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.”
He loved them. All of them, the text says. Judas was there, which means he loved Judas too. Even though Judas was the one who would betrayed him. The one who would hand him over to be crucified, as we will see tomorrow night. But it doesn’t just say that he loved them. It says he loved them to the end. Which means he never stopped loving them. He never stopped loving Judas, even as he traded Jesus’ beating heart for a lifeless bag of silver. He never stopped loving Peter, even as fear got the best of him and he abandoned Jesus as his friend, not one but three times. He never stopped loving the other disciples, who scattered the moment the Roman police arrived to break up their after hours party in the garden of Gethsemane. Leaving Jesus to take all the heat on his own. He loved them. All of them.
And to show this, he does the unthinkable. He stands up from the dinner table, takes off his robe, and kneels down at the feet of each disciple. He unties their sandal, takes their calloused and dusty feet into his holy hands, and washes them clean. It is the role of a servant Jesus is taking on. And they could hardly believe their eyes. This wasn’t the job of someone like Jesus. This was a job for someone lowly and discardable, like a servant girl or a house slave. Not someone like Jesus, their Lord and teacher. But that’s what he does. He washes their feet. He shows them what Divine Love looks like. Vulnerable. Humble. Self-giving. And then he tells them to do the same. To wash one another’s feet. And he gives them a new commandment: to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another, Jesus says. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Friends, welcome to Maundy Thursday. If you ask me, tonight seems to be the least well-known night of the Easter trilogy – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. Of course, Easter is at the top. When I ask people about their Holy Week traditions, it is usually just Easter morning with the family, they say. Which is no surprise. It is the day when it feels like the world starts over again. The whole world seems to come out of its tomb and life springs forth not only from the earth, but from within us as well. Good Friday is quite well known too. If anything, it is because it is the most honest day of the church year. The day when we hear that haunting story of Jesus’ death and crucifixion. It speaks to the darkness of the world that we all know and we all fear. Both the darkness outside and inside of all of us. And perhaps the comfort of Good Friday is that we learn that God is no stranger to death and darkness. But that in fact the dead and dark places of our lives are where God will be found. On the crosses of the world. But Maundy Thursday always seems to be the third, oops child of Easter week. It gets very little time and energy from most of us. In all honesty, I don’t know that I knew what Maundy Thursday was until I went to seminary, and even then I didn’t know how to spell it. It always just sounded like Monday Thursday. Which was confusing. But it is Maundy Thursday. Coming from the Latin word for mandate, or commandment.
I wonder why tonight hasn’t gained more popularity in the Christian church. Perhaps it is because it is the night when Jesus shares the last supper with his disciples, and, well, we’ve all been to communion before. So, nothing new there. Or perhaps it is because the idea of Jesus washing his disciples feet and then asking us to do the same, makes most of shutter and hide at the thought of having to touch someone else’s feet, or worse, having someone touch ours.
Or maybe it is because Jesus gives us a new commandment and we don’t really like be commanded to do much of anything. Or perhaps we just don’t know if we are up to the task.
I don’t know about you, but I always find it interesting that anytime people talk about how important the commandments and how we need to have them outside our court houses and how our children need to learn them, no one ever mentions this commandment. The new commandment that Jesus gives us tonight: to love one another, just as Jesus has loved us.
We forget that before Jesus dies on a cross for us in love and before Jesus breaks out of that tomb of death and despair, he actually asks something of us. That we love one another. That we humble ourselves to act in loving service to one another. Even Judas. That we love and welcome even the Judas’, the betrayers, in our midst.
A couple of weeks ago, a well know blogger, Glennon Melton told the story about being at the grocery store with her son Chase. She and her son Chase were grocery shopping in the produce section and Chase was having a blast weighing each new bag of vegetables they collected. She handed him a bag of tomatoes and he walked over to the scale and waited patiently in line. As she watched, an elderly man walked up behind Chase, scowled at him for a moment, and stepped in front of him, bumping Chase out of the way. Chase looked shocked and scared. The mother left her cart and walked over to Chase, stood by him and said loudly, “Are you all right honey? I saw what that man did to you. That was very, very wrong and rude.” Chase said nothing, the Grumpy Old man said nothing. Chase and his mom held hands and waited.
When the man was finished weighing his bag, he turned around quickly and all of his onions spilled out of his bag and on to the dirty floor. Everyone froze for a moment. Then Chase looked up at his mother and she motioned toward the floor. Together, they got down on hands and knees and started collecting onions while the old man grouchily and grudgingly accepted them from their hands and put them back into his bag. After Chase and his mother retrieved the last onion, the old man walked away. They did too, and they didn’t discuss the event until they got back in the car.
On the drive home, Chase said through tears, “Mommy, I’ve had a frustrating day. That man cut right in front of me and that was wrong. And we had to help him pick up his onions! Why did we do that? That didn’t make any sense.”
Chase’s mother took a deep breath and said, “Chase, that man was acting horribly wasn’t he? He seemed to have a very angry heart. I’m so sorry that happened to you. But if we didn’t help him with his onions, do you think we would have made his heart softer or angrier?”
Angrier, Chase said.
“Since we did help him, do you think that might have made his heart softer?”
“Maybe,” Chase said.
“But you know what, Chase? I understand how you feel. I didn’t want to help that man with his onions. You know what I wanted to do?”
“I wanted to kick him really hard in the shin. I was very angry with that man for treating you badly. But sometimes doing what we really want to do, if it’s going to add more anger, isn’t the right thing to do. Even if it feels good at the time. If we wouldn’t have helped that old man, we might have felt good for a second, but then I bet we would have felt really, really yucky about ourselves for a long time. You and I, we have a lot of love to share. Maybe that man doesn’t have much. Maybe we offered him some today. People who behave badly still need love.”
This story may seem obvious. I hear people all the time say that they just try to be nice to others, even when others are mean. But do we recognize that it isn’t just being nice. It is fulfilling God’s commandment? To love one another as God has loved us?
Pope Francis made headlines a year ago when on Maundy Thursday he broke Vatican tradition. Instead of washing the feet of 12 priests, who represent the 12 disciples, he went to a prison, and washed and kissed the feet of inmates. Among the inmates were women and Muslims. He said to them, “This is a symbol, it is a sign — washing your feet means I am at your service. Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do. And I do it with my heart. I do this with my heart because it is my duty.”
This is how God loves. God is always picking up the messes we make, the onions we spill on the floor. So as to soften our hearts and send us out to love and pick up the onions of others. Before his death, Jesus is trying to shape a community. That we might be the bearers of God’s love for the world as he is. Through vulnerable, self-giving love.
In a couple of minutes, you will be invited to part take in a hand washing service.
If you so choose, it will mean reaching out your hands in vulnerability to receive love and care and compassion. What will it all mean? Jesus says to us, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Which means I can’t tell you what it means for you. Perhaps for you, it will mean a cleansing away of sin. A fresh start. Or perhaps it will mean a washing away of all of the lies you’ve told yourself about who you are, and instead will reveal the beloved child of God that you really are. Or perhaps it will simply be divine compassion coming in human form of someone touching your body and claiming it as blessed and beloved.
Whatever it is for you, may it remind us not only of this new commandment to love one another, but of what comes before the commandment. He loved them. All of them. Even us. To the end. Amen.