A Maundy Thursday homily, on Luke 22:14-30
One of the classic challenges of having four Gospel books is the fact that they don’t always have their chronology lined up with each other. How did Jesus identify his traitor during the Last Supper? At one point in the evening did Judas leave? What teachings and prayers did Jesus give in that upper room, and what did he save for outside in the Garden of Gethsemane? Some of it we can piece together and harmonize, and some of it we can not. For, as it is, the Gospel writers were mostly not aiming to give us a minute-by-minute story of Jesus, but the whole big picture, the good news, of who he is and what he’s done.
Luke’s Take on the teaching of “Who Is The Greatest”
In Luke’s Gospel book, in the upper room right on the heels of the Last Supper, we read of the disciples falling into a dispute – who is to be the greatest? Matthew and Mark place the same story earlier in their narratives, before the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. Our job is not to slice through the writings of Scripture with an exacto knife to figure out which authors mucked it up and which one is right; our job is to receive the writings of all four, and learn from them. This story of the dispute among the disciples over who would be the greatest has a different context and connotation in Luke’s Gospel compared to Matthew and Mark, and thus we learn something different from Luke’s presentation than from the other two.
In his words of institution, where Jesus transforms the Old Covenant Passover into the New Covenant Communion, he speaks of the Kingdom of God – that after a betrayal, he will eat this meal anew with them in the Kingdom of God. In light of that promise of fellowship in the long-awaited Messianic Kingdom, the disciples in their earthly thinking fall into question of rank. Who will comprise the Inner Court around King Jesus? What will their ranks and positions and titles be? Jesus will have none of that. He tells them that they’re thinking like Gentiles, and that instead they are to disregard such hollow concepts of stature. The young may be as venerable as the old, the leader may be a servant. He cites himself as an inarguable example in v27, “I am among you as the one who serves.” If you line this up with what Jesus did at the Supper in John 13 – washing the feet of his disciples – then this statement is made all the more vivid and tangible to them.
The Gospel of the Kingdom
But then he does not leave them with bare rebuke, but he lifts them up as well. “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom”. Here he returns to the Passover and Holy Communion image of eating and drinking in God’s Kingdom. The people of God in the Old Covenant had the privilege of household fellowship with God in eating the Passover together; now with this New Covenant in Christ’s blood, God’s people will have the privilege of household fellowship with God in eating the Holy Communion together. The Messianic Kingdom will become visible, real, present, in the sacred ritual meal of the Lord’s Supper. “Do this in remembrance of me” finds a clearer meaning now: this will not be a mere memorial of things past, but an eating and drinking that brings into the present the reality of the past. When you partake of the bread and wine of Holy Communion, you partake of the body and blood of Christ that saves us all. For this brief glorious moment, you are in heaven.
Jesus also tells them that they will “sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” This promise was directed to them more specifically: he chose twelve disciples on purpose. Instead of twelve clans or tribes of ethnic Israel, the Church will now be founded by twelve apostles. What about Judas, one might ask? He defected and betrayed them leaving only eleven. True, but the eleven understood Jesus well enough to make sure to replace Judas with a new twelfth apostle – Matthias – before the Day of Pentecost arrived and the Church was formally birthed.
Yet, even though we recognize the Apostles as the foundation of the Church, along with the Old Testament Prophets, and Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone, there is a sense in which we all are seated with Christ at the right hand of the Father. As St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “God raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (2:6-7). This sharing of his Kingdom with all of us a grace, a kindness, a gift. King Jesus doesn’t have to share his power, rule, and authority; he is the rightful heir of all creation! But he has come among us as one who serves; he who is the greatest has offered himself as if the least.
Before Penitence and Joy, be loved.
Before any of us can proceed to Good Friday, the Cross, the death of Jesus, much less his burial, descent, and resurrection, we have to understand this Maundy Thursday reality. ‘A new command I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ Jesus’ love is completely self-giving to completely unworthy recipients. We must realize this sheer condescension, this utter self-abandonment for our sakes, in order to arrive at the Cross with any fruitful devotion tomorrow.
As we move through the liturgy tonight, we will arrive at the Stripping of the Altar. This will be a two-fold moment; I will be removing the beauty and elegance of our worship space and you will be reading Psalm 22. Both the symbolic action and the verbal speech point to the same reality: that the abandonment of Jesus is an ugly thing. He has come among us as one who serves, he has taught and shown us love beyond measure, and the treatment he receives for it is unspeakably horrific. Right now let it be remembered just how much Christ has loved each of us. And after partaking of the Eucharist, the thanks-giving of Holy Communion, let it be remembered how quickly and easily each of us turn our back on him. Then, and only then, will you be ready to stand at the foot of the Cross and mourn the death of our Lord. Then will you be ready to hold vigil, to wait at his tomb, and celebrate with joy the Paschal mystery, the resurrection.