Maundy Thursday – Vicar Stoppenhagen
Text: John 13:1-17, 31b-35 (Series B alt.)
Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh
April 1, 2021
In name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world. Amen.
“…when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
This first verse of our Gospel lesson troubles me. “He loved them to the end.” What does this mean? Who is “them”? Is it the disciples? The whole world? How exactly did Jesus love them? By washing their feet? Suffering death on the cross? What is “the end” to which Jesus loved them?
I can see the Lutherans in the peanut gallery rolling their eyes. “Don’t overthink it, Vicar. We are “Jesus’ own” whom he loved to the end—the end of his crucifixion and death. That’s what we’re here to remember!” But I think that is what’s so troubling to me. To put it that way makes it sound like Jesus’ love did come to an end; that it was emptied out on the cross and now there’s none of it left. The disciples got to experience his love first-hand, with the teachings and the healings and the foot-washings. But then it all dried up, and we must be satisfied with simply remembering how great Jesus’ love was back then.
Let’s face it: Jesus loved his own to his end, to his death; but it doesn’t seem like he loves us to our end. Sure, he showed his love for us on the cross, dying for our salvation, but it really does seem like that’s where the love ran out. Then he rose three days later and departed “out of this world to the Father” and we’ve been left to fend for ourselves.
You know what I’m talking about. You’ve felt what must be that absence of Christ’s love in our lives (especially this last year): Loved ones taken from us too soon; long-suffered pain and illness; careers ended abruptly; opportunities taken away; longings left unfulfilled; families divided and broken; a world plagued with loneliness, emptiness, and bitterness. These things just prove the point that Jesus’ love—powerful and effective though it was—rarely makes an appearance today. His love simply ran out on that Friday afternoon.
But no worries! We have more important things to focus on. It’s completely fine that Jesus’ love has run out, because we’ve got that new commandment to see to! Now it’s our turn to take up the task of love: “A new commandment I give to you,” Jesus says, “that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” It’s up to us, I guess, to continue to spread Jesus’ love throughout the world! Jesus got us this far. We can take it from here till he comes in glory. And he’s given us that great example of washing each other’s feet: Servant leadership at it’s finest! That’s what the Christian life is all about, after all: remembering Jesus’ love by loving others!
Such thinking reveals a rather shallow understanding of God’s love for us. It’s absurd to think the love of Christ could ever run out, or that our love could ever compare with his. But I fear this is the attitude we have unwittingly accepted: that to save us from sin, death, and the devil God’s self-sacrificial love was poured out in its entirety on the cross; and now separated by two millenia and six thousand miles, the best we can do is remember Jesus’ love for us. We can’t receive it, we can’t participate in it, we can’t let it shine through in our lives, because it’s trapped outside the walls of Jerusalem in 33 A.D. We might attempt to follow Jesus’ example, to “love our own to the end” just as he did, but ultimately our own efforts fall short. No matter how hard we try, we can’t finish the story that Jesus started.
There is a different way to translate the phrase, “he loved them to the end.” The Greek word telos, which is here translated “the end,” can also be translated as “consummation” or “fulfillment.” With this different translation, our whole understanding of this reading shifts. It’s no longer about Christ’s love coming to an end and then us completing that love. Instead, he loves us into eternity; into completion; into wholeness. In other words, he loves us into what we were created to be, and that task of love, his work of making us whole, is still ongoing.
But we don’t need to worry about how that completion will be accomplished, because Jesus is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega. His love was our beginning, his love is our redemption, and his love will ultimately restore us to what he created us to be. He’s the one writing the story to its completion—not us. And his love is continually made manifest as that story unfolds through time. That’s why we celebrate Maundy Thursday—not because Jesus has given us this new commandment to love one another, or because he mandated, “do this in remembrance of me.” But because it’s through his washing and his feeding that he continues to dwell with us and bring us towards completion, even while he has returned to the Father.
In the waters of baptism, he took your broken, sinful self, drowned and killed it, so that he could restore you to new life and make you a partaker of his goodness. And since we are still polluted by sin, he washes you continually with the words of forgiveness spoken by his servants every week. Even more, he nourishes you in this life with his very body and blood on this altar. The Lord’s Supper isn’t simply a casual reminder of Jesus’ love for you. It’s not simply some spiritual token for you to consume. The Eucharist is Christ’s love in action—forgiving you, completing you, uniting you to him. His body and blood are the balm that literally heals the sin-sick soul and makes the wounded whole.
And in this Holy Communion it’s not only you that is being made complete, it’s the entire body of believers who kneel with you at this altar and at the altars across space and time. For in this meal Christ brings together the disparate members of his body and makes them one in his Church in heaven and on earth. As the ancient liturgies prayed, “As many grains form this one bread, and many grapes form this one cup, so may your Church be gathered from the ends of the earth in Your Kingdom.” In this way, Christ’s love continues to flow through his body the Church. Just as you love your own body, so do you as the members of the body of Christ love and care for one another. His love radiates out from this altar as we build one another up and are drawn deeper into communion with Christ and each other.
Of course, this communion won’t be perfected on this side of the grave. Our love for one another will falter. We will need to continually turn to each other in repentance and hear again Christ’s words of forgiveness. And even when it seems like Christ’s love has run out, don’t worry, it hasn’t! In those moments of brokenness, division, and unfulfillment, you can always come running back to this altar where Christ loves you into completeness. Here is the medicine of immortality, here is life in all it’s fullness. And together we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” patiently awaiting that day when he who has begun this good work in us will return to complete that final restoration. And we will stand before him in glory, face to face, just as he created us to be.
In the holy name of Jesus. Amen.