The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 4/5/07
Text: John 13:1-17, 31b-35

I've been there...the Upper Room...where this scripture is set. Or at least I've been to the place in Jerusalem that tradition and all the tourist bureaus SAY is the Upper Room. As I recall, the building is in the southwest portion of the city. On the ground floor when I was there (and maybe still) was a yeshiva...a Jewish seminary/ school. Visitors ascend an outdoor staircase, then enter the room on a landing from which four or five more steps lead down to the stone floor. It is a large, light, airy room with a high vaulted ceiling supported by several ornately-decorated arched pillars strategically placed.

My one and only visit was as leader of a small group of parishioners and friends who were touring the Holy Land almost 25 years ago. I keep threatening to go back again (and some of you have indicated an interest in going, of these days). It is a fascinating trip - so many of the decisive moments in world history have taken place on that sandy, blood-soaked soil. And for people of faith, a visit helps to bring to life the stories we began learning from our youngest childhood. I read familiar passages and think, "I've been there."

We had been warned ahead of time about our visit to the Upper Room. You see, clever tour leader that I was, it had occurred to me how meaningful it would be for our group to celebrate the Lord's Supper in this space where Jesus and the Twelve may very well have partaken on the night before the crucifixion. Of course, every other preacher-leader has the same inspiration, so, long ago, the tourist authorities in charge of the building said, "No way, never!" Too bad.

Our little band arrived in the room just as another group of Christian tourists were concluding their visit. Wait a minute. It was obvious they had just shared bread and cup. Special moment. There was a joy on their faces that was a positive glow. But...but. But we had been TOLD... As they made their way out, I asked our Israeli tour guide who had been the one who had previously informed us of the No Communion rule what was going on. She said the rule still stood and was vigorously enforced... mostly - the only reason that the previous group got away with their service was that they were Pentecostals...hands in the air, faces toward heaven, eyes closed in religious ecstacy. The Pentecostals could get away with anything they wanted because the authorities were afraid of them. They thought these folks were all CRAZY; who knew what mayhem might ensue if anyone got them upset? Well, OK. I've been there too... not with my Pentecostal friends, but there HAVE been folks I would avoid if at all possible, not wanting to say or do anything that would make them crazier than they already were. You too?

I wonder if Jesus ever felt that way. I doubt it, otherwise he would have been a bit more selective in his choice of friends. After all, the Twelve were NOT your normal dozen or so who would have gravitated together under any other circumstance. Some, perhaps: Peter, Andrew, James, John - fishermen...that would be a common bond. But even among them, there had been an argument about who would hold the most favored positions in the coming kingdom. Add someone like Matthew, a tax collector? Someone who was thought of as a traitor to his own people, willing to sell himself in the service of Rome? Then, put Matthew in the same room as the other Simon, the Simon who is identified in scripture as the ZEALOT, a man whose politics hated anything Roman and advocated the violent overthrow of the government, and we have a war waiting to break out right there under those arches. The story of Jesus washing everyone's feet at the beginning of the meal is just one more clue to this group. Foot washing was the task of the lowliest house servant - since NONE of the Twelve would be bothered to stoop to such a level, Jesus took on the duty himself. What a group! For what it is worth, there are still plenty of good church folk who are no different. Believe me. I've been there too.

We should not be surprised though. This DOES sound like a crowd that Jesus would bring together. You remember the complaints the religious folk had about him - he eats with the wrong people..."tax collectors and sinners" was the phrase! They knew back then, just as Middle Schoolers in the cafeteria know today, that we are KNOWN by those with whom we share a table. But, share a table he did, and ever after, we have all been welcome to join the feast. Rich and poor, sick and healthy, sinners and saints. No limits. Anyone who is willing to be a friend. Wonderful. Thank God, I've been there too!

The story does not end with that though. If it did, we might remember this as Communion Thursday or even Foot-Washing Thursday. But we call it MAUNDY Thursday, the "maundy" coming from a Latin word meaning commandment. This, first and foremost is COMMANDMENT Thursday: Jesus says to his friends, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another." When you consider that bunch who first heard this instruction, you realize that these are not just warm-fuzzy words. Jesus' demand is that the differences be put aside, natural alliances be discarded, pet peeves be shelved, politics be left at the door. This is not easy. But what should we think? Should the Lord expect less of his friends? Of course not. He expects the BEST from us. And we know it. Have you been there? I have.

That group of twelve managed...amazingly. They DID put aside their differences. They gathered around Jesus. They were energized. And despite all they would go through in coming days, the bond of fellowship that was cemented at the table held tight. They went out from that Upper Room and changed the whole world.

Now, we are invited back to the Upper Room. Bread? Cup? Why not? Crazy? Perhaps, a little. Enough to put aside all our differences and join together in a common task? Absolutely. And when it happens, it changes the world. I've been there. Have you?


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