Today is Maundy Thursday. The word "maundy" comes from the word "mandatum," the first word in the Latin translation of the new command that Jesus gives to his disciples in today's text. It is also a day in which many churches gather to take the Eucharist in remembrance of Jesus giving the Lord's Supper the night before his arrest. The gospel passage for today is John 13:1-17, 31-35.
Thus far my Maundy Thursday has been spent watching The Lost Battalion as I substitute for a high school history class. The movie is based on the true story of an American battalion that found itself surrounded by German forces during the First World War. Like war movies should be, it is harrowing and hard to watch. But it is a good story and a well-made film.
The irony of this movie on this day is not lost on me. As I watch men mowed down by machine gun fire and tossed in the air by mortar shells, I hear the mandatum from which this day gets its name: Love one another.
Of course it goes beyond that simple three word phrase. If it just stopped at "love one another," then there's all kinds of wiggle room in that. If I asked one of the classes for which I am substituting what it means to love one another, I would probably get twenty different answers (a few of which would probably be horrifying to me). Love one another is a powerful statement, but an incredibly vague one as well.
That's possibly why Jesus didn't stop there. The teacher tells his followers to love one another as he has loved them. And on this day, we remember two specific acts that bring that love into focus. In Jesus washing the disciples' feet, we witness that this love is one of humility. It does not lord over people, but seeks to serve. In Jesus offering the Lord's Supper, we witness that this love is a sacrificial love. The bread and the wine symbolize a Jesus who will be broken and poured out for the sake of others. He went to the death out of love.
To love one another as Jesus loves is not to love in a fluffy or superficial manner. It is not a love that comes from a place of superiority or power. It is humble. It is giving. It is all those wonderful things Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 13 that makes people nod their heads in profound agreement even though the idea of living those acts out is crazy to most.
Loving as Jesus loved is difficult. We can try to skirt around and rationalize by saying, "Well, he said to love one another. That's fellow Christians. That should make it easier." Have you considered the eclectic grab bag that is Christianity? Have you been on the internet recently? My God, there are people who are decidedly non-Christian who are far easier to love than some people in the church.
And that is not even taking into account that within that room, as I mentioned yesterday, there was Judas. There was Peter ready to deny three times. There were deserters. Or the fact that Jesus told us to love our enemies. "Love one another" can seem narrow, but when you consider the ministry and actions of Jesus, it is wider than the open horizon. Love your beloved family member, your friend, your neighbor, the stranger, the one that makes you uncomfortable, the dude on the internet who says you aren't really a Christian, and your enemy just as Jesus loved those around him.
There is a scene in The Last Battalion in which a soldier asks Major Whittlesey why he is ordering his men to stay in a seemingly hopeless position. They have orders from their superiors that this is what they must do. Whittlesey acknowledges that he disagrees with the general's decision, but he says: "Life would be a lot simpler if we could choose our duties and obligations. But we can't, and we shouldn't."
That general's command to put lives in danger (he later refers to the casualties as "acceptable losses") does not deserve to be put in the same sentence with Jesus' mandate, but Whittlesey philosophy does connect. It would be a lot simpler if we could choose who we were to love. But we cannot do that and Jesus shows that we should not do that.
This love is what is to define us. It is by this love that others are to know that we follow Jesus. So as we take the bread and the wine tonight in remembrance of him who laid his life down for us, may we also take up the hard road of loving those around us just as Jesus loved us.