The Gospel of St. John 13:1-35
April 18, 2019
[a new commandment]
Maundy Thursday is the beginning of the Paschal Triduum—the three day period that begins tonight and ends when evening falls on Easter Sunday during which we encounter the mystery at the heart of the gospel: the passion, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Maundy is an Anglo-French word that comes from the Latin mandatum –meaning “commandment.” It refers to the Latin translation of John 13:34: “A new commandment (novum mandātum) I give to you, that you love one another.”
On this night we gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as Jesus gathered with his disciples in the upper room on the night before his crucifixion. In the Gospel of John we learn that Jesus removed his robe and tied a towel around his waist. He poured water into a basin and as he knelt there on the floor, bending and stooping down he began to wash the feet of his disciples—their dirty, caked with dust and mud, feet.
We often think of this act of footwashing as an act of humility. And it is. It is a scandalous humility. Jesus, who entered Jerusalem, the holy city, as its king just days before now bends to wash the feet of those who hailed his coming. The Kingdom of God turns the ways of the world upside-down-and-inside-out.
This, this way of Jesus, this is the really real reality. It is the way of God. It is the way the world was meant to be. And it means that here, this night, the lies we live are exposed. We talk about the “real world” — the real world, where the powerful and the rich get their way. The real world, where love and humility have no place, just mere sentimentalism and nice thoughts for do-gooders. The real world, where the poor and downtrodden and marginalized are trampled. The real world, where there are servants who are needed to serve the masters.
But here, tonight, Jesus exposes the real world to be a lie. A lie we get tricked into believing again and again and again. Here, tonight, Jesus reminds us of the deepest reality, the truest reality: the way of God is not the race to the top, but the race to the bottom. The way of God, the way we were created to be, is the way of humiliation and mutual self-sacrificial love. It is not the way of power and violence, but the way of master becoming slave, the first becoming the last.
It is the way of Jesus, the Lord of all creation, bent down to wash the feet of his disciples.
But there is more at work here. If this was simply about humility, we would see that easily enough. The disciples would have grasped that easily enough. It is right there for us, simple enough for us to make sense of on our own. Why then does Jesus tell them, in v. 7, that they will not understand until later? “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”
No, Jesus, we got it. You are a good, humble man. A morally upright guy. And we are meant to be like you. Good, moral, upright people who do nice things for others. And that is precisely what we do not understand. Jesus is not just telling us to be good, moral people. He is telling us that we, like the disciples, need to be cleansed by him.
What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand. Afterward? After what? After the cross. After his humiliating death. After he washes not only our feet, but by his cleansing blood, he washes our sins away. If I do not wash you, you have no share of me (John 13:8). That is what the disciples did not understand. And it is what we do not understand, if we are not careful.
We can turn Jesus’ teachings into just another version of Aesop’s Fables. We can turn the gospel into a nice set principles, into a set of pithy sayings and stories about how to live good, moral lives. We not only can, we do. Just take a trip to any local Christian bookstore and you’ll find it full of self-help books baptized in the name of Jesus but empty of the cross. But the gospel is not about a good moral man calling us to be good moral people. It is not calling us to try to do enough good to balance the scales of cosmic justice. No, that is exactly what it is not doing.
The gospel is about death and life. It is about Jesus, the Son of God, humbling himself to the point of death, that you and I, unable to save ourselves, will be saved through him, washed clean by him, raised up in glory with him.
We do not understand the mystery of his foot washing because it is the mystery of the cross. It is a cleansing that only Christ can bring.
It is the way of Jesus, the Lord of all creation, bent down to wash the feet of his disciples. It is the way of Jesus, the eternal Son of God, stooping low, that we might be lifted up.
[to the end]
I am always struck by a phrase in the verse at the beginning of this passage: “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
He loved them to the end.
The Greek word is telos — the end, the fulfillment, the culmination of, to the end of the journey. He loved them to the end. He loved them to the end of his life. He loved them to the end of their lives. He loved them faithfully, all the way to the end of the road. He didn’t stop short. He completed the work set before him. He loved them all the way to the cross. And, as we know, he loves us even to the other side of the cross, all the way to the end and into the very heart of God.
But there is another sense in which to understand the word “end.” Telos can mean “utterly, fully, completely.” Jesus not only loved them to the end of the road. He loved every bit of them. He loved them completely, all the way from their heads to the toes and everywhere in-between. Jesus loved them completely. He loved everything about them. He loved them, every bit of them, every nook and cranny, every hidden corner of dark and shadow.
Jesus didn’t just love a part of them. Or the good stuff about them. He loved them completely, fully, thoroughly.
And so, Jesus loves us, to the end. Jesus loves every part, every bit of you. This is the truest thing about you—that God loves you. It is the love of God in which you were created. It is the love of God in which your life and breath is sustained moment-by-moment, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by-year. It is the love of God that redeems you. It is the love of God that sanctifies you. God loves you. That’s more true of you than anything else.
If we are honest, sometimes we believe in our sin more than we believe in the grace and love of God. We believe our sin is the deepest, truest thing about us. And we cling to our sin and the lies it tells us with all of our might. Yet, even then, it is God’s love that clings to us, and holds us, until we are ready let go.
You might think that Jesus loves only the good stuff about you. That Jesus loves only the parts of you that are put together. But no, that is the opposite of what the gospel teaches us. Jesus loves every part of us and the sinful parts the most. Not that Jesus loves the sin, but Jesus loves the sinful parts of us the most because those parts—those hardened, well-worn paths we take in sin, the rocky soil of our soul—those rough and dried up and jagged bits of us, those are the parts that Jesus loves the most because those are the parts that need his tender, healing love the most.
Jesus loves us completely, fully. He loves everything about you. Even those parts of you that you cannot love, cannot believe that God loves, Jesus loves. Our sin will not be healed by our guilt. It will not be healed by our shame. It will not be healed by our prideful self-protestations. It will not be healed in hiddenness, by our hiding from God, from others, from ourselves. No, that won’t do. Those parts of us will only be healed by the love of God. And the good news is that God loves us, God loves, to the end—fully, completely, thoroughly.
It is the love of Christ alone that can transform and bring to life. It is only the love of Christ that can bind up our wounds, that can fill the deep cracks and chasms in our hearts, that can make straight our crooked and winding paths, that can smooth out the rough and jagged bits, and soften the hardened, cracked, parched soil of our souls.
He loved them to the end. And He loves you to the end.
He loved them to the end, bending down in humiliation before them to wash their feet. He loves them—and you and me—to the end, bending down in humiliation and death into the very heart of the earth—his blood shed to cleanse and wash away the sin of the world, his body given and broken that we would be healed and made whole.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.