Narrative Lectionary preachers have already passed by the typical gospel lesson for Maundy Thursday, the story of the footwashing in John 13. Instead we are well into the story of Good Friday, which is okay if your congregation is accustomed to going there on Thursday (for instance if you have combined Communion and Tenebrae into one service as has been the case at many of the churches I served), but not so great if you have some other tradition that focuses on footwashing or the Lord’s Supper or both. Here is the assigned text, John 19:23-30. NRSV CEB

This post won’t attempt to solve the liturgical puzzle, but will offer some possibilities for reflecting on the John text. There are three short but major movements.

  • vv. 23-24 give us the vivid picture of the soldiers taking Jesus’ clothes and casting lots for the seamless garment in order to keep it in one piece. While that seems practical, John reminds us they did this to fulfill the scripture, quoting Psalm 22:18.
  • vv. 25-27 focus of the spectators, particularly the women at the cross. From the cross, Jesus speaks to his mother and to the unnamed disciple whom he loved, instructing them to take on the role of mother and son to each other. The gospel assures us that the disciple took Jesus’ mother into his home.
  • vv.28-30 show Jesus fulfilling one last prophecy as he drinks the sour wine from a sponge placed on a branch of hyssop. “It is finished.” (See Psalm 69:21)

If your tradition for Maundy Thursday includes stripping the altar, this text actually works well. Things are being taken, mother is being given away, and Jesus is closing the book on his human life, willingly, knowing that all the things that needed to happen have taken place. We enter the liminal space between death and resurrection. If your congregation expects Tenebrae and the extinguishing of candles, you’ve got a short text but a good one to adapt, and if you’ve followed the NL faithfully, your congregation should be deep into the story already, deeper than ever, one hopes.

Here are some thoughts for reflecting on the three movements, either in a sermon/homily or in constructing times of meditation.

Casting lots – We live in a sharply divided culture, both theologically and politically. We like to think “our” Jesus is the “real” Jesus. The soldiers have crucified him, but they  see the value in keeping his garment whole. Sure, that’s pragmatic, but in metaphorical terms, what can it say to us? Don’t we divide up parts of Jesus, purity here and social justice there? What about Jesus are we willing to say should be kept whole? Take a look at this petition created in response to the World Vision decision and retraction, at OneJesus.

Witnesses at the cross – Even at the extreme and brutal end of his human life, Jesus made a personal gesture. His mother is not a big figure in this gospel, appearing only twice. Consider this thought from John Shelby Spong’s book (full disclosure – we are cousins!), The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. Spong refers to the Beloved Disciple as the “ultimate definition of a follower of Jesus” (p. 252).

Who is he standing with in this dramatic scene at the foot of the cross? It is the mother of Jesus, who is also herself a symbol — a symbol of Judaism, the people of God. …John has Jesus on the cross commend his mother, Judaism, to the care of the “beloved disciple,” the one who embodies the future fulfillment of the Jesus movement. You cannot forget your past, John is saying to the community of the followers of Jesus, who have been expelled from the synagogue. You must accept and cherish the womb that bore you. You must embrace Judaism, your mother, and incorporate her into your own life. (p. 253)

 Sour wine – The glory of the cross is a funny kind of glory, but it’s the glory John has been pointing to all along. What does it mean for one who has declared “I AM” throughout the text to assess that all is at an end and give up his spirit willingly? What does it mean to us? Do we feel the pain of the contrast between the abundant and apparently delicious wine he created out of water for the wedding guests (God’s hospitality to us) and the unappealing image of sour wine on a no doubt none-too-clean sponge (our hospitality to God)?

What are your plans for Maundy Thursday? Please join the conversation in the comments and feel free to share links to original liturgy or other useful resources. As always, we give thanks and praise to the faithful and thoughtful minds at Working Preacher.

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