A meditation preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church of Prairie Village, Kansas. March 28, 2013.
* * *
Without fail, every Lent, around this time of year,
I’m asked the same question.
Well, I guess I’m asked about the state of my March Madness Bracket first.
But, today, people ask me about this quirky word “Maundy”
“What the heck does Maundy Thursday mean anyway,
and why do we celebrate it.”
Well…Maundy Thursday means Mandate Thursday,
from the Latin root for “commandment” – mandatum.
Tonight on Maundy Thursday, on this Holy Night,
Christians gather in communities just like this,
all over the world,
to recall the MANDATE given by Jesus on that last night with his disciples.
“I give you a NEW commandment,” Jesus says,
“that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.”[i]
Its such a curious thing to me, that in John’s Last Supper scene
Jesus calls loving one another a NEW commandment.
Jesus and the Christians did not invent love;
Why would Jesus call it NEW?
* * *
I think that the answer to that lies not so much in a break from the Hebrew past
As in what we hope is the FULFILLMENT of it.
There would have been nothing new to Jesus’ disciples about love;
Hesed, God’s steadfast love, lies at the very heart of the Torah.
As does the command to embody it to family and neighbor.
The disciples, as good and faithful Jews, would have known this.
Jesus, a Jewish teacher and adherent, would have known this.
So what is NEW here?
The new thing, it seems, is the one offering the commandment: Jesus himself.
HE is the very love that he commands, and THAT is new.
So, the new commandment is the JESUS mandate: to love as Jesus loves.
* * *
Now, we’re told by John, when this passage opens, that Jesus,
having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end….
When we approach this Jesus that we find revealed to us in scripture,
we see time and time again how, to love as Jesus loves,
well, that’s something of a challenge, isn’t it.
The one who feeds, and heals,
and welcomes, and encourages
and teaches, and forgives…
That Jesus. Loving to the end…
And then later in John’s Gospel, when Jesus refers a second time
to this commandment to love one another as Jesus has loved us,
he ads, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[ii]
One’s LIFE. O, boy.
On the one hand, its easy, and accurate,
to read that as Jesus foreshadowing his death on the cross…
But its so much more than that.
Commentator Gail O’Day writes that Jesus wants us to see THIS love of his,
not so much as a sacrificial giving up of one’s life
but more as an obedient giving away of one’s life for another.
You see, every time we give ourselves away for another’s sake,
in whatever measure, small, or great,
we fulfill the mandate of Jesus.
* * *
And we see that, in striking, shockingly clear ways,
in John’s retelling of Maundy, of MANDATE Thursday.
In the upper room, at the Last Supper, Jesus SHOWS his disciples
what he means by “loving as he loves.”
Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.
In the first three Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—
the most important event at the Last Supper is the Holy Communion shared.
The bread, the cup, the wine.
But in John, the most sacred event of the Last Supper is the foot-washing.
We really don’t have a modern-day equivalent,
but consider this:
In Jesus’ day, it would have been customary to wash your feet
as you entered a house.
You were dirty, grimy, dusty from the sandals that you wore,
And it wasn’t polite, not good manners, to track all that into another’s home.
So you washed your feet,
Or more accurately, someone else, usually a servant, would wash your feet.
But THIS night, around the table,
The teacher, the mentor, the leader, the Rabbi Jesus,
as they celebrate the Passover
THIS Jesus turns to his students and does what?
He takes the posture of a servant: to wash them.
It was awkward. It was unseemly. It was preposterous.
It was self-less and counter-cultural and radically generous, all rolled into one.
One of them, Peter, makes a show of trying to stop Jesus,
“You will never wash my feet,” he says,
trying to stop Jesus by taking control of the situation.
He sounds like one of us, doesn’t he,
trying to manage our way through an uncomfortable moment.
Jesus, though, cuts to the heart of the matter:
“Unless I wash you,” he says to Peter, “you have no share in me.”
Why does Jesus say that?
Its because the foot washing is symbolic
of how we enter into loving relationship with one another,
and into relationship with Jesus.
To serve Jesus is first to be served BY Jesus;
To serve Jesus is first to be LOVED by Jesus,
and then to love another in his name.
Have you had your feet washed in this way?
I confess, it reminds me of those gentle, delicate moments I’ve witnessed
where one cares for the physical needs of an infirm loved one
maybe helping feed them
or wash them
when they cannot do it for themselves.
For those of us who are able bodied, though,
the idea of submitting to that might be startling.
Maybe for some of us, the idea of reaching over to offer it
to another capable of tending to their own needs
is likewise odd.
I’ve had my feet washed before, in a Maundy Thursday service
about a decade and a half ago now.
It is a true thing:
To have your feet washed by another is a tender, humbling, intimate experience.
To wash another’s feet is a vulnerable, tender, humbling event.
Its really hard, both for the one washing, and for the one being washed.
Jesus commands something like this,
because those who do it and those who receive it
cannot help but find themselves TRANSFORMED
by the power of self-giving love
that is inherent in the act.
Note well: Such love is not meant to be held onto, as if it were a possession.
It is meant to be shared with another, and the only way we can get to the point of
self-giving love is to let go of the love we have received, to pass it on.
That is the “Maundy-mandate” of Jesus. To love others as Jesus has loved us.
The one who loved us to the end…
To give that love away with wanton joy!
* * *
Just as the Passover meal is a feast of remembrance, so we who follow Jesus
gather here tonight, on Maundy Thursday, to remember.
The symbols of this season—the basin for foot washing,
the spiritual journey through Lent,
the bread and the cup on this table, the cross—
all combine to remind us of what we have received, and what we hand on to others,
the generous love of Jesus Christ.
Sisters and brothers, we are in receipt of incredible love.
We have gathered here on this special night to experience that Love again.
We are here to be fed so that we might go out and feed others.
Tonight, let us remember to claim the love that Jesus gives,
And to receive the mandate that comes through Christ’s self-giving spirit
And share that love with a hungry, love-starved world. Amen.