Maundy Thursday (29 March 2018)
John 13:1-7, 31b-35
by The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St. John’s Episcopal Church
Montgomery, AL 36116
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have entered into the holiest and most sacred part of the Christian liturgical year. Tonight, Maundy Thursday, is the first day of the Paschal Triduum, which is the three day period which begins today at sunset (we’re slightly early…) and ends at sunset on Easter Day. The word Maundy comes from the word “Mandatum” which can mean “Mandate” or “Commandment” so we can also think of this day “Commandment Thursday.”
“I give you a new commandment,” Jesus says, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
The command to love, you might object, is hardly new. As we recall from the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 22:36-40), early in Jesus’ ministry the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus by asking, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And, the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commands hang all the law and the prophets.” So, Jesus’ words to the disciples in the upper room this night may not seem all that novel. However, there is something decisively new tonight. With this new commandment to love, Jesus shows the disciples how to love one another. To be commanded to love is one thing. But, it is an altogether different thing to be shown how to do it.
It is not an accident that the new command to love comes after their last supper and after Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. Both of these events foreshadow, each in their own way, how Christ shows his love for us on the cross. So with the phrase, “just as I have loved you,” Jesus tells us that it will be the sum of his life and his actions that reveal the true form and substance of the command to love. Jesus himself becomes the interpretive principle for all instances of human and divine love. No longer do we need to wonder, in the abstract, what it means to love. While it might be intellectually interesting to consider the distinctions among the definitions of the love of friendship, affection, erotic love or the love of God, definitions and commands alone will not take us across the threshold from knowledge to action, so that we might actually know how both to give and to receive love. But, Jesus’ washing of the disciples feet shows us how to love and of what it consists.
In the act of foot washing, Jesus first takes off his outer garments. With this Jesus is foreshadowing the laying down of his life. By kneeling down and washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus performs the same kind of humility of service that he will later come to perform on the cross. For washing someone’s feet was something that only the lowliest of gentile household slaves could be forced to perform. (Indeed, Hebrew slaves could not be made to do it.) Once Jesus completes the foot-washing, he puts his garments back on and takes his place back at the table. This is the sign of his taking up his life again, a sign of his victory over death and his returning again to be with his disciples. In this act of foot-washing Jesus shows us the shape and form of love itself. That shape and form is that of humility, sacrifice and service. And, it is done for the benefit of the beloved and for the glory of God.
Throughout Jesus’ life and ministry we see him in the constant act of lowering himself. As Saint Paul reminds us in Philippians 2: 6-7 Jesus did not cling to his equality with God. Rather, he emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, and becoming fully human. I often think that in our attempts to try to come up with attributes that we think are uniquely human such as possessing reason or emotion or having the capacity for language, and then ascribing them to Jesus to prove his full humanity is to have rather missed the point. We might be closer to the truth by saying that it is by performing the service of a human slave on the last day of his earthly ministry that we see the culmination of the full humanity of Jesus displayed. This is why the command to love is not impossible for us. We are capable of loving as Jesus did and he shows us the kind of love proper to human beings.
I think this may be partly why Peter was so utterly shocked when Jesus knelt before him and exclaimed, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus says, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter then objects, “Lord, You will never wash my feet!” I wonder if part of Peter’s reaction had not only to do with the stunning experience of Jesus kneeling at his feet, but also that he might have started to grasp that being one of Jesus’ disciples meant that he was going to have to do this, too. For to be a disciple of Jesus is to answer the call to do as he has done and to follow his example.
With Jesus, we see him lower himself from a position of authority, as the disciples’ Teacher and Lord, to the position of a gentile household slave. But when Jesus lowers himself and loves them this way, he raises up the dignity and status of his disciples, because that is what love does, it lifts us up. So, when we love as Jesus does, we lift up others, too. But, the giving of love does not stop there. The one who has received this love and who has been lifted up, is now in the position to lower herself and offer love to another who finds himself lowly, and he will be raised up. And, then he will be in a position to lower himself to raise up another, and so on.
It is in this mutuality of lowering ourselves so that others may be lifted up, and allowing others to love us and lift us up that is the shape and form of love. My friend and fellow theologian Victor Austin calls this, “the hydraulics of the kingdom of God.” And, this act of lowering ourselves and being raised up by others is also the perfect form of friendship. This is why Jesus says in John 15:13, “A greater love has no man than this, than he lay down his life for his friend.” And why tonight in verse 2 of our opening hymn we sang, “But O my friend, my friend, indeed, who at my need his life did spend.” (Hymn 458 v.2)
It is impossible to know what Jesus might have been thinking when he lowered himself to wash the feet of Judas. But, I also find it even harder to guess what Judas might have been feeling as his looked down at his Teacher and Lord, kneeling at his feet and serving him as a slave would do. I wonder if he had second thoughts? Did he have second thoughts? I wonder if he felt loved?
When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, I imagine the disciples felt like we often do when we are the recipients of love in the form of sacrificial service. That is, we feel like we don’t deserve it. It is hard for us to believe that anyone could truly love us. Even our spouses or parents or closest friends don’t have access to our deepest and darkest thoughts and insecurities. What if they only knew? we ask ourselves. But despite what we hide from others, we still try our best to be for them what we think they need; and they try to be for us what they think we need. But, because we are always proceeding in love on a greater or lesser degree of guess work, all human loves feel precarious.
But we cannot proceed in our love for God the same way. God fully discloses himself to us in Jesus Christ. Of God’s love for us their should be no question. And, as our hearts, and souls, and minds are so fully disclosed to God, there is nowhere we can go to hide from him (Psalm 139). So, God’s love for us is not precarious because it is perfectly transparent. Christ lowered himself to the point of death on a cross so that we might be raised up to ever lasting life. This is his decisive act of love and friendship.
We are called into this form of love and friendship each time we come to the altar. At the altar, we kneel down, and lower ourselves before God, offering our selves, and souls and bodies to his service. And as we kneel at the altar rail, receiving the body and blood of Christ lifts us up again. And as we rise up from the altar rail, we are now in a position to lower ourselves to serve others, confident in God’s love for us so that we are equipped to proceed out in friendship to the world, so that it too may be lifted up. And, so go the hydraulics of love in the kingdom of God, day after day, year after year, century after century, until Jesus’ coming again. This is the new commandment that Jesus us, that we should love one another as he has loved us and by this people will know that we are his disciples.