Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
April 1, 2010—Maundy Thursday
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
John 13:1-17, 31b-35 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. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
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 wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do 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.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 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.”
Today is Maundy Thursday. “Maundy” is a church word—you never hear it outside of a church context. A word that comes from the Latin mandatum, which means “commandment”. It’s based on something Jesus says in the reading for tonight: A new commandment I give you that you love one another as I have loved you.”
But there’s something else that Jesus says that caught my attention. When Jesus is washing the disciples’ feet he says “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
It occurs to me that that statement refers to more than just the foot washing. There is much about what happened that night that the disciples, or we for that matter, would not have properly understood.
Starting with the foot washing. Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet would have been confusing to those who understood a master-disciple relationship in the traditional sense. Peter’s objection is perfectly understandable in that light. Why on earth would the master watch the disciples’ feet when, if anything, it should be the other way around?
Taken on its own, it makes no sense. It defies common sense and tradition.
But then later, we understood. We understand that Jesus is defining the master-disciple relationship not in terms of power, but in terms of fellowship and friendship. Jesus describes his disciples as “friends” and thus presents for us a new model of leadership, a Christian model that does not see things in terms of hierarchies but in terms of open relationships.
Then there’s the communion. During the Last Supper, the disciples would have seen it as a normal Passover seder, or a traditional liturgical meal. They would have seen it as a reenactment of Israel’s story of liberation from bondage. Nothing unusual about that meal.
But then later, we understood. It was a way in which we understood Jesus’ death: just as the children of Israel had been saved from bondage in Egypt by placing the blood of the Passover lamb upon their doors, Christians are saved from the bondage of sin by placing the blood of Christ upon their hearts.
And then, later, we understood even more. We understood the Communion to be a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet when the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness.
And then of course, there is love. Jesus gives his disciples a 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.”
Thus Christian living and love are tied together. Fair enough, but love is sort of a fuzzy feeling. And fairly ordinary. The disciples might have had thought they understood what that looked like. But they could never have guessed that Jesus’ love included the cross.
But then later, we understood. Love is self-sacrifice. Love is giving of oneself fully and completely. The love we are called to share with one another is a love that gives itself without restraint, lavishly, extravagantly. And that self-giving definition of love radically changes our understanding of God.
John’s gospel begins with a beautiful hymn describing how the Word of God–God’s own self-communication–became flesh and dwelled among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
This Jesus lived among us, healed us and taught us. Ate with us and shared with us. Died on the cross for us.
Peoples of the ancient world had no doubt that their gods were powerful. The Jews were the only ones who believed that their God was good. That their God loved them.
But here in the person of Jesus we see a definition of that love so profound that it is staggering. That God should love us so deeply as to share in our death is a radical and powerful idea. That God should declare God’s solidarity with us even to the point of death is a demonstration of love that we barely understand.
We gather this night to read the story, to share in the meal, to contemplate the mystery. To experience the grace of a God who loves us so deeply. To celebrate a love that we will struggle to understand our whole lives long.
And while we will struggle to understand this awesome declaration of divine love, we are confident in the future it represents and in the hope that it gives. And so we have faith that even as we stand in awe of God’s all encompassing love, later, on that great day, we will understand.