Jesus’ Final Wish: A Maundy Thursday Reflection
~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United Church ~ April 9, 2020
Bedside can be one of the most intimate places where life is encountered. Bedside is the place where prayers may be offered; it can be a place where love and intimacy is exchanged; bedside is a place where the hopes and dreams of life are contemplated; and…sometimes…bedside is a place where goodbyes are shared. Have you been at bedside and bid farewell to a loved one? Many of us have. And these words of goodbye prove to be among the most sacred times we are blessed to share in this life.
Have you gathered at bedside, and said ‘goodbye’? Have you held hands, shared memories, offered prayers with a loved one before they moved on to the next? What was that like? What do you recall of this sacred moment together? It has been my privilege to join with many families during these precious moments over the years. And, one of the things that I consistently witness exchanged are final wishes: family have final wishes for the loved one as they prepare to take their last breath. And the dying offer final wishes for those they will leave behind. The text before us this Maundy Thursday evening contains Jesus’ final wish for all who follow him; Jesus’ final wish for all who love him; Jesus’ final wish for all who seek to be his living body in the world.
Jesus has returned to Jerusalem to die. The crowds who waved palm brances do not know it; his disciples do not know it; yet Jesus knows what is ahead. Jesus has come to die, and he invites his disciples into the Upper Room, that he might have one last moment, share one ‘final wish’. The time is near…Judas has left the Last Supper to carry out his betrayal, the crucifixion clock is loudly ticking, and Jesus knows that his disciples are about to face their life’s greatest devastation: his death. Jesus’ final wish contains no parables, no stories, no pithy sayings. Just one wish. One simple, straightforward commandment, summarizing Jesus’s deepest desire for his followers.
So, what is Jesus’ final wish? Well, before we explore Jesus’ final wish, let’s first explore what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say “Believe the right things.” He doesn’t say “maintain personal and doctrinal purity.” He doesn’t say “worship like this or attend a church like that.” He doesn’t even say: “Read your Bible,” or “Pray every day,” or “Preach the Gospel to every living creature.” What he does say is contained in three pity words: “Love one another.” As Marshall read the text earlier for us, John’s gospel records Jesus saying: 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews, so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” That’s it….the last dream…words of a dead man walking. All of Christianity distilled down, purified to its essence so that maybe we’ll pause long enough to hear it. “Love one another”. Do we hear it?
If you knew you were about to die, what wish would you share with the people you love? What cherished hope or dream would you share? What last, urgent piece of advice would you offer? In our Gospel reading this week, we hear Jesus’s answer to this difficult question. When I look at my own life, it’s not too hard to name why I perpetually fail to obey this dying wish of Jesus. Love requires vulnerability, and who wants to be vulnerable? Love requires trust, and who isn’t suspicious? Love spills over margins and boundaries, and it always feels safer when we police our own borders. Love continues to be the hardest ‘four-letter’ word we ever try to live out. How are you doing with Jesus’ dying wish? What’s staggering about this commandment is how badly we’ve managed to botch it over the last two thousand years. New Testament scholar D.A Carson names the irony of our failures in this way: “This new command is simple enough for a toddler to memorize and appreciate, and yet it is profound enough that the most mature believers are repeatedly embarrassed at how poorly they comprehend it and put it into practice.”
I read an article recently in the Harvard Business Review by psychologist Scott Berinato. It was written in response to the first week of this pandemic. It was entitled: “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief”. The author notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought upon us death. With the pandemic came the death of all things that we took for granted, the death of all things we took as normal, the death of all things we took as a given. Since the pandemic we have become isolated, afraid, and glued to the media. The death of ‘the normal’ occurred and we find ourselves now in a time of deep grief. The article proceeds to explain how important it is for us to normalize the disorientating feelings of grief that we are experiencing amidst this time. We are grieving and tested on every level as we walk through the valley of grief. Reminding us of the five stages of grief first observed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, we begin to see our struggles in a helpful framework. I wonder which ones resonate with you? There is denial: the virus won’t affect me; anger: you’re making me stay home and taking away my freedom; bargaining: if I social distance for two weeks, everything will be better, right?; sadness: I don’t know when this will ever end. And finally, there is acceptance: THIS IS HAPPENING: I have to figure out how to proceed; I can wash my hands; I can keep a safe distance; I can learn how to work virtually. The most beautiful part of the article, at least for me, was in the author’s referencing of a sixth stage of grief that he proposes we might find…meaning. He noted that working alongside Kubler-Ross, when she was proposing the five stages of grief, was another psychologist by the name of David Kessler who proposed a sixth stage of grief: meaning. After the death and the ensuing experiences of denial, and anger, and bargaining, and sadness and acceptance…also comes…meaning.
I wonder if this time of death we are feeling today will provide a time, like never before, to truly plumb the depths of meaning in our life, in our world, and in our faith. This is an unprecedented time where we are truly challenged to live Jesus’ last wish and demonstrate love. Loving our neighbours by sharing needed essential masks and medical equipment; loving our neighbours by staying home and slowing the spread; loving our neighbours by keeping the faith; loving our neighbours by reaching out; loving our neighbor in the way that only you can! Looking at the text, Jesus is clear: it is not a request. Jesus didn’t say, “This is my suggestion” / “I was hoping you might consider” / “How about…”. This was Jesus’ dying call to us! He said: “This is my commandment.” If we seek to follow Jesus, this is not a choice; it’s not a matter of personal preference. This is a matter of obedience to the one we call Lord, and whom we serve. And these days will truly test what that means: loving like Jesus did.
Don’t you find the towel and basin to be such a meaningful symbol of our faith? Yet, how many of us would be willing to pour the water, as Jesus did? How many of us would be willing to take the towel, as Jesus did? How many of us would be willing to hold the feet of another, and wash them? Wash them in care…in service…in love. People at Northwood know that I am not one for wearing vestments (such as gowns and robes and hoods) as I find they create a separation between myself and the people to whom I offer ministry. Yet, I do wear a stole around my neck. And I do so, because it is a symbol of that towel that Jesus once used to wash the feet of his friends, to love his friends, to be a servant who loved others. The towel and basin is a challenging reminder of our faith, that none of us are better than one another; it is a reminder to stoop down and love one another in the ways God has enabled us. Our most challenging call; Jesus’ final wish; that we love one another. Maybe that is why theologian G.K Chesterton once wrote that "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried."
Friends, into this Upper Room on a Maundy Thursday evening, amidst the approaching aroma of death; amidst the many deaths we are experiencing in this unprecedented time, may we receive Jesus’ dying wish. May we love as if the world depended upon it, because, frankly…it does.