We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.
And we pray that our unity will one day be restored,
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
We will work with each other, we will work side by side.
And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride,
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
This is a hymn written in the 1960s by a Catholic priest, Peter Scholtes, inspired by today’s Gospel: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Today is Thursday in Holy Week, often called Maundy Thursday. Maundy is connected to the word “mandate,” a command. Jesus gives us a new commandment.
As written in the above gospel text, Jesus commanded his disciples to love each other. He did not only command them through words but also through example, by getting into action. The action was not by force, not by beating them up; he set the example himself. As we pray in the collect, Jesus instituted the Sacrament of his body and blood.
Saint Paul writes to the people in Corinth what he had received and would pass to others: “The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”
Does it sound familiar? Whenever we have Eucharistic service, we hear this institution of the Eucharist: Take. Bless. Break. Give. Forgive. Remember. These are the actions of Holy Communion, mentioned in the synoptic gospels and testified to by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians.
Jesus takes up some very basic things that are used every day, and in turn, gives us life and strength. The bread: he blesses the God-given thing, breaks it open, then he gives it to the people. Think about this: for the bread to be shared, it has to be broken. For Jesus to be shared, he has to be broken. He loves us; he is willing to be broken so he can share himself with us, so he would be in communion with us and we would be in communion with each other.
Our Lord Jesus’ willingness to share himself is an act to redeem God’s people. He uses the table wine as a metaphor of his blood, tells us that he uses his own blood to cleanse us from our sins, and gives us life by instilling his blood in us.
Before our Lord is betrayed and handed over to the Roman authorities, he hands himself over to his disciples – and to us.
Jesus uses some outward and visible signs – in this case, our daily basic sustenance – to remind us, to enter into us, and to be with us. That is how he loves us. Therefore, whenever we eat this bread and drink this wine, we do so remembering Jesus our Christ. We do it in remembrance of our Lord’s love for us, his willingness to hand over his body and blood, his willingness to die on the cross. However, this remembrance is not just for us to keep within ourselves; that remembrance is to be proclaimed so that it will be remembered.
Jesus has demonstrated how he loves us. Just in case the disciples do not get it, he further demonstrates by washing his disciples’ feet. To wash their feet, he has to kneel down in front of them. He shows his willingness to do something that appears humbling. Peter has not grasped the meaning and declines the washing at first. He considers himself humble and unworthy to have his teacher wash his feet.
Let us think deeper. If we think that we are lowly and unworthy to be served, haven’t we already divided people into different classes, including those that are unworthy to be served – even if that’s us? If we feel embarrassed to have our feet washed or to be served, do we also elevate some people to a point where they are too good to serve others? This is not how we love each other. No person is higher or lower on the list to be served or loved.
In a little while, Jesus will be arrested. He will be stripped of his clothes, stripped of his dignity, and even stripped of his life. Are the dignity and life of our Lord Jesus less important than our own dignity and life? Once again, his washing of feet and suffering are breaking through this barrier to show the love that Jesus has for us. He wants us to love each other as he loves us.
Therefore, the liturgy of Maundy Thursday is to remind us again of the love our Lord has for us. The institution of the sacrament of his body and blood. The forgiveness of sins. The foot washing. The stripping of the altar. All ask us to remember Jesus’ great love for us, and our response must be to love each other.
When we receive the Eucharist, therefore, we should remember that Jesus loves us, even to the end. Before he is betrayed, before he is handed over to death, he hands himself to us. He takes up the bread and wine and blesses them to be the Holy Sacrament, his body and blood, our bread of heaven and cup of salvation. By taking this bread and cup, we become one body and one spirit. Whenever we take them, we take them knowing that Christ died for us, and we feed on him in our hearts by faith, with thanksgiving, loving each other.
With Jesus’ wondrous love for us, how can we not love Jesus back? To love him back, we, his disciples, are to follow his commandment to show the world we are his disciples. That is our discipleship.
Let us not only sing, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love; yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” but also act by being one in the Spirit and one in the Lord, by working with each other side by side, and by guarding each person’s dignity and saving each person’s pride.
The Rev. Dr. Ada Wong Nagata is an Episcopal priest, recently retired. She has served in parishes in the Dioceses of Los Angeles and New York. She serves on the General Convention Task Force on Church Planting and Congregational Redevelopment and is also an honorary canon of the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, Diocese of Los Angeles. Ada earned her Doctor of Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School in 2015. She loves hiking and meditative walk.