Text: John 13:1-15, 34-35
Gospel for Maundy Thursday
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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Those who find out about the origin of the word Maundy are often surprised. The word comes from the Latin word mandatum, meaning command. When we speak of Maundy Thursday, we mean commandment Thursday. So you may be surprised to discover that Thursday of Holy Week was not named for Jesus’ words, “Do this in remembrance of me,” but for his beautiful words recorded in John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”
This is especially good to highlight in our present circumstance. The current crisis prevents us from celebrating the institution of the Lord’s Supper. But, despite the fact that we are not able to share together in Holy Communion, we can indeed hear about Christ’s great love for us, and show love for one another. In our Gospel lesson from John 13 we see how Jesus demonstrated his love for his disciples, and how he encouraged his disciples to love one another.
He demonstrated his love for his disciples
John tells us that while they were at table, in the middle of supper, Jesus got up from His place, took off his outer robe, tied a towel about His waist, took a basin of water, and one by one washed the feet of His disciples. That may seem a bit odd to us because we don’t usually wash other people’s feet. In the ancient world, people wore sandals as they walked on the dusty roads. And then when people went to dinner, they didn’t sit on chairs, but reclining on their sides upon couches. So, unless you wanted stinky feet in your face as you ate, you made sure to appoint your lowest slave to wash feet. Scrubbing between dusty toes isn’t the most appealing job in the world, is it? This helps us to understand why none of the apostles did the washing.
Not one of the apostles performed this service for the others. Washing the feet of others was a slave’s task, and each of the disciples thought they should be considered the greatest. Each of the disciples thought he was too good, too important, to serve others. Each thought he should be the one being served. So, their Lord and teacher takes off his outer garment, and puts on the garments of a slave. The Word made flesh, their Lord and Teacher, does the servile task of washing the feet of his disciples.
Luke records what was on the disciples’ minds: “A dispute also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest,” (Luke 22:24). The disciples were more interested in being the greatest than in volunteering for the most menial task of servants, washing feet. But our Lord, who came to serve and not to be served, took up the task to the shame of them all. Washing them is both very mundane (we all have to wash our feet, and we do it so regularly we hardly think about it) and very close and personal. Washing between someone else’s toes is an intimate action. It is a moment of tenderness. Peter’s reaction reveals the guilt in all their hearts.
Peter is offended, as only Peter can be. First, he protests. “Seriously, Lord! You’re going to wash my feet?” Then, not understanding what’s going on, he goes over the top in the wrong direction. “Well then, not only my feet but also my hands and head.” So typical of Peter! But Jesus is not giving out baths; He’s washing feet. Our culture places a high value on independence and self-sufficiency. Sometimes we get the notion that our religious actions or cleaning up our lives will cleanse us of our sins. But no amount of self-imposed religion and no amount of moral improvement can ever make us clean enough to be in God’s presence. Notice that Christ did not say, “Unless you wash yourself,” nor does he say, “Unless you submit to my washing.” No, he says “Unless I wash you.” Christ is the one who cleanses us through his Word, (John 15:3). We don’t do anything. We’re completely passive. Jesus serves us. There is no task so low that Jesus will not stoop to do it. That’s the point. He comes not to be served but to serve, and to lay down His life. He is the servant of all, the Suffering Servant who stoops as low as the grave in order to save.
The Word who was with God, the Word who was God, became flesh. He laid aside the clothes of glory, and put on our human nature, in order to wash our feet. He had come from God and was going to God. Here John is very close to Paul in our Gradual from Philippians 2, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men,” (Phil. 2:6-7). Washing the Apostles’ feet was what he had to do, precisely because he had come from God. The foot-washing—and the crucifixion itself, to which it pointed—was Jesus’ way of showing who God was and is. During the last supper, Jesus changed his clothes; but the next time Jesus has his clothes changed it will be when they are stripped from him on Good Friday; after that he will be naked on the cross, revealing the the true extent of his love for you as he gives his life to pay for your sins. During the last supper he poured out water and washed the Apostles’ feet, but on Good Friday he shed blood and water to cleanse you from your sin and defilement. During the last supper he wrapped himself in a towel; but after his crucifixion he was wrapped in linen burial clothes. As our text says, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end,” (v. 1). Not just with a dogged see-it-through love, though that is there too. He loved them ‘to the uttermost’. There was nothing that love could do for you that Jesus did not do.
He encouraged his disciples to love one another
Service always means bending down. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a servant. But His service comes first. First He washes His disciples’ feet, then He tells them to wash one another’s feet. “A new commandment I give to you.” The commandment is not new in the sense that it had never been given before. The essence of all God’s law is “Love.” The old Law read, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” What is new is the motivation and example of Jesus’ sacrificial love. The new commandment says, “Love one another; even as I have loved you.” His love comes first. It is not characterised by threats and demands, but rests on his love for us. First He bends down to serve us, and we, having been served, bend down to serve one another.
What would Jesus do? He would wash dirty, dusty feet. Jesus gave a pattern, an example to his disciples, that they would reflect his servanthood in their servanthood, that they would love each other in the same way that He had loved them. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” (v. 35). That love expresses itself in the little and lowly things. In bending down to wash the feet of another. In bending down, as the Samaritan did, to help the broken bleeding man who fell among thieves lying in the ditch. Love is seen when you get down off your high horse, set aside your pride and ego, and forget the old grudges. It is not the way of the disciple to say “That’s beneath my dignity” or “That’s below my pay grade.” Nor is it the way of a disciple of Jesus to say, “I’ve done my turn and now it’s your turn.” Love is all about the other person. It overflows into service, not in order to show off how hard-working it is, but because that is its natural form. “We love, because he first loved us,” (1 John 4:19). How can you show your love for one another during this time? How can you bend down low for them? Can you get their groceries? Can you pick up their prescriptions? Can you give them a call or talk to them? What can YOU do to show your love?
If clean feet were all Jesus gave out that night in the upper room, He would not have given anything new. Examples are nice, and examples from the Lord are even better. Who can argue with a Jesus example? But apart from His death and life, apart from our union with Him as branches to the vine, we can do nothing. The spirit may indeed be willing to wash feet, but the flesh is not only weak, it is dead. Christ our Lord, in humble love, serves us. The Lord and Creator of all, bends down to do the work of the lowliest of servants. The Master becomes the slave. He came not to be served, but to serve, and to lay down His life as a ransom for the many. He endured the shame of the Cross, so that he can wash us and prepare us to enjoy God’s presence.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.