Have you ever wondered where the designation Maundy Thursday comes from? I mean, what does “Maundy” mean anyway? Well, it comes from an ancient Latin anthem traditionally sung at the commemoration of the Last Supper, “Mandatum Novum Do Vobis,” which means, “I give you a new commandment,” from our scripture reading. Or, another way of identifying this day might be Commandment Thursday. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).
Have you ever felt uncomfortable with that? Many people really don’t like being told what they can or cannot do. Most people would prefer that the words from Mount Sinai that God gave Moses had been the ten suggestions, or that the laws from Congress or the state legislature would be simply recommendations.
However, all of us know that rules are necessary for an orderly society, and so we are willing to put up with them. Most of us simply ask that the rules be defined clearly enough so we might know whether or not we are doing what we should. The special problem we might have with this commandment to “love one another” is that it sounds so open-ended. It strikes me as a bit like a traffic law requiring that we drive at a “safe speed” without the law ever saying what the speed limits are.
Perhaps there is help in the fact that Jesus calls this a new commandment. There is something different here from all the other instructions we have from the Old and New Testaments concerning our obligation to love our neighbor. Two things different, actually:
1) This command is directed especially to those and for those within Christ’s circle of friends (the church), and
2) This is now a specific standard against which to measure whether or not we are doing what we have been told—the speed limits, so to speak—the standard of the Lord’s own love for his own people.
Why the special concern about church people loving other church people? It is probably because we are brought close, like an extended family. Anyone who has ever raised children knows that brothers and sisters can get into some terrible fights and that they occasionally do things to one another that they would never consider doing to someone outside the family group. It is no different in the church. It’s been said, sadly, that some of the meanest battles ever fought have been waged beneath steeples.
A teenager came home from choir practice early one evening. His dad asked, “What brings you back so soon?”
“We had to call off choir practice this week,” the youth replied. “The organist and the choir director got into a terrible argument about how to sing, ‘Let There Be Peace On Earth,’ so we quit for tonight.” (Tom, aren’t you glad that there are never disagreements in our choir as to how to sing a hymn?)
A new commandment… that you love one another… One thing should be made clear. The Lord’s command is not that we like one another. That would certainly be nice, but to like or not to like is rooted in our emotions, and emotions do not respond to commands. The love Jesus speaks of is not an emotion. It is a way of acting toward one another that says, “No matter what, I want good for you, and I will do whatever I can to insure that you get it.”
Christian love is not something the Lord wants us to feel for one another, but rather something he wants us to do, and he commands us to do, for one another. It so serious to Jesus that without our loving each other in this way, the implication is that we are not his disciples. And then he gives us an example by washing his disciples’ feet, the way a household slave would do.
As to how this love should be measured, our standard comes from the clause, “as I have loved you” (John 13:34). This is a broad and lofty standard indeed. The love that Jesus had for his disciples began with a willingness to ignore the limits of society. He did not content himself with a little group made up of only his “own kind.” He reached out to all kinds of people, especially to those the rest of the world would shun.
The love of Jesus enabled him to take on tasks that would have been thought to be beneath him—servant work like washing dusty feet, as an example. The love of Jesus was able to encompass the hypocrisy of Peter, the self-serving ambition of James and John, the vicious self-righteousness of Paul. It was a love that knew no limit. He loved them so much that he was willing to die for them. That became our standard for obedience. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” A commandment, or “law,” without limits.
By the way, the heart of this uniquely Christian commandment is not simply the prevention of internal strife. Christ’s instruction to love one another as he loved us is itself motivated by another love, love for the world outside the church. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). The command to love is really a command to witness with our lives, to be so winsome in our own fellowship that those outside will want to come in.
Indeed, love for one another—doing for one another—may be the most effective evangelistic tool we have at our disposal. This evening we might ask ourselves, “Who have I been able to bring into the church because of the love I show for my brothers and sisters in the church? Or because of the way I speak lovingly and respectfully about my brothers and sisters in the church?
As I said earlier, this is a commandment with which it is easy to be uncomfortable. Even after the parameters are defined, and the “speed limits” are set, the standard is so high as to be utterly intimidating. I do not know about you, but what I know is that I will never be able to measure up on my own. The good news we have on this Maundy Thursday, or Commandment Thursday, is that you and I are not on our own with this. We have Jesus to show us the way. We have Jesus who, if he is living within us, will give us the love to give to others among us.
Many years ago, the well known preacher Henry Drummond preached a sermon about love called “The Greatest Thing in the World”* in which he suggested that if you put a piece of iron in the presence of an electrified body, that piece of iron becomes electrified. It is changed into a temporary magnet in the presence of a permanent magnet, and as long as you leave the two together, they will share this characteristic.
It is no different with Christians and Christ. When we are very close to him, we reproduce some of his characteristics, which would be quite impossible if we merely attempted to obey his command or imitate his example. We would be trying to live by the Law, instead of living by his Love.
Do you have trouble embodying the love of Jesus? Perhaps you need to draw so close to him that his love is transfused into your being. Yes, Jesus’ standard is high, but his power to help is even higher. He invites us to come near enough to his love that it becomes a part of us and enables us to show it and share it with the world. His invitation is, “Come, be magnetized.” And then when you have been magnetized by his love, show that love in word and deed, so that you can draw people to Jesus and to his Church.
*Henry Drummond, Addresses (Philadelphia: Henry Altemus, 1892), pp. 16-77.