This evening, the Church around the world unites to lament the death of our beloved Jesus. We walk through the Stations of the Cross on a spiritual pilgrimage, contemplating the pain Jesus bore on our behalf. But my mind is still stuck on the dinner Jesus shared the night before.
The Maundy Thursday meal, when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, broke bread, and predicted his betrayal, is an evening remembered every week in the communion liturgy and marked by many churches each year with a communal meal. Many contemporary dinner churches draw inspiration from this night, practicing a Maundy Thursday meal every week as worship.
While the story has been familiar to me since I was young, this Lent I have been enamored with the Thursday evening story as told in John 13. I have been humbled by the way that Jesus serves a meal to his enemy as a model of the extent to which Jesus’ followers must love.
This dinner between Jesus and his disciples is no Sunday after-service potluck. Jesus takes off his jacket, gets down on his hands and knees, and washes everyone’s feet. They recline on couches and against one another, dining by lamp or candlelight. Eating together is an intimate, vulnerable affair. And when sitting together as Jesus’ disciples, they all feel safe.
Jesus has been telling his disciples all along how important it is to love one another and to even love their enemies. I bet that while sitting in this cozy place with those whom they’ve come to care deeply about, the disciples all wholeheartedly agree. They smile and nod thinking of course we’ll keep loving one another, Jesus.
And then Jesus drops his big news of the evening, “Hey, so one of you is about to get me killed.”
Suddenly, the command to love your enemy takes a personal turn, yet Jesus holds to his teachings.
Jesus loves Judas; he loves this person who is about to give him up. Jesus knows his love won’t keep him safe, but he’s not afraid. He doesn’t block the door so that Judas can’t get away. He washes his feet, offers him bread, and reminds him how much he loves.
I have a tendency to believe that the command to love our enemies is given with the expectation that our love will transform evil. That love can dismantle the systems of oppression that create enemies in the first place. That love will turn a weapon of destruction into a tool to forge hope. But while this is true in some cases, Jesus expectation is that we love our enemies even when it ends in our own death.
When Judas leaves, Jesus doesn’t turn back to his disciples and say: “Whoops, that wasn’t supposed to happen! Never mind, I guess this loving our enemies thing is not working out as well as I’d expected.”
He instead turns to his disciples and reaffirms the message of love he’s been preaching all along. “Keep loving one another. Just as much as I have loved you—washing the feet of the person who’s about to get me killed—go on loving one another.” The only way the world will know that we are his disciples, he says, is if we continue loving one another, loving our enemies, loving those who would give us up, laying down our desire to defend or to fight.
Love is not a means to an end, love is the end in and of itself.
In this Maundy Thursday dinner, Jesus not only modeled the depth of love that he expects from his followers, he modeled a powerful setting in which to put this love into practice: at a meal. In offering bread and wine as his own body and blood, Jesus shows his disciples how they can set a table to love an enemy rather than fall into the violence that accompanies defending oneself. He offers his own blood to stop the further shedding of blood, at a meal where this work of reconciliation is applied.
Jesus challenges his disciples not only to eat with those who are safe and who offer love in return, but even to dine with those who would deny and betray the most intimate of relationships.
As I walk through the Stations of the Cross this evening, as I stand vigil tomorrow night, and as I celebrate and feast on Sunday morning, this intimate meal will linger in my mind. For Christians, fear of death has no power at the table because we know that resurrection is on its way.
So go ahead, love your enemies. Dine with those who would betray you. Because this is the only way the world will know that we are Jesus’ disciples: if we offer bread to one another.