Thursday 29 March 2018
We gather tonight to worship on Maundy Thursday. Maundy Thursday. If you’re like most Lutherans and Methodists, you have some idea that Maundy Thursday is the Thursday of Holy Week. And you might know that it marks Jesus’s last meal with his disciples. But how many of us know why it is called Maundy Thursday? I had forgotten myself until I looked it up again this week. It comes from the gospel lesson for this evening, from John 13, verse 34. In the Latin translation, it begins “Mandatum novum do vobis.” I give you a new commandment. Mandatum—mandate, commandment—becomes Maundy. Tonight is Commandment Thursday. But more specifically, tonight is New Commandment Thursday. In his last night with them, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment. And that commandment is: Love one another. Love each another. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.
That isn’t usually how we think of a commandment, a mandate. A commandment is something that must be done or there will be negative consequences, something that is required. I am required to have working headlights on my car. If I operate my car without working headlights, I could get into trouble with the law. I am required to pay and file my taxes in a timely manner. If I don’t I could be fined or even imprisoned. A restaurant is required to meet certain health and safety standards. If they don’t, they could be shut down. That is how a commandment works. We do them because, if we don’t, we will be penalized.
But that isn’t how Jesus introduces his new commandment at all. He doesn’t say, Love each other, or you will be in trouble. Love each other, or you will lose God’s blessing. Love each other, or you will be sent to hell. None of that. Instead he says, “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you must love each other.” Just as I have loved you, so you must love each other. Jesus’s commandment is not based on the threat of punishment, Jesus’s commandment is based on his own example. Jesus loves, and so we must love. Jesus loves me, and so I must love. Jesus loves you, and so you must love. Jesus loves us, and so we must love.
All of this happens on the night Jesus will be arrested. When he gives the disciples his new commandment to love each other, he has already sent Judas out to do what he will, to betray him. But earlier in the evening, while Judas is still there, Jesus gives an example of the kind of love he is talking about. He gets up from the table, where they are all reclined, gets a basin of water, and begins to wash the feet of the disciples.
In the ancient world, sandals were typical footwear. And walking around a dirt roads, one’s feet could get rather dirty. And so, if someone were hosting a meal, they would often provide their guests with a basin of water to wash their feet with. Or a more affluent host might have one of their slaves wash the feet of their guests. But a host would never get up and personally wash the feet of their guests themselves. Washing someone else’s feet was a job only fit for a slave or a servant. In the honor-obsessed world of the New Testament, Jesus’s action is unthinkable.
And it is even more unthinkable when we consider who Jesus is. When he’s explaining his actions, he says that the disciples are right to call him Teacher and Lord. And this makes sense. Jesus is their teacher. They are his disciples who follow him around learning lessons from him. And it would be normal for the them to call him Lord, as well. In American English, we don’t typically use the word Lord for anyone other than God. And the word used here, κύριος, can be used to refer to God, but it can also be used to refer to any superior. It could be the equivalent of Sir or Boss. It would be nothing extraordinary for the disciples to call Jesus Lord, because as their superior, he is their boss.
And as Jesus explains, teachers are always above their students, and bosses are always above their employees. They would expect to be treated with greater respect, with deference. Jesus reminds them that he is their superior. They owe him respect. They owe him deference. And yet, Jesus has broken that normal expectation. He has washed the feet of his own disciples, a task that is the work of a slave. The master has become a slave to his own servants.
And this is all the more remarkable because we, the audience, know what the disciples do not seem to understand. Jesus is more than a teacher of wisdom. Jesus is wisdom incarnate. Jesus is not just their superior, Jesus is their God made flesh. He has come from the Father, and he is about to return to the Father, to everlasting glory. And in the moment before his triumph, he breaks all of the rules, he turns everything upside down.
Jesus, God made flesh, washes the feet of his disciples, a rag-tag bunch of no-account Galileans who never seem to know what he is talking about or who he is. Peter makes that clear in tonight’s reading. He has no idea what Jesus is up to. Even after Jesus explains it, he doesn’t seem to understand. The Son of God acts as a slave to his own followers. Not only that, at this point in the story, Judas hasn’t left the room yet. Jesus washes the feet of his betrayer, the one who will sell his life to those who would snuff it out. It is humility on a scale that is simply too incomprehensible to imagine. The architect of the universe acts as a slave to his killer.
Do you remember a few years ago the current pope created a scandal by washing the feet of twelve people on Maundy Thursday? It was normal, as a show of humility, for the pope to wash feet at Maundy Thursday mass, but what was scandalous was whose feet he washed. Usually it would be the feet of lower ranking clergy. Pope Francis made headlines in 2013 by washing the feet of prisoners. What really shocked people is that two of prisoners were women, and two of them were Muslim. In 2016, he was in the news again for washing the feet of refugees, including Muslims, Hindus, and Protestants. Again this year, he celebrated Maundy Thursday in a prison. That has been enough to make headlines every year, and to stir up controversy. Arguably the most powerful person in Christianity acting as a slave to prisoners, some of whom aren’t even Christian, a remarkable act of humility and love.
And yet it is nothing in comparison to Jesus’s gift of love. The King of Heaven acting as a slave to ordinary people from Galilee is only a foretaste of Christ’s self-giving love. The Lord of Life giving up his life on a cross of torture… so that we might have life, so that we might know God’s love, so that we poor sinners might be forgiven and accepted by God’s grace. It is love, grace, humility on a scale that is simply too incomprehensible to imagine.
“I have given you an example,” Jesus says. “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. Just as I have done, you also must do. I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”
Faced with the incomprehensible love of Jesus, it can be hard to know how to respond. We will tonight participate in a ritual of foot-washing, that reminds us in a very tactile sense what Jesus’s love is about. But it is only a reminder. Jesus’s new commandment is not fulfilled when we perform the ritual in this sanctuary. Jesus’s commandment must be fulfilled when we leave this church building and go out into the world. In our homes we must love as Jesus loved. It our places of work we must love as Jesus loved. Among our friends we must love as Jesus loved. Among strangers we must love as Jesus loved. Among our enemies, we must love as Jesus loved. Among our social superiors we must love as Jesus loved. Among our social inferiors we must love as Jesus loved.
May we touched powerfully tonight with the awesome spectacle of Jesus’ self-giving love, as we wash each other’s feet, as we gather together around Christ’s table. And let this night be only a beginning of the love share when we leave this place. This is how they will know you are my disciples, Jesus says, when you love one another.