John 13:1-17, 31-35
There’s some things that you only really need to remember once a year. And then once you remember it, you forget by the time another year comes around again. I can never seem to remember, for instance, where we store our big suitcase that we use about once a year. Every time I put it back in storage I think, “Ok, remember where you put this,” but then, about a year later, I’ve forgotten again.
Some of you might be having the same sort of feeling around this time of year: now where did I put that fertilizer I use every spring for my garden? Where are those lawnmower keys? Where did I store the lighter for the BBQ grill. Or — and unfortunately this one applies to me — where, oh where, did my golf swing go?
Every year I also have to remind myself of the meaning of Maundy Thursday. It’s one of those churchy words that we use each year, “Maundy,” but its significance can be lost in the previous year’s facts and figures.
“Maundy” means “commandment.” It comes from an old Latin word that sounds similar, and we call tonight “Maundy Thursday” because we read the scripture reading from John’s gospel in which Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment.
I give you a new commandment, 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.”
This “new commandment” might not seem that new. “Isn’t God all about love from the very beginning?” But the love Jesus is speaking of here, the love Jesus is showing here isn’t your ordinary love. It’s a love that’s never been seen before.
It seems like the Easter season is especially a time for Hallmark cards, Easter bunnies, and nice hopeful spring sayings. “April showers bring May flowers” we say. Or , as Robin Williams once said, “Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s party!’”
So in spring we buy Peeps and pastel colored M&Ms, and — yes, the Easter Bunny arrives where Santa Clause left off at the Mall in Waldorf, and kids pose for pictures. Spring sort of brings out this festive spirit of pastels and play and nice ditties. And that’s all fine. There’s nothing wrong with a little springtime frolicking. But that sort of spirit is not the sort of springy fun that Jesus is dealing with in tonight’s lesson.
The type of love Jesus is speaking of is intense and not to be found on a Hallmark card anywhere. Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
The love Jesus shows tonight is love in the very face of the devil. John writes that “The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him.” That betrayal would soon lead to Jesus’ death on a cross. But Jesus washed the feet of each and every disciple, even Judas. The type of love Jesus showed was in spite of, or perhaps, because of the devil in Judas. Judas either wasn’t strong enough, or the devil was too strong for him, but Jesus didn’t seem phased a bit. Jesus knew what was up, but he washed Judas’ feet anyways.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t speak much of the devil in my life, and very rarely if ever, do I refer to the devil in a personified way. For me, most of the time, thinking of the devil at work is not a helpful thing since we know that nothing–even and especially the forces of evil–nothing is stronger than God and God’s love.
But, some faithful Christians do speak of the devil, and do so in helpful ways for them. It’s important for some to call evil what it is, to give evil a name, to think of evil personified in Satan. For some of these folks the devil their lives is plain and simple–Satan might be a particular tendency to sin, or a disease or affliction, or something that draws them away from God. But no matter how one deals with the devil passages in scripture, it’s clear that Jesus is not afraid of the devil. Jesus washes Judas’ very feet. The type of love that Jesus shows is love in the face of the extreme evil, love in the faith of death itself.
In Jesus’ time, no host would wash his guest’s feet. Washing feet was a dirty task, a menial task perhaps for a slave, but usually something you just had to do yourself. If the host was nice, he’d set a bowl of water and towel out, but no free person would ever wash the feet of another free person.
But Jesus turns the table upside down. Jesus takes a towel and kneels down, washing feet dirty from the dusty roads of Palestine. Jesus takes on the task of a slave, but instead of showing weakness shows strength beyond measure. Love is like that. It’s measured not in power or prestige, but in acts of humility.
So when Jesus commands his disciples to love one another as he has loved them, when Jesus commands us to love other and he has loved us, the command is for love of a new level, love unknown before.
The surprising nature of Jesus’ acts writing “the directive to wash one another’s feet is a call to share the kind of love that startles and surprises. It is a call for love to show up when no one might expect it.” And so, we are called, to love even–or exactly when–it might catch folk off guard.
maybe that means writing a letter to that old friend or family member you argued with
maybe it means swallowing our pride and admitting we were wrong, that one time at least
maybe it means accepting someone not because it’s easy, but because it’s what Jesus would have done
Of course, we know what comes later in John’s gospel. We read the story last Sunday in Luke, Jesus taking his love even to the cross.
Some Christians are fond of saying, “God sent Jesus to die on the cross.” But, putting it that way robs Jesus of his humanity, it takes away Jesus’ capacity to choose and makes him only God’s pawn.
God didn’t send Jesus to die, God sent Jesus to love. And the very fact that Jesus lived out this love so well, got the authorities angry at him. Jesus showed the world a different way to love, a different way to live. And they couldn’t handle it. So they put him to death.
As a congregation, we are sent to carry on that love of Christ. We do so here, within these walls, but out of them as well. And the love Jesus’ commands is not a simple one-way love, but a love of mutuality, a love of community. Jesus tells all of his disciples to “love one another.” Jesus’ love is a mutual thing; a back-and-forth pick one another up when he’s down and then receive the same down the line kind of love.
The danger Jesus’ disciples were met with that night was that they could interpret Jesus’ new commandment too narrowly and only love one another there in that room as Jesus had loved them. The danger was that the disciples would love each other really well, but forget to spread the message to the ends of the earth.
That call confronts and challenges us still today. Do we show Christ’s surprising sacrificial love in ways that just toots our own horn, or do we spread the message beyond our walls of comfort?
Washing one another’s feet is nothing comfortable. And, perhaps even tougher, is having your own feet washed. Does our love have that edge to it, that uncomfortable but holy notion that we are living out Jesus’ commandment? Are we following the new commandment, that as Jesus says, “That everyone will know that we are disciples by our love?”
[walking to the Communion table]
Jesus also commanded that we meet at this table, to remember him.
He knew that we would fall short, that our love would falter, so he gave us this meal for the journey.
Every time we eat the bread of life
every time we drink the cup of salvation,
we proclaim Christ’s death until he comes again.
So we celebrate Christ’s holy supper this night,
united with all those in the faith,
not because we are perfect, but because we are needy,
not because we love rightly, but because we are loved first by God,
not because we deserve God’s benefits, but because God chose us before we could even stumble.
So come, eat and drink, share the feast, for it is Christ who invites us in love.