There are always two emphases on Maundy Thursday: One, of course, is the meal. Communion on Maundy Thursday ought not be the same as always. There should be a different way of serving and a different way of receiving. We need to step out of the normal, comfortable patterns and do something different this nigh – not simply for innovation’s sake, but to recapture something of the unsettled experience of the disciples as they sat around that table with Jesus. Yet the meal was familiar; they had prepared it as they had prepared it many times before. They knew how things were supposed to go; they knew the words and they knew the actions. But in the midst of it all, Jesus changed things—maybe not dramatically, just some new words, some new interpretation that changed everything.
We too have gotten overly familiar with the ritual—or most of us have, anyway. So, let’s set aside our patterns and find new ways to gather and to serve and to be served. Let’s make circles instead of lines. Let’s serve one another rather than a pastor or Communion steward serving everyone. Let’s change up the bread, use a different cup, drink rather than dip – something that makes us see this familiar ritual in a new way, something that lets us feel it and not just go through the motions. This was Jesus’ way of remaining present, even as he was about to leave this earth. Let’s focus on the presence in the action, in the community, in the words.
The second focus of the service is the commandment. “Maundy” comes from “mandatum,” which is Latin for “command.” And what was the commandment? John reminds us that it was to love. Love one another as I have loved you. This isn’t just good advice; this isn’t how to overcome division or to move toward reconciliation; this isn’t just good human relations practice. No, this is a commandment. Can you command love? Jesus thought you could, apparently.
But what does it mean to love one another? It is not, of course, about good feelings. Or as Frederick Buechner wrote, “this doesn’t mean your pulse is supposed to quicken every time your neighbor passes” (Buechner, Wishful Thinking, Harper & Row, 1973, 72). It means that you are able to work for the good of the other, the one you’re supposed to love. You are to hold the other in your heart and mind as you live and work—not live and work just for your own good.
A recommitment to obeying that command is a part of why we gather. We remember Jesus, and we remember his words, and we once again pledge to learn to live by the command. In other words, on this night, we gather and offer ourselves to be gathered up in Jesus by choosing to live by the call to love.
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.