Maundy Thursday Meditation

maundy thursday image

The Gospel of John 13:31-38; 18:1, 3, 12, 15-18a, 25-27 …. 

Most of you remember John Paul II, who served as pope of the Roman Catholic Church from 1978 until his death in 2005. You may not remember that before he was pope, he was known as Karol Józef Wojtyła, a rather athletic priest, and avid outdoorsman.

A few years after his death, his biographer revealed that the new pope felt so confined that he often felt compelled to escape for ski vacations. In the early years of his papacy, John Paul would put on street clothes, slip away from the Swiss Guards at the Vatican with a small number of his closest friends, and hit the slopes.

During such trips, the pope behaved like an ordinary skier, standing in lines with his lift pass. Said one archbishop, “It seems hard to imagine, but no one recognized him. Who would suspect that the pope went skiing?” Putting aside the burdens of his office, passing himself off as someone else, John Paul seemed to be rejuvenated.[1]

Most of us can appreciate how Pope John Paul must have felt. We may not be famous, but who among us hasn’t had days when we wanted nothing more than to feel free from responsibility, free to do whatever we would like, or perhaps nothing at all. Certainly, I’ve had days like that.

Sometimes, on my day off, I’ve started the laundry, turned up the collar on my leather jacket, and headed to the grocery store, praying, “Lord, please, no counseling in the produce section today. I just want to buy my groceries, and go home.” I can appreciate John Paul’s desire for anonymity, and the similar desire many of us feel.

Such experiences help me look with a sympathetic eye on Peter, as he warmed himself by a fire very late at night on the first Maundy Thursday.

If you’ve studied the Gospel of John, then you know it records rich details of that particular day. The record extends from chapter 13, from which our first scripture reading was drawn, through somewhere in chapter 18, when Maundy Thursday gives way to Good Friday.

In this section, Jesus is especially vocal. He completes a long parting discourse, a farewell soliloquy, offering a prayer for his disciples, immediately after which Judas leaves to begin the process of betrayal. Peter had sworn steadfast allegiance, even courageously raised a sword to defend Jesus.

But, as rapidly changing events carry Peter from venue to venue and deep into a sleepless evening, he loses his nerve. He denies following Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. The impetuous boldness that so characterizes Peter elsewhere in the gospel record is completely subdued.

Peter’s Maundy Thursday journey poses a challenge  for today’s Jesus’ followers: When does our desire for anonymity move from a healthy Sabbath to a harmful submission to the power of evil?

Julian DeShazier is a pastor in Chicago who challenges his listeners to think deeply about such questions.

This past week, he wrote in the Christian Century, “There are many reasons to deny Jesus, and we all have one. We’ve all taken our turn …. when we sit at tables or on the internet, sometimes among family and friends, and hear excruciatingly ignorant conversation – and say nothing in response. Maybe we don’t want to start a debate – who has the energy for another argument. Maybe we don’t want to risk a friendship by sharing our story. Maybe we want to increase our chances of success …. Or maybe we just don’t think it’s relevant: our faith life and our public life are separate silos that feed us and never intertwine. When the opportunity comes (to affirm Jesus) we say, ‘I’ll pass.’”[2]

On the other hand, says DeShazier, “being labeled as ‘one of them’ brings with it an opportunity to unpack people’s pretentions and suspicions about faith. A respectful conversation with you might mean someone now knows a person who fears God but doesn’t match their assumptions. Too many thoughtful believers are … denying opportunities …. For some, it’s a mark of truly progressive faith – that we can blend in and cause no trouble.”[3]

Our Maundy Thursday worship invites us not only to remember the way Jesus was betrayed and his suffering, but also our own contemporary forms of denial, the role we may unwittingly play in allowing suffering. How do we deny Jesus?

I close with a word of good news, a fitting reminder from Paul in his final letter to his disciple Timothy. Even “if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.”[4] Thanks be to God!


[1] “Book tells of Pope John Paul’s ski getaways,” The Associated Press, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 28 Jan. 2007, A17.

[2] Julian DeShazier, “Reflections on the lectionary: March 25, Good Friday, John 18:1-19:42,” Christian Century, 16 March 2016, p. 21.

[3] DeShazier, p. 21.

[4] 2 Timothy 2:13, NRSV.


~ by JohnH1962 on March 24, 2016.