Wednesday, April 15, 2009

hope and maundy thursday

"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another."--John 13:34-35

The new command is love, but hope forms the backdrop to love. More precisely, hope is the source of the new command, and hope is also the result. Think of hope as the alpha and omega of the new command. The new command begins and ends with hope because without hope the new command to love would not have been given, and without love all hope would be lost.

In Dante’s Inferno, the entrance to hell has a sign which reads, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” This sign shows that Dante understood hell. There can be no hope in hell because there is no love-- only self-concern, self-centeredness. We were created to love one another, but hell is a place of isolation. It is a place where one seeks to absorb all things into oneself, rather than giving of oneself for the sake of another. The primary social unit in hell is “self”. Hell may be (objectively speaking) well-populated, but (subjectively speaking) one is all alone in hell. In hell there is no “other”; it is, therefore, a lonely place devoid of love and loving. Because of that, it is a hopeless place. Again: without love all hope is lost, but without hope love is not possible.

Take heart, though, for as long as we live in this world, no matter how bleak things may look, it is not hell. That is to say, hell is the only place in which hope can be utterly extinguished so--as long as we are on this side of eternity--there will always be hope. One author states that “In this sense, hope is not something that one man has and the other does not have…” It is, rather, like the air we breathe; it is always there, even though we may not know it. The fact that we go on living means hope is there, like an unconscious foundation. No matter how hopeless things look, there will always be hope. The fact that we are here today together is evidence that there is hope.

The Maundy Thursday story (as well as the entire Passion Week story) reinforces this idea. In fact, it tells us that hope makes the most sense when everything looks hopeless. The Maundy Thursday story, therefore, gives us some indication as to the enduring quality of hope. That is to say: on the night Jesus washed the disciples’ feet there were challenges to hope. The disciples had seen already that the way of Jesus is a hard way. It is a way in which hope is tested and stretched to its limit. It is a way, like no other way, that gives occasion to enlarging the capacity of one’s soul. The way of Jesus is a way that offers an opportunity to grow in hope, but without challenge hope cannot grow. So: the way of Jesus (being a way of hope) is hard from without and it is hard from within.

The disciples saw this firsthand. The challenges they faced were both external and internal. On the one hand, they met with opposition wherever they went. One writer comments that, on that Thursday night, Jesus and the disciples hurried through the dark narrow streets of Jerusalem to get to the upper room because they knew they were in “enemy territory”, so to speak. The last supper was eaten and the new command was given under the pressure of external opposition.

The new command of hope and love was also given under the pressure of internal opposition. The disciples had spent about 3 years with Jesus learning about the internal overhaul their hearts needed. They spent 3 years hearing Jesus teach them that “evil does not come from the outside in; it comes from the inside out”. So, there were internal challenges to hope.

But, in spite of that, hope still formed the backdrop to the entire evening. First of all, without hope, the disciples would not have risked going to Jerusalem in the first place. Here we see the disciples placing their hope in Jesus.

We often reflect on the ways the disciples failed, but the fact is: the disciples did place their hope in Jesus. On one occasion a number of Jesus’ larger group of disciples deserted him. At that point, Jesus turned to his closest group of disciples, the Twelve, and asked: “You do not want to leave too, do you?” To this the disciples responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69)

Though others deserted Jesus and though they would desert him later, the Twelve did not do so yet. On this night, they were still with their Master. So, yes, with all their failings, the disciples would not have followed Jesus all those months had they lacked hope that Jesus was the one for whom they were waiting. Though their hope was somewhat misguided, they did hope that Jesus would deliver them.

How Long?
We cannot understand the extent of their hope without also taking into account something that forms the subtext of this story. The “something” to which I refer is, in fact, a simple question that had been handed down generation after generation. It is a question that formed a deep Jewish identity. It is the question “How long, O Lord, how long?” Though it is not recorded that the disciples spoke these actual words during Jesus’ last supper, this question does, in fact, color the atmosphere of the entire evening and dominate the story. The disciples, along with their ancestors, were waiting for Messiah. Indeed, the Jewish people could have been defined in large measure at this point in history as “the waiting ones”.

The question “How long, O Lord” was a question that was as old as Job’s suffering. It had been part of their earliest heritage; it formed their most primitive collective memory. To realize how foundational this question was to them, we need only recall that it was of primary importance in the disciples' minds even after Jesus’ resurrection. What did they say? They said, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” In other words, “How long, O Lord, how long? How much longer do we have to wait to receive our Promised Land?”

So it stands to reason that, on the night of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, they were all thinking the same thing: “When, dear Lord, when?” They had arrived in Jerusalem, the historic seat of their government. They knew something big was going to happen; they just didn’t know precisely what, but they anticipated that something was on the horizon.

Like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, they had no idea how and when and by what route he would take them but they did know that a promise was made and all they could do was follow him no matter how long they had to wait.

I mention this because we are like the disciples. We want to know that someday—“when” we do not know—we will be delivered from this place. Like the disciples, the ancient cry of all God’s people has always been (and still is) “How long, O Lord, how long?” I also mention this because I think it is an important and a good question for us to ask.

It is a good question for us to ask, because it is a hopeful question. I consider it a hopeful question because, first of all, it is a cry of pathos. At first glance the question seems like a hopeless cry, but keep in mind that it comes merely disguised as hopelessness. It seems that it is spoken by the one who has no hope, but without hope the cry itself would not be possible (for the person who has lost all hope does not even have the strength to ask such a question). The sign of hopelessness is apathy. As long as there is pathos of any color, there is hope. So: the cry “how long” is a hopeful cry because it is a cry of deep emotion.

I consider the question “How long?” to be a hopeful cry also because it is seated in the future and helps us bear patiently the trials of the present. It is a cry that is asked because a promise has been made. Without the future promise, we would not ask “how long” for then we should be compelled to ask, “How long until what?’’ The question itself directs us to the future, always the future, always to the promise that has been made; therefore, it is a question of hope.

So, tonight, we join with the disciples in placing our hope in Jesus by asking the question, “How long?” Like the disciples we ask this because we know that Jesus, our hope, has come, but in some strange way, he has yet to come. The communion meal that we commemorate this night reminds us of this. Our Messiah has been given to us freely, for we can partake of his bread and wine, but we take this bread and wine knowing that one day the end of our suffering will be complete when he comes again. And so we see that our hope is eternal: it is seated in the past, present and future. Without claiming in the present the promise that has been made in the past (and that points to the future) there is no hope. Hope, contained in this simple supper, is eternal, and is ours through simply eating it. So, we gladly place our hope in Jesus tonight, the once and present and future king.

He Is Our Hope in The World; We Are His Hope in The World
Now I’d like to mention briefly just one more thing about the Maundy Thursday narrative that often gets overlooked. Like the disciples, we indicate our hope in Jesus by eating the last supper with him, but that is only one thing that happens this night. The other part of the story is when Jesus gives us a command to carry out after washing the disciples’ feet. So, in sharing the meal with us, Jesus gives us a chance to place our hope in him; but, in giving us the command to follow, in some strange way, Jesus places his hope in us. Jesus asks us to be his hope in the world. If Jesus is our hope in the world, we are his hope in the world. In asking us to love one another as he loved us, he is saying to us that we are the means by which he wants to impart hope. Jesus wants us to believe in him so that we will have the capacity to love others. Without placing your hope in him, you cannot fulfill his hope for you; but without carrying out his hope for us, others will never know their need to place their hope in him. That’s why your life matters.

This kind of hope is, indeed, what we have been waiting for. We long for the day when those who lead do so because they truly want to serve. We spend our life looking for those friends who will stick closer than a brother or sister, who will even go so far as to give up their lives for us. If only this world were a place where we washed one another’s feet, we would have no more suffering and pain. Evil would be no more. So this night we remember that, without hope, we cannot love. But without love, there would be no hope. Place your hope in Jesus and remember: hoping for him, you are his hope in the world.

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