The reading from Exodus is the traditional reading for this service, as it recounts for us the meal and preparations for the Jewish Passover feast. The Passover meal, or Seder, is both a remembrance and a celebration. It is a remembrance of the preparations the Hebrew people made in anticipation of being freed from bondage in Egypt. It is also a celebration of the night that God released them from that bondage. This is the night when the Hebrews were saved from death and released from bondage. This is the night when they crossed over from slavery to freedom. That is what makes this night and this meal special.
This is also an important time for Christians, but this is no celebratory meal. This is the night we remember Jesus sharing his last meal with his disciples. This is the night we recognize that Jesus changed the meaning of this meal from the Passover to Holy Communion. This is the night we remember when Jesus was betrayed and handed over to die. This is what makes this night and this meal special.
Tonight we do not celebrate the Passover. For us, our Passover celebration is still a few days away. Tonight we remember Christ’s last meal with his friends. Tonight we remember Jesus' command to love each other and the example he gave us in humble service. Tonight we remember that one of his own friends betrayed him. Tonight we remember that one of his friends explicitly denied him. Tonight we remember that the other ten deserted him. No, this is not a celebratory dinner; this is our last supper before we betray him, deny him and watch him taken away.
According to John, Jesus knew his hour was at hand. He knew he would be handed over to be crucified. He knew he would soon be departing, so he was working at preparing his disciples for the coming events. And on this night he gave them a new commandment.
The first thing he did was to wash the feet of his disciples, all twelve of them. In this way he was showing them what it meant to be a servant leader. In this way he was showing that he cared for all of those who followed him, including Judas. And then, after washing the feet of his disciples, and after Judas had left to betray him, Jesus gave them a new commandment, “That you love one another as I have loved you.”
This is the crux of the mission of God – to love one another as God loves us. It falls to us to make disciples of all nations: not through subjugation, not through fear, not through coercion, but through love. And it starts with learning to love ourselves and those closest to us.
If we can't love each other, how will we ever convince people that God loves them? If we are not able to serve each other, how will we be willing and able to serve others? Besides us, who are the people whom we are to serve? They are those gathered here, certainly. They are also the people who live across the street and across town. They are those who are both the same and different from us. It is our love and service to one another that will help reflect God's kingdom.
This is the night Jesus was betrayed. It's easy for us to look back and blame Judas. It's easy for us to say, “Not I.” But how many times have we betrayed Jesus' command to love others in favor of following unjust rules, or not wanting to get involved, or simply because we are selfish?
It has been said that Judas didn't intend for his betrayal of Jesus to lead where it did. Judas, like everyone else, was looking for the Messiah to come and restore Israel at the expense and removal of the Roman occupiers. Judas got caught up in binary thinking – if this, then that. If I turn him over to the authorities, then he will have to use his power and establish himself as the Messiah. But that's not who Jesus is, or what Jesus is about. How many times have we betrayed the Jesus Who Is in favor of the Jesus we want?
This is the night Peter denied Jesus and the other ten deserted him. It's easy for us to fault those men and say, “Not I.” It's easy for us to say we would have stood up for him in the face of persecution. But people take the easy road of self-protection over the risk of speaking up all the time. Not many people were willing to speak up for the Jews and risk their own lives during the Nazi regime in WWII. Not many white people were willing to stand up for the rights of black people during the 50's and 60's. Not many straight people were willing to stand up for the rights of lgbt persons in the 80's and 90's. And in today's climate, not enough privileged people are willing to stand up for minorities of any kind against hateful speech and acts.
For us today our denials don't always come in the face of extreme persecution, or even at great personal risk. Maybe for us today our denials come when things are going well. When blessed with success or an unforeseen windfall, do we remember to thank God and reciprocate? Do we pass that good fortune onto others in the name of Jesus, or do we chalk it up to good luck or personal skill and leave Jesus out in the cold?
And tonight we remember the time Jesus was taken away from us. Tonight, because of our betrayal and denial, we remember the times we effectively asked Jesus to be gone. All symbols of Christ in our lives are removed from our sight. The sanctuary is laid bare. The things that seem to connect us to God are willingly removed from our life and we are left with our own memories and thoughts. What does it mean to be alone? What does it mean to be without Jesus? What does it mean to turn our back on someone in favor of our own comfort and safety? These are things which we must think on tonight.
Unlike the Passover meal, this is not a time of celebration. This is the last supper before Jesus is taken away from us. This is the time when we are served by the master. This is the time we betray and deny our Lord and Savior. This is the time we either stand idly by and watch, or actively participate in, the removal of Jesus from our lives.
Over the next three days, may we contemplate those mighty acts of our Savior which we ourselves are unwilling to perform.