On Maundy Thursday, the church gathers around a simple table.
And we share a simple meal.
And we hear a simple command: love one another.
That’s the new commandment that Jesus gave the church that night when he gathered at a simple table to share a simple meal with his friends.
Nothing extravagant—just this: love one another.
It is the church’s Thanksgiving night, and this is our family table. This is where we gather with our sisters and brothers and tell the family stories which shape us, and which remind us that we belong together.
And this is the story we always tell this night, how Jesus, after washing the disciples’ feet, sits at the table and breaks bread and drinks wine with his closest friends.
And, at least as John tells the story, this is when Jesus offers his goodbyes to his disciples, telling them that he was leaving.
And then he gave them the new commandment, a simple commandment, that they should love one another. That’s how people will know you are my disciples, he told them, by your love for one another.
This is our story. This is what it means to be the church. We are to love one another.
And it seems that if we should know how to do anything, it would be that, because it’s the thing we talk about and sing about more than anything else. “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
But then you look at a congregation like the one the Apostle Paul knew in Corinth, and you get the sense that love is harder to understand than we know.
I’m thinking now about his beautiful poem that we call the love chapter—1 Corinthians 13. In that poem, Paul startles us with a truth that we sometimes forget. Like everything else in life, our understanding of love is incomplete.
We see in a mirror dimly. Our knowledge is incomplete. Our prophecy is incomplete. Our understanding is incomplete.
And our love? Yes, that too, says Paul. Incomplete. Partial.
That should have been easy for the Corinthians to understand. They were a church that had more problems than you can imagine. They were fighting about music and leadership and human sexuality and spiritual gifts and…well, just about anything you could think of to divide into factions about.
And they were just a few years removed from those simple words of Jesus: love one another.
And the way they understood that command in Corinth was just like everything else this side of glory. Their practice of loving one another was woefully incomplete. They could see in a mirror dimly. But that was all.
We know that reality, don’t we? So many years after the church first gathered at our family table and heard who we are—we are those who love one another just as Jesus loves—we realize how incomplete our understanding is. We love only in part.
Which is why we keep gathering to hear this story. And to remember Paul’s words to the Corinthians.
As someone once said, these words are the quietly beating heart that make sense of everything else the church is called to be and do.
Tonight, when we gather at this table, it will be a time to not simply look back in sadness to what happened the night when Jesus was betrayed, but it will also be a moment for us to look together into the future that God is bringing to pass.
At this table, in the context of our love in the name of Jesus, we are opened to the reality that God’s future has arrived in the person of Jesus Christ. And that truth calls us to become people of the future, people in Christ, people remade in the present to share the life of God’s future.
And that is good news. This future emphasis, this stress that what we are at the moment is incomplete, turns Jesus’ command to love one another and Paul’s poem on love away from a moralistic command—just try harder to behave like this and to love like this.
Because that just doesn’t work. You can say it over and over and louder and louder, but all that does is remind us of our responsibility—our duty. But as long as we think of love as our duty, we aren’t very likely to do it.
NT Wright suggests, though, that the point of these chapters is that love is not our duty, but rather love is our destiny. Our future.
And so we gather at this table to remember the future. To remember the things which Jesus spoke, the service that he offered, the love that he shared.
And we shape our lives by what we see and hear.
And what we see and hear at this table, is love.
Love is the language Jesus spoke, and we are called to speak it so that we can communicate with him.
Love is the food they eat in God’s new world, and we must acquire the taste for it here and now.
Love is the music God has written for all creatures to sing, and we are called to learn it and practice it now so that we are ready to sing when God calls our name.
Love, finally, is the future of God coming to life in you and in me, coming to life in our community, and moving through us for the life of the world.