As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you.” My enemies wonder in malice when I will die, and my name perish. And when they come to see me, they utter empty words, while their hearts gather mischief; when they go out, they tell it abroad. All who hate me whisper together about me; they imagine the worst for me. They think that a deadly thing has fastened on me, that I will not rise again from where I lie. Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me. But you, O Lord, be gracious to me, and raise me up, that I may repay them.
John 13.1, 12-20
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. 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? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to was one another’s feet. For I have set you an example that you also should so as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I am not speak of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”
I have no idea how many people are joining us for worship tonight, or how many will watch or listen to this service later. Chances are, there aren’t that many.
And that’s fine. It’s fine because there weren’t a lot of people at the first Maundy Thursday service either.
So we can rest in that strange and good knowledge tonight because we are where we should be. We, like those first disciples, have been gathered by God to be here, to hear what God has to say, and to be forever changed.
We call this Maundy Thursday. And the name comes to us from our the Gospel according to John when Jesus last feasted with his disciples before the crucifixion: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you.”
In Latin, a new commandment is mandatum novum. “Maundy” is simply the Middle English version of the word mandatum.
We are therefore mandated to do what we are doing tonight.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly like being mandated to do anything.
Christianity has long-suffered under the oppressive rule of expectations and assumptions, of “you must do this and you must do that.”
All of the “musts” don’t must up to a very lively faith.
When the exhortative mode of Christianity becomes the predominant way we understand our faith, then the Church merely joins the long list of other social endeavors seeking to make people better people – it tells us what we have to do, instead of proclaiming what Jesus already did, for us.
The synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) treat us to the scene of Jesus’ final evening with his friends as they sit around a table sharing bread and wine.
John, however, takes the scene a little bit further.
While eating at the table, Jesus gets up, takes off his outer rob, and ties a towel around himself. He begins washing all of the disciples’ feet and wipes them off with the towel around his waist.
Peter, of course, objects to the humble (read: humiliating) act of his Lord, but Jesus hits him hard with, “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
Only after every disciples’ feet are washed does Jesus arise, and begins to teach:
“Listen, you call me Teacher and Lord which is good and fine because that is who I am. But check this out: If I, your Lord and Teacher, am willing to get down on the floor to wash your feet, you also out to wash one another’s feet. This is what the Kingdom of God is all about – the first being last and the last being first. Things are getting flipped upside down right here and right now. And I do and say all of this knowing that one of you will betray me, it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who are my bread, has lifted his heel against me.’”
Shortly thereafter, Judas leaves and sets in motion the world turned upside down. In mere hours the guards will arrive in the garden, Jesus will be arrested, put on trial, sentenced, beaten, and left to die on the cross.
The foot washing has always been a little strange and a little weird to the people called church. For one, as mentioned, the other Gospels don’t include it, and for another, it reveals the heart of God in a way that feels uncomfortable.
Not only does Jesus, God in the flesh, get down on his knees to wash the dirty feet of the disciples, one of whom will shortly betray him, another will deny him, and the rest will leave him hanging to die on a cross, but then Jesus has the gall to command us to do the same for one another.
And yet, in a way, more than being told what we are supposed to do, the whole message of this final moment is, again, about what Jesus does for us.
We, however, can’t help ourselves from reasserting the narrative to make it about what we have to do but whatever we do in response is only possible because of what Jesus does first.
We always want to know what we have to do to get saved when, in fact, this story is a ringing reminder that the Gospel tell us how Jesus saves us.
Or, as Philip Cary puts it, “The gospel doesn’t tell us to believe, it gives us Christ to believe in.”
In the foot washing, Jesus repeats in himself the great lengths to which God was willing to go for a people undeserving – how far God was willing to go to wash us clean from our transgressions.
This moment, one that might make us cringe or, at the very least, furrow our brows, it reveals to the disciples and to us that the Lord, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, is about to suffer and die just to rid us of the stench and dirt of sin and death that latches onto us.
Therefore, before we jump to any commandments, to any thoughts on what we must do, we do well to rest in the bewildering knowledge that the foot washing is a parable of God’s humiliation. Jesus lays down his garments just like he will lay down his life, Jesus offers grace to his betrayer just like he will extend forgiveness even from the cross.
And, notably, this is the final act of Jesus toward his disciples before Easter and, as John so wonderfully notes, Jesus loved his disciples to the end.
Do you see what this means? Even the worst stinker in the world, even the one who betrayed his Lord to death, is someone for whom Christ died.
While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Jesus, bewilderingly, loves us to the end, loves us so much that he was willing to take our sin upon himself, mount the hard wood of the cross, and leave them there forever.
But we can save the cross for tomorrow. For now, we are tasked with the challenge of coming to grips with the fact that none of us are any better or any worse than the disciples were on that first Maundy Thursday.
Which is just another way of saying: Each and every one of us in need of cleansing. And, thanks be to God, that’s exactly what Christ offers us, because he loves us to the end. Amen.