Maundy Thursday: betrayal, desertion and reconciliation

The last supper original debby hudson 589680 unsplash 1The Revd Fiona Thomas, United Reformed Church Secretary for Education and Learning, reflects on a symbolic act for Maundy Thursday.

On 11 April, political leaders of South Sudan attended a two-day ecumenical spiritual retreat hosted by Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Organised in an effort to support the country’s fragile peace deal, Pope Francis shocked the Church and political leaders when he stooped and kissed the Sudanese leaders’ feet, deliberately echoing the foot washing story in the Gospel of John.

While Mark, Matthew and Luke’s telling of the Last Supper story feature the sharing of bread and wine, John’s account has Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

“If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet,” (John 13:14) is John’s version of “do this in memory of me”.

Foot washing models the humility practiced by Pope Francis as an example of what is required in the hard work of political reconciliation.

You can imagine the tension at that retreat among rival leaders, who had only recently concluded a truce after a civil war that left close to 400,000 people dead.

The mood at the meal in the upper room was no less tense, with foreboding hanging heavy over the gathering. Jesus had so often warned them of his inevitable execution, the common fate of the prophets, and the critical hour was apparently so close at hand.

Even while Jesus teaches them that they should love one another as he has loved them, he says that one among them will betray him to the authorities and the rest will desert and deny him.

A responsive reading of the institution of the Lord’s Supper of Rejoice and Sing, on page 13, reminds us that we are just as ready to betray, deny and desert the one we say we follow.

This meal, with its betrayals and denials, tells the story of one who teaches his people that they too will share in the suffering of their neighbours if they love one another as he has loved them: “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says in Mark 8, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The new life in Christ that we are promised calls us to break free from all that holds us back from loving one another as God in Christ has loved us. That’s where we can discover the true depth of joy that comes from breaking bread and sharing the cup together on this night. And it makes for good politics too.

Picture: A symbol of religious communion. Debbie Hudson/Unsplash
Published: 18 April 2019