February 7, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE MAUNDY THURSDAY REVOLUTION
John 13:1-9 Matthew 26:26-29
The fifth in a series of five.
A few days ago, Helen and I were visiting some friends. They brought out their old family Bible. It was old. So old I wasn’t comfortable even touching it. It seemed like it belonged under glass at some museum. But the Bible itself was not nearly as old as a piece of paper that was tucked inside that Bible. I was allowed to hold this brittle piece of brownish paper and read words I could scarcely believe I was reading.
My father’s name was Oliver. He enlisted in the revolution war and he was taken a prisoner, carried to New York and there starved to death in the year 1777. He left three children — Lucinda, Cordial, and Oliver. I was the youngest and they called my name Oliver. I was born July 23, 1775.
This man named Oliver was born while the American Revolution was still underway. He grew up without a father because his father, also named Oliver, was one of those who gave his life to win the war that created the United States of America. The war that gave us all the liberty we enjoy today. Others who were fighting that same war signed the Declaration of Independence. They said that by signing their names to that document they were pledging to this cause their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
A revolution is defined as the “forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system”. Some have said that Jesus was a revolutionary. Maybe you’ve seen this depiction of Jesus.
It makes him look like Che Guevara, the Marxist revolutionary who was killed in a gun fight in Bolivia nearly 50 years ago.
That’s probably not your favorite image of Jesus. But the truth is that while he walked this earth, there were those who wanted Jesus to lead a Jewish revolutionary army into war against the Romans. And the truth is that there are followers of Jesus today who believe they are called to fight wars in his name. Not just spiritual warfare, but real warfare with real bullets and real bloodshed. They say that sometimes that’s what it takes to bring about the change that Jesus lived for and died for.
Revolution is not always a good thing. Five years ago people were talking about the so-called “Arab spring” as such a wonderful development that was going to bring peace at last to the Middle East. We can see now that it didn’t really turn out that well at all. Right in our own neck of the woods, we’ve just been through an attempt at armed rebellion against the authority of our government. That didn’t turn out very well either.
The general rule is that you can see if a revolution was a good thing or a bad thing by the fruits of that revolution. By that standard, the Revolutionary War looks pretty good. The fruits of that revolution can be seen in a great nation. A nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”, to quote Abraham Lincoln (who by the way was 34 years younger than the Oliver who wrote the letter I held in my hands a few days ago).
And the fruits of the revolution Jesus led — and yes, he did
lead a revolution, though not the violent revolution many were looking for — the fruits of the revolution Jesus led can be seen in the Church. Not the Church at its worst, but the Church at its best. The Church when it has truly been the body of Christ — serving, helping, healing, giving, loving — continuing the work Jesus started while he walked this earth.
This is the final sermon in our series on small groups, and you probably never would have guessed that by this introduction. What does any of this have to do with small groups? The spiritual revolution Jesus led began with a small group in an upper room. It happened on a Thursday. Maundy Thursday. It’s what I’m calling the Maundy Thursday Revolution.
But before we climb the steps that lead to that upper room and recapture what happened there that set all this in motion, l want to introduce you to one of the early followers of Jesus. You won’t find his name in the Bible. He lived a few years after the events described in the Bible took place. His name is Tertullian.
Tertullian lived in Carthage which is in Northern Africa. He was born into a pagan family and converted to Christianity in his middle years. He said something that helps us appreciate the fruits of the Jesus revolution in those early years. He said the Romans who had no appreciation for Christianity whatsoever still would observe the behavior of these early Christians and say, “Look how they love one another (for they themselves, the Romans, hate one another); and look how they are ready to die for each other (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).”
Keith Miller wrote a book a few years ago called The Scent of Love. He said in the early church there was a “scent of love” in the air. It was unmistakable. You couldn’t miss it. The Romans that Tertullian was writing about couldn’t miss it. “Look how these Christians love one another.” Love was in the air! Christian love. Agape love. The love of Jesus.
Here’s how it might have worked in the fertile imagination of Keith Miller: Someone is walking along a back alley in Carthage or Corinth or Rome. This someone overhears a group of people saying things that don’t make any sense at all. They are talking about a public execution. But the man who died on this cross came back to life again. It’s a crazy conversation. These people must be nuts, the onlooker concludes.
But it wasn’t what they were talking about, it was the way they were talking that caught his attention. There was caring in their conversation. There was something different about these people. It was in the way they spoke to each other, the way they looked at each other, the way they cried together, the way they laughed together, the way they touched each other. It was strangely appealing. It gave off the scent of love.
This onlooker might have kept walking down the alley, but then would feel himself pulled back to this little group like a bee to a flower. He would listen some more, still not understand, and again start to drift away. But again he would be pulled back. He would say something like this: “I don’t have the slightest idea what these people are talking about, but whatever it is, I want to be part of it.”
Christianity spread in these early years at a phenomenal rate. We’ve never seen anything like it since. Something happened to set all this in motion. Something happened to create this “scent of love”. That something happened on Maundy Thursday in an upper room.
First, the question everyone asks: What is Maundy Thursday? It’s the Thursday before Good Friday. It’s the day before Jesus was crucified. So why do we call a Thursday a Monday? It isn’t “Monday”. It sounds like Monday, but the word is “Maundy”. It refers to the new commandment Jesus gave his disciples on that night. “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34). “Commandment” in Latin is “mandatum”, hence “maundy”, not “Monday”.
But I want you to notice that even in explaining what is meant by Maundy Thursday, we are getting to the core of the Maundy Thursday Revolution. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Which sounds a lot like Tertullian: “Look how these Christians love one another.”
We’re ready to climb those steps and enter that upper room. We’re ready to see what started the revolution that changed the world.
First, we observe Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. What’s the big deal about this? The big deal is that what he was doing was unheard of. In that culture, slaves would wash the feet of their masters. It was never, ever the other way around. The disciples were horrified. Peter especially. He wouldn’t let Jesus do it. Jesus insisted. Peter relented.
So what is happening here? This is stage one in a two stage revolution. Jesus by washing the feet of his disciples is overturning the established social order. Always before, the whole point of life was to get to the top and once you get there to stay there, or better yet, climb even higher. But here is Jesus, the Son of God, turning everything upside down by getting on his knees and assuming the role of a slave. What is he saying? He is saying that the whole point of life is service. He came not to be served, but to serve (Matthew 20:28). And we’re on this earth for that very same reason.
That’s stage one of the Maundy Thursday Revolution. It happens with Jesus on his knees washing feet. Stage two happens around the table. He has just overturned the old social order. Now he gives us a new social order to replace the old one. This new social order is to be found in the Last Supper. He breaks bread and passes it around. He pours wine and passes it around. He says, “This is my body. This is my blood.” We call this the sacrament of communion. We might also call it the sacrament of community. Jesus gave his disciples a gift. The gift of community.
When we try to understand what was going on in the early church, why it grew as rapidly as it did, how people were attracted to something so new and so foreign, why people risked their lives and in many cases gave their lives before they would renounce their faith, we can never underestimate the power of Maundy Thursday. On this night, the first Christian disciples discovered the secret of community. On this night, the scent of love began to spread. We can study Christian history and conclude that something like this must surely have happened. There’s no other way to account for the data. In 300 hundred years, Christianity grew from twelve disciples to the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. We can begin to grasp how it must have happened, but since in our day we have largely lost the secret of community, it is hard for us to imagine the power it once had.
I would love to see that power unleashed in this church! I would love nothing more than that! And if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen in small groups. This is nothing new. This is old. Much older than that piece of paper I still can’t believe I held in my hands. But this might well be something that seems brand new because we’ve put our emphasis in other places.
The are a lot of good and important things we do as Christians and as a church. But there’s a single word that calls us back to who we really are. Love. “Look how these Christians love one another.”
We experience this love, we grow in this love in small groups. But I know you’re not going to all be in a small group. You probably were afraid I didn’t know that. Some of you are nervous about this new big emphasis and might even be feeling left out. As we bring this series to a close, I want to make sure you hear this: The main thing isn’t small groups, important as they are. The main thing is love. God’s love for us. Our love for God and for each other.
Remember Tertullian? He’s the one who said, “Look how these Christians love one another.” He had a strong social conscience that was informed by his commitment to Christ. He was greatly bothered by practices he saw in his world that were so cruel and unloving. For example, a practice that was very common in that day. Unwanted children would be abandoned on city streets.
Kind of like unwanted cats or dogs in our day. That’s a cruel thing to do, but it’s pretty common. In that day, abandoning children that nobody wanted was just as common. And we know that Tertullian wrote a letter to Rome complaining about this practice. He said it was wrong to abandon children to “the kindness of strangers.” That’s where that famous phrase comes from. Tertullian was condemning the Roman government for allowing that to happen..
The Church got involved. This is the Church at its best, not the Church at its worst. The Church established orphanages. One of the most famous of these was the “Della Pieta” in Venice. It was a girls orphanage. It became something of a music school. It became famous for the high quality of its orchestra and its choir.
Back in 1743, the French philosopher Rousseau visited the Della Pieta. It had become something of a tourist attraction. If you were in Venice, you had to hear the girls of this famous orphanage. Their music was amazing. Rousseau was so touched and moved by the beauty of their voices that he asked if he could meet these girls. This was an unusual request. Typically the girls were heard and not seen. In fact, there was a curtain that blocked them from the view of the audience while they were singing. But Rousseau was given permission to go behind the curtain to extend his praise and gratitude.
When he went behind the curtain, he was shocked by what he saw. The voices had been so beautiful. But the faces of these girls were not beautiful at all. Many of their faces were deformed. Very likely that is why they had been abandoned.
But the Church took them in. In the “Della Pieta” they experienced love. They experienced community. They were treated as the beautiful children they truly were. And as a result, they sang like angels.
Don’t ever underestimate the power of love. It’s the most powerful force on earth. It will revolutionize the earth. If ever its power is fully unleashed. The Maundy Thursday Revolution was the greatest revolution in history. Was and is. Because it isn’t over yet. It’s still going on as revolutionaries like you and me stake our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor on Jesus Christ who told us clearly that we are on this earth to serve, not to be served. We are on this earth to build community.
We come now, loving God, to this great sacrament whose power we so underestimate. It’s more than a bit of bread and a sip of juice. It’s your love given to us and feeding us, that we might live lives of love. It will change our lives. It will change our world. In Jesus’ name, Amen.