April 1, 2021 Maundy Thursday The text is John 13:1-17, 31b-35.
1 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
31b “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Maundy”; now there’s a word that doesn’t come up very frequently in everyday conversation. And with rather good reason. “Maundy” is a derivation of an older, Middle English word, that in turn may be traced back to the Latin term for “mandate”. So, while we don’t come across “Maundy” other than when it’s the title of the Thursday of Holy Week, it makes a great deal of sense in this case; since, on Maundy Thursday we commemorate Jesus imparting to the disciples his Great Commandment. So, if we choose, we may want to refer to tonight as “Great Commandment Thursday”, here, among ourselves. It might make things a bit more relevant for our modern ears to hear and process. “Commandment” or “Maundy”, either way, what is most important is the mandate that Jesus charges the disciples with, and the manner in which he chose to exemplify it for them.
Which brings us to foot-washing. In the ancient Middle East, the job of washing the feet of one’s guests fell to a servant, or in the case of a master/teacher relationship, the disciple would perform this duty on the lord. The washing of guests’ feet was a sign of servitude, hospitality, and humility. And it wasn’t a job that anyone would want to do willingly, if they didn’t have to. Don’t forget, this wasn’t a quick soap-up and rinse like would happen today, when we are blessed with modern hygiene methods. The streets leading into Jerusalem were packed sand and dirt, and livestock aren’t particular about where they relieve themselves. And, we’re not talking about LL Bean boots here; everyone wore sandals. Foot-washing was relegated to the lower members of society, for it was a grimy, humiliating job. Yet, Jesus knelt before the disciples and did just that, the teacher washed the filthy feet of his students. No wonder Peter was aghast at the prospect of his Lord tending to this demeaning task, whom Peter had earlier proclaimed as “the Son of the living God” in Matthew. But Jesus wanted to make a point, one that couldn’t be understated or misunderstood, for this was to be his illustration of the “Great Commandment”. And this is that “maundy” given by Christ, for the disciples, and us to follow; “love one another as I have loved you”.
What does Jesus’ love for the disciples, and us look like, and what kind of love does he command us to emulate? Well, it might help if we examine the Greek word used in this commandment to love as Jesus loved. There are actually three Greek words for three different types of love. First is “eros” and this is used to describe romantic love; it’s the root of “erotic”. “Philos” describes the emotion of love as affection or friendship. Hence, Philadelphia as the City of Brotherly Love. But the term chosen for the Great Commandment to love one another is “agape”. This is understood to be a selfless love that is passionately committed to the well-being of others, and putting the needs of others before our own; and it is the word used to describe the love that God has for creation.
So, Jesus is asking quite a bit from the disciples gathered at the table that evening. He’s telling them that he expects them to love each other in the same way God cares for the world and to imitate the love that Christ has shown to them. This was a radical approach in the first century in Israel and it’s no less profound today. So, in order to be sure the disciples fully understood this concept of unconditional concern for others, Jesus knelt down to teach it by example. The washing of their feet was meant to be the illustration of this selfless love; a sign of humility, self-sacrifice, and servanthood. This was an entirely new way of looking at, and interacting with the world. Simply stating what was expected of them wouldn’t be sufficient for the disciples to grasp this enormous mandate, this fully counter-cultural notion of agape love for others. “Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asks them. Do you get it? If God’s own Son is willing to wash the filth from your feet, I expect you to be willing to do the same.
This is not an idle suggestion, not simply, “it would be really great if you would consider acting this way”. Or, “show affection to people if you feel like it”. No, this is; “I’ve knelt down and washed your feet as a sign of my unconditional love for you, now you are commanded to do the same!” One aspect of John’s relating the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet is that this episode doesn’t appear in the other three gospels, Matthew, Mark, or Luke. And alternately, there is no mention of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper in John.
This is very interesting; what might have been the reason for this omission of the institution of Holy Communion by John? And why the focus on the Great Commandment instead? Well, it may be because John’s gospel was the last one to be written, and it’s thought that it was 30-40 years after the other three were written down. Since the Last Supper was included in the Synoptics it’s likely that Christ’s earliest followers were already practicing Communion; and that John didn’t feel the need to include this in his gospel story. But, it’s also likely that people weren’t universally showing unconditional agape love for one another; rather like the way things are today. Perhaps John felt it was necessary that Jesus’ giving of the Great Commandment needed to be retold, to be reinforced; since his command to love was important enough for Jesus to wash feet as the example. Christ’s followers in the late first century probably needed to be reminded of Jesus’ commandment to love one another; and it would do all of us some good to hear it again, also.
After rejecting Jesus’ offer to wash his feet, Peter relented, in order that he might continue to be with Jesus, to remain his disciple. However, it must have been utterly uncomfortable for Peter, to watch as his Teacher and Lord stooped to show him such unconditional love. But this is the reason for the foot-washing to begin with, to allow the disciples, and us to experience God’s love; in order that we might be able to mirror it in our interaction with others. It’s difficult for us to imagine the kind of love that Jesus has for us. Yet, he is adamant that we show this same love for others. But we must first be willing to accept God’s love for us before we can express love for others; uncomfortable as this was for Peter, and maybe for us.
Jesus’ foot-washing lesson at Passover is about to be overshadowed by the greatest example of unconditional agape love the world has ever seen, as this same Son of God is led to Golgotha and his death. “For God so loved the world…”. The love that Christ illustrated for the disciples, and us, continued to the cross, and beyond it. Jesus’ sacrifice secured God’s grace for the world, the unmerited love that is granted by the Father for all.
If Peter felt uncomfortable at the thought that Jesus loved him enough to humble himself to wash his feet, how much more are we overwhelmed with the knowledge of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for us?
And I wonder what might we do to show ourselves as followers of Jesus, to demonstrate our thankfulness for his love for us? I wonder if he might have left us some kind of mandate to follow, a commandment to obey? What if we just love one another, just as he loved us?
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious and Holy God, help us live as Jesus lived, to act as Jesus acted, to love as Jesus loved. And we pray these things in the name of Christ, the One who commands us to show the world we are his disciples. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.