Sermon April 14, 2022

Maundy Thursday Service 2022

by Rev. James Rausch

“Mandatum novum do vobis.” It’s Latin for, “A new commandment I give to you.”   According to John’s Gospel, chapter 13, verse 34, Jesus, at what we have come to call “The Last Supper,” after Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet… After they had eaten together… And immediately after Judas left to betray him… Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.“   Mandatum novum do vobis.  I share this with you tonight to help you understand where the word “Maundy” comes from.  It is from the Latin word Mandatum from which we get the English word “Mandate.”  A mandate is a commandment.  And our commandment is to love one another as Jesus has loved us.  Maundy Thursday could be called Commandment Thursday.

            So how has Jesus loved us?  The Bible tells us that while we were yet sinners, God in Christ reached out to offer reconciliation or our broken relationship in what my teacher, Dr. Bailey called, “a costly demonstration of unexpected love.”  If you’ll remember last Sunday when we were hearing the story of how a father came out in humility to his elder son who angrily refused to take his place at the banquet, the father addressed him not with the usual word for son, “huios,” but rather chose “teknos,” which tenderly means “My beloved son.”

            I point this out because of what Jesus said to his disciples at that last supper.  He said, “Teknoi, my beloved children, I am with you only a little while longer.”  Jesus used the same word in its plural form as he addressed them in humility, just as he is about to enter the inestimable costliness of his demonstration of love.  And he tells his teknoi, his beloved children, to love each other as he loves us.

            They spent that night on the Mount of Olives in a place called the Garden of Gethsemane.  I was privileged to visit the site – where some of the olive trees are said to have been living for well over a thousand years.   After telling the disciples to remain awake and pray, Jesus withdrew from them “about a stone’s throw,” where he, himself, with great anguish, began to pray.  I will forever be fixated on his particular choice of words.  You know them too.  “”Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”

            In all of the paintings that commemorate this moment, I have yet to see one showing Jesus holding a cup.  Where was it?  Did he carry it with him from their supper?  Where was the cup that Jesus was asking his Father to remove from him?  Well, clearly, it was not a literal cup to which Jesus was referring.  His prayer was spoken rather in terms of a metaphor.   The word he used for “cup” was an ordinary word, “poterion.”  It’s where we get the word “pottery.”

            Now his use of a metaphor assumes that the hearer knows what is meant by the symbolism, so I’d like us to take a moment to name what we think Jesus meant when he said “Remove this cup from me?”  What all did that cup represent?

            Betrayal.  Rejection. Arrest.  Abandonment. Imprisonment.  Shame.  Humiliation.  Ridicule. Condemnation.  Look at how much meaning a metaphor can infuse into an ordinary word!  Unjust conviction.  Shouts.  Spitting.  Beatings.  Curses.  Crucifixion.  Physical pain.  Emotional pain.  Spiritual pain, beyond description.  Clothes stolen.  Beard hairs pulled.  Death, in its cruelest possible form.  Crucifixion.  A cold tomb.  Descent into Hell.   Words can carry loads of meaning when used metaphorically, can’t they?  Sometimes far beyond their literal definitions.  What in a cup? A “poterion?”  In this case it was a collection of experiences that the very thought of caused Jesus to tremble and sweat droplets of blood. 

            Try as we might, it would be beyond our capabilities to name in detail everything that the cup Jesus prayed about ultimately included – all that he endured for the sake of love.  That is to say that there is always more we can add to the description of it.  And we must add at least a few more things.  The cup represented all that Jesus was to go through, and that means it also includes his triumph over death and hell, the resurrection, his reconnection to those he loved, his affirmation to his followers that they could and should carry on spreading the good news, and his ascension into heaven.

            What vast meaning encapsulated into one tiny metaphorical word: cup, poterion.   Now, why my fixation with this word?  How does it mean more than just this overwhelming list of experiences Jesus passed through on our behalf?  To answer this, I will “rewind the tape,” back to the Last Supper, and Jesus’ sharing of the very first communion.  He said what we now say every time we come to the table.  “When they had finished supper, Jesus took the poterion, the cup, and said, “Share this among yourselves.”   I think Jesus used the word cup at supper and in his Garden prayer to say to all of his beloved disciples, “I share all that I endure and accomplish with you.”  “My suffering, my condemnation, my death, my victory, my resurrection, and my ascension into the presence of the Father – these things I give you all to share among yourselves.

            Mandatum Novum do Vobis.  Love another. As I have loved you, you should love one another.