Maundy Thursday

John 13: 1-17; 31b-35

The Lowly God

Today is Maundy Thursday. Many of you already know what “maundy” means. It derives from the Latin word “mandatum,” which means “commandment.” Thus, we see that Maundy Thursday is named for the new commandment that Jesus gives to the disciples, about which we just read. But we’re not here to give a lesson in the origins of words. Instead we want to spend a few moments reflecting on a simple sentence: Jesus loves us. It may be helpful to organize our reflections by reading aloud this sentence three times, stressing in turn each of the words of which it is composed. When we do this, we hear that Jesus loves us. Then we find that Jesus loves us. And finally, we note that Jesus loves us.

Let us begin then with the subject of the sentence, Jesus. What do we mean when we say that it is Jesus who loves us? John wants us to know that Jesus is divine. He is the Word of God. In the beginning he was there with God, and was God. He is the Word through whom all things were created. The Word became flesh and dwelled among us. In Jesus Christ we encounter this Word made flesh. All this is found at the beginning of the Gospel. But no less does John emphasize Jesus divine origin here. He has come from God and is about to return to God. All things have been entrusted into his hands.

If we have been raised in the church, if we have heard sermons on John’s gospel, we’ve become accustomed to this language. We therefore have a hard time appreciating how the scene portrayed in our lesson challenges the very notion of God. What’s implied in the concept of God? Here theologians speak of God’s attributes. Among them are absolute power, universal dominion and unapproachable majesty. But how do we square these attributes with what we find in our lesson? We don’t. That’s why the fifth century preacher Severian of Gabala can only rely on paradox, when he says:   

He who wraps the heavens in clouds wrapped round himself a towel. He who pours the water into the rivers and oceans, tipped water into a basin. And he before whom every knee bends in heaven and on earth and under the earth knelt to wash the feet of his disciples.

Jesus brought into the world a radically new understanding of God and humanity. In him we see the deep descent of God from the highest heaven to human beings, even to their very feet. The act of washing their feet is a parable of how God wants to relate to his people. He wants to serve them. But wait, aren’t we at God’s service? To be sure, he is Lord whom we are to obey. But he wants to live out his lordship in service to his people. “Who is greater, the one at the table, or the one who serves? But I am you as one who serves, as Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel. He is the lowly God, in the arresting language of St. Augustine, the God who came to serve and save his people.

This is hard for us to grasp, just how hard is reflected in Peter’s response: “You will never wash my feet!” In Peter’s mind it’s offensive for his honored teacher and Lord to perform this servile act. It’s even more offensive that the divinity, who is sovereign over the cosmos, take on the role of a slave. But that is the claim of the Christian faith! We have only to recall in this connection the ancient hymn that the Apostle Paul records in Philippians 2:5-11. He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…He humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross. Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place, giving him the name above all names. 

But Peter’s protest reveals something else about us, something disturbing. We have a hard time letting God love us. We are averse to it. That is one of our many woes as human beings: we reject what we need most. But Jesus does not give up on Peter. He is sharp in his response. “If you don’t let me wash you, you have no part in me.”

I have a cousin named Bruce. He is a pastor. For an extended period of time, however, he was without a church. He was frustrated. He prayed: “Lord, please show me where I can go to serve you.” He shared with me God’s answer to his prayer: “Bruce, let me love you.” When the German pastor and opponent of the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was in a Nazi prison camp, he heard God say to him: “Dietrich, my love for you is no hoax.” Let God love you. Give in. Be washed, simply because Jesus wants to wash you, regardless of what you think or feel.

But how exactly does foot washing demonstrate love? Here we arrive at our second point. It is Jesus who loves us. During his last supper with his disciples, Jesus got up, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself and stooped down to wash his disciples’ feet.

In the ancient world, foot washing was a menial task. It involved washing away not only the dust and mud but also the remains of human excrement (which was poured out from the roofs of houses into the streets), as well as that of animal waste (which was left on country roads and town streets). It was a task assigned to slaves or servants of low status, as we have already observed. But let us reflect for a moment on what the act aimed to accomplish.

In this social environment, you are not welcomed into a home unless your feet are washed. You are not fit for human company. You would have to stay outside with the animals. Consider an analogy here. Parents do not let their children descend to the level of a beast, at least not if they love them. They feed, wash, clothe and educate them. Just as the host prepared the guest to be received into the home, so parents prepare their children for reception into human community. They want them to be welcomed and cherished and embraced. They want them to flourish and succeed. Children thrive under this kind of love. That is why we are outraged when parents cannot or will not provide it for their children.

By washing us, Jesus is preparing us for reception into his home, that we may always know fellowship with God, with the Father and Son. Washing us today prefigures what he is about to accomplish for us in his cleansing crucifixion tomorrow. This complex of acts demonstrates Jesus’ love for us.

When we are loved, we love in return. The order here is irreversible. Just as I have loved you, so you are to love one another. This is an important theme in John’s writings. We love, because he first loved us. We have now arrived at our third and final point. Jesus loves us.

His love for us has implications for how we live. Our lives are to be characterized by the love we have received. Freely you have received, now freely give. In our context, foot washing may mean attentive listening in conversation, generous hospitality towards visitors, good attention to colleagues, mutual presence to one another as spouses, tender care for children. When we let God love us, God’s love will flow from us, manifesting itself in these kinds of acts.

The pattern of our lives as disciples we have traced here is reflected in our worship. The Word of God read and proclaimed, the bread and the wine taken and shared—this is the Lord’s ongoing service to us. Worship goes first downward, from God to us, before going upward from us to God in thanksgiving and praise. And then worship goes outward, from a people served by the serving God into a world to be served.

This is perhaps most apparent in our communion order, which we are about to recite in a few moments. The Lord Jesus gives us himself under the signs of the bread and wine and then sends us out into the world to love and to serve. While we cannot share in communion together because of the corona virus, we can follow the communion order. And if you have bread and wine at home, you may consume it at the appropriate moment in the order. We can call it virtual communion.

Scroll to Top