Thursday service. Nor did we observe any kind of reverent meditation on Good Friday. In fact, the only celebration that comes to mind was Shrove Tuesday evenings spent in the undercroft of my church eating pancakes.
So when I became a Presbyterian, and my wife asked me to attend Maundy Thursday with her, I didn’t know what to expect. We attend every year now and over the years it’s become one of my favorite services of the church year. It could be the simplicity I enjoy so much. Or maybe the solemnity. Perhaps that’s part of it. But tonight, our pastor captured the essence of what I’ve been trying to articulate for years now. Maundy Thursday is special because of the brutal honesty of it. The story told on Maundy Thursday is not a feel-good tale. Beginning in chapter 26, the Gospel of Matthew describes the 24 hours between the Last Supper and Good Friday in unflinching detail. Jesus is betrayed and handed to the authorities by one of the Twelve. His closest disciple, Peter, denies knowing him not once, but three times. He is brutalized and humiliated by his Roman jailers before being condemned to a horrific death on the cross. The story that begins on Maundy Thursday is one of betrayal, denial, pain, and sacrifice.
In keeping with tradition, our pastor read aloud during the service the verses from Matthew that describe the events that many know so well. But then he did something different, something that drove home the point of Maundy Thursday. After each reading, he asked a simple question, where were you?
During the last supper in the upper room, “where were you at the table”.
During Jesus’ arrest at Gethsemane, “where were you in the crowd”.
And finally, during Jesus’ crucifixion, “where were you at the cross.”
His indictment pierced me to the heart. It was people just like us who broke bread with Jesus. It was people like us who betrayed Jesus. And it was people like us who stood by while Jesus was brutalized and crucified. And if I’m honest, I find myself in this story today. I feast at the table of abundance while the majority of humanity suffers from want and deprivation. I turn away while society relegates millions to lives of hunger, homelessness, illness, and hopelessness. And most troubling of all, I stand mute while society takes its revenge on the condemned through “capital” punishment, which is nothing more than state-sanctioned murder. Even today, in our own way, we continue to brutalize and crucify Jesus in the form of “the least of these” who walk among us.
I believe that Jesus has walked among us many times since his death almost 2000 years ago.
Jesus was among those murdered in the WWII death camps.
Jesus was a black man lynched in the Jim Crow south.
Jesus was a prisoner executed for a crime he did not commit.
Jesus was among the men, women, and children slaughtered at Wounded Knee.
Jesus was a gay teenager beaten to death in Utah.
Jesus was the man who froze to death in a lonely bus stop in Dallas this winter.
Jesus is among the young people speaking out against gun violence and climate change, pleading with adults to ensure their safety and guarantee their future. Jesus walks with these children that some mock and spit on, just as he was mocked and spat upon 2000 years ago.
And Jesus is a refugee huddled at our border seeking safety and protection from the violence in their home countries. He waits patiently for Christians to act in harmony with their faith and welcomes them with love and compassion.
Jesus walks among us to see if we truly understand the meaning of his life and death and to see if we live our lives accordingly. The word “Maundy” itself refers to the commandment Jesus gave to his disciples as recorded in John 13:34-35:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
And Jesus will not return to Earth in power and glory to restore the Kingdom until we fulfill this commandment and do our part to bring about the Kingdom in the here and now.
How many times will we reject Jesus when he comes to us as the weak, the oppressed, and the marginalized living as our neighbors?