Maundy Thursday Meditation

First Reading: Exodus 12:1–14

Epistle Reading: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Gospel Reading: John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Sermon “How Does Love Act?”

The Apostle John opens his account of Jesus with his disciples in the upper room this way: “Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1b) What follows is account of what was done and said that night that gives us a glimpse of how love in the person of Jesus Christ acts and what that sort of love does. Does it surprise you that the first thing that happens doesn’t involve words at all, but actions and very humble actions at that. Jesus, whom they rightly called Teacher and Lord, takes on the role and dress of a servant.

Neither Jesus nor his disciples were wealthy; They employed no servants and seemingly none of the disciples had volunteered for the hospitality duties either. So it is Jesus himself who takes this opportunity to teach by example rather than by words. He performs the humble task of washing the dust of the Jerusalem streets from the feet of his disciples as John tells us (John 13:4-5 NIV) “ … he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. [5] After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” This was part of a carefully presented lesson that night to teach and reinforce what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus.

As we will see, the key characteristic defining Jesus’ disciples was to be their love and Jesus was showing them how love acts. After he had finished, Jesus said: “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” The act of foot washing in the ancient world symbolized not only humility but also hospitality. In a culture where friends reclined at the table to eat, usually after long and dusty walks, foot washing was an essential step in inviting others to the community feast. The job was a dirty one usually reserved for lowly servants, but it was extremely important. To wash someone’s feet was to recognize them as a welcome guest, to remove any barriers that might keep them from the table. 

It’s hard to miss the point here – Peter saw that Jesus was taking on what seemed to him a menial role, not at all appropriate to the one he claimed as Lord and master. So, he refuses at first – until Jesus patiently explains that “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” These are critically important words and Peter understood that too – asking to have his hands and his head washed as well. He knew his need of Jesus, but pride gets in the way. Peter and his fellows would have bathed before the feast – only their dusty sandaled feet would have need attention before laying down on the couches for dinner. Yet there is more here at stake here than dirt. Sin, the renunciation of pride and acceptance of cleansing by the washing of Jesus is what they were to see.

Why is it so difficult for us to accept that we need from others? We try to tell ourselves that our issues are ours alone. Our struggles and our weaknesses are private – even from God. Jesus chose the disciples feet for his demonstration. It was a good choice. Our feet are not generally among our most beautiful parts are they? Perhaps a bit calloused, sweaty, smelly, ticklish and sometimes with maybe even a little fungus under the nails. We don’t usually present them to others – perhaps to a spouse, seldom even that. If I had announced tonight that we were going to follow the ancient tradition of foot washing, how many of you would have suddenly been unavailable? It’s an intimate act, a humble act. It requires trust and relationship. It serves as an example of what love in the church should be. Love means more than sentiment, more than sending a card. It means actively caring and providing for another. It can be messy and even quite personal. It might mean doing things for each other that we might not normally think of doing. I’ve seen many of you all doing such things for each other, so I know you understand. We just need to broaden our circle of love to include more people.

Following Jesus will mean putting aside our priorities and prerogatives on behalf of each other at times, just as our Savior did for his disciples. Jesus told them they would be blessed if they did for each other as he had done for them. You see, he knew them well. These were the same folks who had twice before argued about just who was going to be the greatest. Love serves, in matters menial and major. To accept love is just as important as giving it too. We all have our gifts to use for the common good, but we all serve the same Lord – and Jesus came to love and to serve. Giving us this example. Just as serving is mutual, so is forgiving. Forgiving is just as important as finding forgiveness. It can be no other way – that’s how love behaves. Salvation is a great gift, but it must be accepted and accepting it means we acknowledge that we are hopeless without it – we can have no part in Jesus if we do not let him wash us either.

As John’s narrative continues, we are confronted by the revelation that for one of those whom Jesus has washed, their feet only got wet, not clean. You see, Jesus washed the feet of Judas Iscariot as well as the rest. Here we find that love is not some idealistic dreamland – it is very real and down to earth. Jesus knew that Judas had already been with the chief priest and offered to hand him over in a quiet spot. Judas was also seated near to Jesus at the table. What was it that transpired between them in the moment when Jesus handed him the bread dipped in the sauce? We do not know. Was it a last silent appeal by Jesus for Judas to repent? If so, it was not taken and Judas goes out into the night with the rest of the disciples none the wiser, but shaken at the thought that one of them could be a betrayer. For Judas now, the decision was made and Satan was in control.

Betrayals come in all shapes and sizes. Judas’ was huge, but not the only one. Peter is cautioned that he too will fail – rather than bravely risking his life, he will disown his Lord – three times. Jesus knew this too. His kind of Love is not saccharine sweet, no, its very real and honest – knowing, yet not controlling. The disciples would all fail that night, yet Jesus speaks of love in the face of rejection, abandonment and death. Jesus speaks of relationship and fellowship on the other side of failure. He promises the coming of the Holy Spirit and of going to prepare a place for all of them. He assures them that though they cannot follow immediately – the road is prepared – He himself is the way, the truth and the life. Even more than that, God the Father Almighty is uniquely revealed in Jesus – by his love and by the deeds of power that he did. A power that they too would share.

Love shows us the way – it IS our way. It defines who we are as Christians – We follow that way through obedience to the will of God and by sharing the gifts of love with each other and with the world at large. Our obedience is not to earn anything. It is because of who we are. As John would write in his epistle (1 John 2:3-6 NIV) [3] We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. [4] Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. [5] But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: [6] Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.

Jesus knew that this night was to be the very last one with his disciples before the cross. It was time to remind a reinforce the basics – the essentials. And so he gives them a new commandment that was really a new expression of a very old one. he said: (John 13:34-35 NIV) “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” That command is what we celebrate on this night. Love of a very special kind – the kind of Love that Christ himself gives. Perhaps we can capture a better view of this commandment if we apply John’s formula for living in obedience as Christ did to include love – Perhaps we might say it this way: ‘Whoever claims to love Christ, must love as he loved.’

That is a high target indeed. Long before, in the beginnings of Israel God had told his chosen people through the words of the law: “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev 19:18b) Now Jesus says “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” The love of Christ is shown in deeds of humble service and self sacrifice. It is gentle, but real. It is does not condemn but reaches out with the bread of life, even in the face of betrayal. It professes a future and a guide even to one who would shortly deny even knowing him. The love of Christ offers cleansing and pardon, not condemnation. The love of Jesus extends even to death and humiliation and to life beyond. Can we love like that? Perhaps not. Not yet anyway. But If not yet, then we should most definitively practice and pray for strength and guidance from the Holy Spirit which Jesus sends to us. What would the world think of us if we did? Like the song says – They’ll know we are Christians by our love!