Thursday, April 2, 2015

Maundy Thursday: Wash Up Before Supper (John 13:1-17,31b-35)

Before the Festival of Passover, Jesus knew that his time had come to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully.

Jesus and his disciples were sharing the evening meal. The devil had already provoked Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing. When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.”

“No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!”

Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.”

Simon Peter said, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!”

10 Jesus responded, “Those who have bathed need only to have their feet washed, because they are completely clean. You disciples are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 He knew who would betray him. That’s why he said, “Not every one of you is clean.”

12 After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. 14 If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. 16 I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. 17 Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.


“Now the Human One has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify the Human One in himself and will glorify him immediately. 33 Little children, I’m with you for a little while longer. You will look for me—but, just as I told the Jewish leaders, I also tell you now—‘Where I’m going, you can’t come.’

34 “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. 35 This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”


We all know the difference between a command and a suggestion.  A command is an order, something with which compliance is not optional.  In the workplace, if your boss commands you to do something, so long as it’s not illegal or immoral, you do it, or you start looking for a different job.  In the military, decisions and orders are passed down through a chain-of-command, with which everyone complies, because lives and the overall mission are at stake.  Husbands, you know the difference between a command and a suggestion from your wives, namely, that there is no difference – that every suggestion is, in reality, another form of command.


In these contexts, we are pretty good at following commands.  The life of faith also comes with commands, but do we brush off the commands of Jesus as mere suggestions?


Today is Maundy Thursday – sometimes called Holy Thursday because it is Thursday of Holy Week – that climactic week in the church’s year between Palm Sunday and Easter.  Maundy is an old-sounding word, a confusing word, but a good word for us to keep.  “Maundy” comes from the Latin, mandatum, sounds like “mandate,” and it means “commandment.”  Maundy Thursday literally means, “Commandment Thursday,” and we remember on this day that Jesus gave us a mandatum novum, a new commandment, to love one another.


It is a command given when the stakes are high.  Imagine, for a moment, that you knew you were going to die – but you had a chance for one last gathering of your family and friends – would you not share with them things of the utmost importance?  Some wisdom to pass on, final instructions, a verbal last will and testament, the important things by which you wish to be remembered?


Around the table on that night, before Jesus tasted death, he did the same thing with us.  “I give you a new commandment,” he said.  “Love each other.  Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.  This is how the world will know you are my disciples, when you love each other.”


And so here’s my question for us to consider on this Maundy Thursday: are we diligent in following this command, or do we treat it as a mere suggestion?  Have we made optional something Jesus clearly intended to be mandatory?  Often we have, and here’s why.


Somewhere along the way, the Church (not this church but THE Church) bought into the myth that spiritual matters are private matters – something just between me and God.


When Jesus gave this new commandment to “Love each other,” it was actually a reiteration of what Jesus had already said was the greatest commandment, to love God and love our neighbor.  The Gospel is social in nature, always lived in the context of relationships with other people, and it is never enough to reduce it to what is going on only between an individual and God.  Think of it as living in a house with windows open in the roof, toward God in heaven, and windows open around the sides, toward those around us, our neighbors.  To privatize our faith, to make it solely between us and God, is to close off those windows around the side and shut our neighbors out.


Friends, that’s not an option, because Jesus said we would be known as his followers in our love for one another.  The goal is to open the windows of our soul toward heaven and bask in the radiance of God’s love, while we also open toward our neighbors and reflect that love in their direction.  On this Maundy Thursday, on this Commandment Thursday, Jesus gives a command: Love each other.  Let us not treat as optional something Jesus made mandatory.


To be clear, Jesus isn’t saying, “Have warm fuzzy feelings for everyone.”  For one thing, that’s just impossible.  You can’t have warm fuzzy feelings for everyone because so many people are just so downright irritating!  Jesus’ commandment is not to have warm fuzzy feelings, but it is to love.


Love is not a feeling, but an action, a choice.  It’s the disposition to reach out in compassion and concern to others with all the sensitivity, understanding, and imagination our faculties can muster, to think of others more than ourselves, to place the needs of others above our own.


Love may start in our hearts, but it shows itself through our hands.  Love makes itself known by our actions.  On this night, Jesus performed two actions that demonstrate his love, and he told his followers to continue doing those two things as a way to grow in love with him and with each other.


We probably think of one of those actions pretty readily – Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Last Supper.  God’s family table is a place where God’s love and grace are as real and tangible as the bread on the table.  Holy Communion is a meal that celebrates the limitless extent of God’s love, which is why all are welcome to receive, and the abundance of God’s grace, which is why I give you such big pieces of bread it has become a running joke between us.


On that night so long ago, the disciples were eager to get to the table.  They bounded into that upper room, scoping out positions of honor around the table, ignoring the pitcher of water, a basin, and a towel by the door.  In those days, traveling meant walking.  Sweaty feet in leather sandals kicking up great clouds of dust.  Even a short distance could make your feet pretty nasty, and so feet were washed just inside the door.


Washing feet served several purposes.  Part of it was so that you could have a pleasant dining experience after walking around with dusty and sweaty feet all day.  Part of that was to help you feel refreshed at the end of the day.  Part of that was simply about being clean.


A wealthy person might have servants who did that, sometimes you were left to wash your own feet, and sometimes, the socially lowest-ranking person present would be asked to wash the feet of everyone else.  Washing feet was the job of servants.  Great people do not wash feet.  The disciples were so caught up in rank and positions of honor, none of them wanted to willingly take the lowest position.  The disciples realized that if they stopped to wash their own feet, they might end up washing everyone else’s feet, too.  Peter, James, John, Andrew, Thomas, Judas - none of them wanted to get stuck doing that – they were all above that!  And so the basin sat by the door.


But as the supper progressed, Jesus got up from the table, and he walked back to the door, and he picked up that pitcher, basin, and towel.  As he tied the towel around his waist, the disciples were mortified.  “Oh no.  Jesus isn’t going to wash our feet, is he?”  But Jesus starts around the table, first with John, then with Judas, then on around the entire table.


Jesus Christ – the son of God, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords – washed his disciples’ feet.  Think “Undercover Boss” here.  The master performed the work of a servant.  The king took on the role of the slave.  The one with the highest rank completed the task reserved for the lowest among them.


They’re not feeling happy about this.  They’re not refreshed.  They’re embarrassed because their Lord –their teacher, their master – has taken the form of a servant.  Jesus is pointing us to the kingdom of God, in which the roles of the world are reversed – where the king is the servant, where the greatest are those who give of themselves in service to others.  But by washing their feet, Jesus was showing them that, in the kingdom of God, rank has no privileges.


After washing their feet, Jesus says, “You call me master, teacher, rabbi, Lord – and I am all these things.  But follow my example: I have washed your feet to show you that no one is above this, that no one is too good to perform even the most menial or degrading task.  Friends, this is what love looks like.  I have taken the most degrading, humiliating job a servant can take on; I’ve taken a job nobody else wanted to do.  If you want to live in my kingdom, start worrying less about who is going to serve you, and get serving.”


In the world of tennis, the greatest players are known for their serve.  That’s true in the life of faith, as well – the greatest disciples are known for their serve.  Consider Jesus a tennis coach – always helping us improve our serve.  Jesus said, “The greatest among you will be servant to all.”


On Maundy Thursday, Jesus gave us a new commandment – to love each other.  Love is not a warm, fuzzy feeling, but acts of compassionate service, as Jesus demonstrated and called us to imitate.


The question of Maundy Thursday for each of us to consider is whether we have a servant’s heart – whether we are waiting to be served, or looking for opportunities to serve, whether our motivation is in terms of what we can get, or what we can give.  Jesus told us to love each other – something that may start in our heart, but that shows itself by our hands.


Jesus came among us as a servant - he was here to serve rather than be served.  We say we want to be like Jesus, which means we, too, are called to serve.  Just as he washed his disciples’ feet, now he looks at each of us and calls us by name and hands the basin and towel to each of us and says, “If you love me, show it in your love for others.  Take the tools of love, and go to serve others in my name.”  Jesus is calling you by name to love and to serve - they are one-in-the-same - will you take the pitcher and basin and towel and do as he tells us to do?  Or, like it did on that night so long ago with Jesus and his disciples, will the tools of love once again sit neglected by the door in the hopes that someone else will pick them up?


One more thing.  This night, Jesus knew that Judas was going to sell him out for thirty pieces of silver.  He knew that Peter would deny him.  He knew the others around the table would flee out of fear and abandon him, but he still said they were his friends, he still desired to eat the meal with them.  Jesus washed the feet and ate with those who would betray, deny, and abandon him.  So remind me again of our excuse for holding grudges and withholding affection?


He still washed their feet.  He still served them Holy Communion, even though he knew they were all going to fail him, because that’s what love does.


We all know the difference between a command and a suggestion.  On this Maundy Thursday, Jesus gave us a new command – to love each other, as he has loved us.

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