One of the least understood Christian holidays must be Maundy Thursday. Most of it is about the name. People don’t get it. They ask, “What does “maundy” mean anyway?” Or sometimes they think people keep saying “Monday Thursday”, which makes no sense at all.
The explanation of what it really means is actually pretty interesting, but it involves a quick language lesson:
The word “maundy” comes from a Latin word: mandatum. And mandatum means “mandate” or a “commandment”. And when we talk about “Maundy Thursday” we’re talking about “mandate Thursday”. We’re talking about the night that Christ told his disciples exactly what he expected of them.
So, Maundy Thursday was over a month ago…why am I talking about it today?
When I opened up this week’s lectionary, the calendar of readings that we follow in the church, here was that same passage that we traditionally read on Maundy Thursday. It threw me. Why are we reading it again? But then I started to think, “Maybe there’s something here worth paying attention to more than once a year”.
The passage tells the story of how Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for the Passover. He’s gathered his twelve disciples there at the table. And he knows what is going to happen. He knows that by the end of the night one of them will betray him to the authorities. One will deny him three times. And all of them will leave him alone in his hour of greatest pain.
And yet, there he is. Breaking the bread and pouring the cup. Eating with them. Blessing them. Getting down on his knees and washing their feet, showing them his love and grace and compassion, in a time when we might have better understood his wrath or anger.
In a world where we are often surrounded by messages of retaliation, or vengeance, or eye for an eye cries for justice, it’s a different message. Jesus had done nothing wrong. He’d lived a life of non-violence, he’d healed the sick, raised the dead, and freed the captives. He’d brought hope and life to those who needed it the most.
And in the end, he knew that he was not about to be thanked. He was about to be killed. Because in the end, the goodness, and the kindness, and the compassion he had brought were more of a threat to the Roman authorities than any weapon or any army. He so radically upset the status quo that they decided their only choice was to kill him.
And that’s where that word “maundy” comes in. Because what do you do if you’re Jesus? What do you do when it’s the night before you are going to die? What do you do if you have to tell the people you love the most, the ones who followed you, the ones who sometimes make big mistakes, how to keep moving in the right direction after you’re gone? What is the one thing you are going to tell them?
The mandate, the mandatory thing Jesus tells us to do in this passage is this:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
The irony is that sometimes, especially in the public arena, Christians aren’t very loving people. In fact, sometimes those who share our faith aren’t even kind people.
There are times when people ask me what I do for work, and as soon as I tell them I can see a wall go up. There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of the big ones is that they have been treated unkindly in the name of the Christian faith. I get it. If all I’d felt was pain at the hands of Christians, I wouldn’t want to get to know a Christian minister either.
The reality is that sometimes we Christians are our own worst public relations people. Jesus told us that our love for one another, our kindness, would be the mark of how people would know us. It would be our identification card. And yet, sometimes Christians do just the opposite.
I debated about whether to talk about what I’m about to talk about today, but I know it has been on a lot of your minds this week, and there are times when not talking about the hard things is a form of pastoral malpractice.
Over the last years, some of you have shared old, deeply painful experiences with me related to what I’m talking about. I’m honored you have trusted me. And I know this week has brought many of those memories up.
Because this week we heard about what is happening in the South, especially in Georgia and Alabama. There the right to choose is being eroded. And in those places it is primarily Christian groups, people using the name of Jesus Christ, who are driving this agenda.
Now, I understand that there are good Christians who are pro-life, and good Christians who are pro-choice – perhaps those two exist even here in our own church. Our own denomination’s stance, along with a number of other denominations, is that everyone should have the right to choose. In fact, ministers in the UCC were active even before Roe v. Wade, helping to connect abortion providers with those who needed them.
But I also know there are those who really believe abortion is immoral. I disagree, but I respect it. And I know people who live out their pro-life commitments by genuinely caring for parents both before and after childbirth. They also don’t end their concern for the child after birth, but advocate for them in every arena.
But these laws in Georgia and Alabama? They’re just plain cruel. In Alabama, for instance, not even survivors of rape or incest are allowed to seek abortions. That means children who have been sexually abused will be forced to carry their pregnancies to term. And survivors of sexual assault can now be jailed for longer than their rapists.
And these bills won’t just stop in the South. They will make their way to every state, including ours. Back alleys will be the norm once again. And, of course, abortions will not stop…they just won’t be safe anymore.
Because this isn’t how you stop abortions. This is just how you make them criminal. If you really wanted to stop abortions you would fund family planning initiatives. You’d teach sex education. You’d make sure people had access to contraceptives. You’d work to stop sexual abuse and assault. You’d make sure that every baby could have enough food, and shelter, and medical care.
But this isn’t about stopping abortions. This is about exerting control, and instilling fear.
This week I remembered a time about twenty years ago when a friend of mine had to go to one of those Georgia clinics. I have to admit that I was still working out what I thought about abortion back then. I had qualms. And when my friend asked me if I would go with her, I think she saw a split second of hesitation.
That’s when she said to me the thing that made it all clear: “I just need you not to judge me right now…I need you to support me”
And so, I did. I went with her, and held her hand, and realized that in that moment my calling as a Christian was to be kind to her, and to love her, as she made an excruciating and frightening choice
And it was excruciating and frightening, even for me. Going into that clinic in a city where clinics had been bombed was unsettling. And this was in a Georgia where she had every legal right to do what she was doing. That Georgia does not exist today. And I know that today there are many there who are afraid.
Right now you might be agreeing with me, or you might not be. You might be saying, “Why are you preaching about politics?”
But I hope you hear me that I’m not trying to preach about politics, and certainly not about partisan politics. You will never hear me endorse a politician or political party at church. Vote however your conscience dictates. But hear me that I’m trying to preach about our faith, and how it tells us to treat others. Because I don’t believe that right now the Christians who are driving these laws in the South are being very loving.
My friends who live down there, who are afraid? They don’t either.
Friends sometimes ask me “How can you be a part of the church? How can you be a part of a group that does things like this?” And, I get it. Sometimes it must seem like by staying in the church, I’m siding with the oppressor. And this is just one example out of many of the ways that people have used Jesus Christ to bully and intimidate those with little power.
But in the end, I remember what Jesus said. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
And I want to follow that Jesus. I want to follow the one who said that the only identification card we need as Christians is our own loving kindness. I want to follow the one who I think would often be appalled by what is done in his name.
And I want to be a public witness for that kind of love. I want to show our neighbors and our world that the Christ I follow is not one who issues painful, punishing mandates. The Christ I follow had only one mandate: to love
I believe in the mandate. And I believe it’s my job to fiercely love this world enough to want it to be fair, and just, and kind. And I think that sometimes that means that we who are Christians cannot be silent anymore. And we cannot allow our faith to be co-opted in the public arena. Not now. Not when lives are literally at stake.
In New Hampshire we are in a unique position. Every four years the eyes of the nation turn upon us and we have an early chance to influence the agendas of the people who are running for the highest office in the land.
So, no matter your party, no matter your political belief, I want to call on you to not squander this chance. Instead, speak about your faith this year. Speak about what you believe. Speak about what you believe Christ would have us do
But as you do it, do this…do it with kindness…do it with fairness…do it with love.
This is our chance, as Christians, to change the narrative. Moderate and progressive Christians are rarely the ones chosen to be talking heads on the evening news when it comes to matters of faith. That’s because we’ve been too quiet. But that can change. That must change. Our moral voice, our voice of Christ’s love, is needed more than ever.
And may there come a time, soon and very soon, when they know we are Christians not by our laws, but by our love.