Sermons from Holy Week – Maundy Thursday
St. Peter has always been one of my favourite disciples. He was blunt to the point, sometimes infuriatingly stubborn and often uncomprehending- rather like you and me and his statement: ‘You shall never wash my feet!’ makes him very modern.
We are embarrassed by an absolutely free gift, we only feel comfortable if what we receive is something we think we are owed, or something we think we can in some way return. If someone stops you and offers us a box of chocolates,, our first reaction is to think: What’s the catch? This was the case in an honour and shame culture like first century Palestine, and a transactional culture like ours that privileges our autonomy and protects us from dependency. In such cultures, Peter’s protest against the kindness of Jesus, a kindness that can never be paid back, a radical kindness that demands nothing – at least nothing that we can calculate – Peter’s protest becomes entirely understandable: “You shall never wash my feet.” Of course Peter thinks that his demurral is an act of courtesy and respect, done out of deference; but at bottom it is his vanity and pride that are speaking. Peter does not want to be beholden to Jesus, to be in debt to him, to be utterly dependent on him. So, we resist.
There is a good illustration of this resistance – and one that resonates with Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet – in an old Peanuts cartoon (and remember its author Schulz was a Methodist lay preacher who knew his Bible). The dog, the beagle Snoopy, comes up to Lucy and gives her a great sloppy “lick of love” on the ear. “Get away from me with your ol’ wet tongue!” Lucy cries in disgust. So Snoopy turns to Lucy’s brother Linus, the kid who’s always got the security blanket. “Hey!” he also cries, “Cut it out! Do you have to be licking people all the time?! If you’re not licking somebody’s hands you’re licking somebody’s feet! Stupid dog!” So Snoopy turns away, forlorn, musing (in the cartoon bubble above his head): “They all resent me because I’m so devoted!”
Just so Peter actually resents Jesus washing his feet – because Jesus is so devoted, selflessly, self-sacrificially devoted. Jesus strips himself and lays aside his garments to wash his friends’ feet, like a slave, even as he will be stripped of his garments and lay down his life for his friends, on a cross, again like a slave.
Over the next three days, the Three Great Days, as they are often called, we begin a journey. We’ll move from Lent to Easter, from darkness to light, from death to resurrection. We’ll walk with Jesus and his disciples through the last days of his life. We’ll travel to the Upper Room for the Last Supper and foot washing; we’ll enter the Garden of Gethsemane to watch and pray; we’ll meet the one who will betray Jesus; we’ll witness the indignity of Jesus’ trial; we’ll come face-to-face with the agony of the crucifixion as we move to the Foot of the Cross; we’ll gather with the women at the empty tomb to encounter the risen Christ.
And as we begin this journey, it’s important to recognize that we don’t just gather to remember long ago events. We’re not passive onlookers standing by to watch the drama unfold before our eyes.
Nor are these three days a re-enactment of past events. We’re not play-acting or role-playing or merely pretending that we’re part of the action. The altar is not a stage; the congregation is not the audience. This isn’t stage left or stage right. We don’t dim the lights to call us back from intermission after the Peace.
Rather it is a journey into the very heart of the salvation story. A story that forms our identity as Christians. A story that is our story. So we’re not just hearing about dramatic events that took place a couple thousand years ago or observing them from a safe distance. As believers, we are deeply embedded in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are part of the story. Which is precisely why we are all here this evening and it’s why we will gather over the next several evenings.
You may know that the word “maundy,” from which derives the name “Maundy Thursday,” comes from the Latin mandatum, meaning commandment. It’s where we get the English word “mandate.” And we call this day Maundy Thursday because Jesus gives us a new commandment: That we love one another as Jesus loves us. Or as he put it after washing the disciples feet, “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.”
That’s quite a charge and it’s significant that Jesus calls this a “commandment.”
But, we might exclaim, there is something odd about this! You can’t command love! Love emerges from devotion, from attachment, from unconditional giving.
That’s right. But remember this: ‘Commandment’ is a word dripping with meaning for the disciples — the Ten Commandments, the heart of the Law of Moses. So the fact that Jesus points to the call to love one another as an imperative command highlights its importance. Maundy Thursday could just as easily be called “New Commandment Thursday.” Because, for Jesus, love is not optional. This isn’t Suggestion Thursday; it’s New Commandment Thursday and that commandment is abundantly clear: “love one another as I have loved you.”
Love is the central theme that we will carry along on our journey over the next three days. And I encourage you to hold on to this commandment in your heart. Refer to it often as you reflect on the events that unfold. Think about how Jesus loves us unconditionally despite what he endures; view the crucifixion itself as the ultimate act of love that it is. Look at the ways in which the participants in this story live up to the command to love, and the ways in which they fall short. And examine your own life under the same light.
The thing about the foot washing that is so powerful is that Jesus doesn’t just talk abstractly about love. He doesn’t write a position paper on the concept or merely pay it lip service. When Jesus stands up in the middle of the meal, strips off his outer robe, wraps a towel around his waist, takes that pitcher of water in his hand, and bends over to wash the feet of his disciples, his actions become the ultimate example of someone practicing what he preaches. He doesn’t just talk about loving one another, he embodies it — through the foot washing tonight and, soon enough, on the cross.
But there is resistance to this outpouring of love. Peter reacts strongly against what Jesus is doing for several reasons. First, such a ritual washing as a sign of hospitality would have taken place before the meal. Jesus standing up in the middle of the meal to wash the disciples’ feet was out of order. So right from the start there was something not quite right about this; something that stood out as not being “by the book.”
Of greater significance, and what made this even more uncomfortable and distasteful for the disciples, was the fact that masters or teachers never washed the feet of those below them in the social order. They were the ones who had their feet washed by servants or students — not the other way around. So there was a complete role reversal going on that bucked all social norms and conventions. By radically overturning the way things were always done, Jesus’ actions highlight that this was indeed a very new and slightly uncomfortable commandment.
In a few moments we, too, will wash one another’s feet in a tangible sign of the mandatum to love one another. And whether you choose to participate or simply observe, the message is the same: we serve one another as Christ himself serves us; we love one another as Christ himself loves us. The foot washing is Jesus’ gift to his disciples, just as the giving of his life will be a gift to the entire world.
So while the foot washing at this service is optional, the commandment to love one another is not. “Love one another as I have loved you.”