Maundy Thursday (sermon)

Maundy - Ford Maddox Brown footwashing

1 Cor 11:17-end       Luke 23:1-49

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end… He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it round his waist.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped round him… A little later, he said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” [St John 13:1,5,34,35]

In tonight’s worship there are three elements that are all intertwined: (1) the gathering of the disciples to eat and drink the Passover meal, and even before that, (2) his putting off his garments and girding himself with a towel to wash his disciples feet, and (3) his concluding by giving them a new commandment – that’s why we call tonight Maundy Thursday – from Mandatum novum, a new commandment.

We’ve been hearing the Ten Commandments during our Lent services – and asking God to write all these Laws in our hearts.  And those of us in our catechism class have spent some time meditating on the deeper meanings of these Ten Commandments.  As if the Ten Commandments aren’t hard enough already, Jesus adds another...

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another:
just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.

I want to share with you what the late Pope Benedict wrote about this in his book Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week:

“What is new about the new commandment?  Since this question ultimately concerns the “newness” of the New Testament, that is to say, the “essence of Christianity”, it is important to be very attentive.

“It has been argued that the new element—moving beyond the earlier commandment to love one’s neighbour—is revealed in the saying “love as I have loved you”, in other words, loving to the point of readiness to lay down one’s life for the other. If this were the specific and exclusive content of the “new commandment”, then Christianity could after all be defined as a form of extreme moral effort… And yet who could possibly claim to have risen above the “average” way of the Ten Commandments, to have left them behind as self-evident, so to speak, and now to walk along the exalted paths of the “new law”? No, the newness of the new commandment cannot consist in the highest moral attainment. Here, too, the essential point is not the call to supreme achievement, but the new foundation of being that is given to us. The newness can come only from the gift of being-with and being-in Christ.”

The Good News tonight is that this new Commandment is not about just trying even harder! or laying an even heavier burden on us than the Law of the Old Covenant.

Let us come back to the foot-washing that happened on that night (referred to in John 13) to understand how we can be with and be in Jesus to love like Him.

Coming to the conclusion of his ministry, at night, in a room set apart for a Passover meal, with enemies increasing without and even an enemy within this close gathering of disciples, Jesus strips down, girds himself with a towel – as a slave or servant would in that culture – and he washes the feet of his disciples.

The key here is in this interaction between Peter and Jesus.

And the one who is most disturbed by this is Peter: “You shall never wash my feet,” says Peter.

Think of the disciples’ feet – open sandals, filth in the streets, a dusty world – Peter would not have his holy Lord bow before him and wash them like a servant or a slave would do.

Jesus answered him, “If I do not 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!”

A wonderful response showing Peter’s exuberance!

Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean.

Jesus is clearly not just speaking about bathing and foot-washing practices for Christians!  But it is really pointing us to something much more!

God washes us in the waters of baptism – he who has bathed does not need to be washed – by baptism we are with Christ and in Christ. But the exception, Jesus says, is our feet, each of us does need to allow our feet to be washed.  What does Jesus mean by this exception?  Our feet are that part of our body that must have direct contact with the world.  It is a way of describing how in our daily engagement with the world we sin, in our current state it is impossible for us to avoid it – our passions are not perfectly ordered and so we make mistakes often, we miss the mark with our desire, with our attempts to love – and Jesus knows that.

But rather than leaving us to despair about that, Jesus gives us a way to deal with it.

He offered up his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, as we have heard in our Gospel tonight.  By that sacrifice, he makes efficacious the waters of baptism for the washing away of sin – the one who is bathed does not need to wash – we believe in one baptism for the remission of sins.  And he makes efficacious by his once for all sacrifice on the Cross, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion – instituted on that very same night soon after with the disciples. Here in an ongoing way, our feet are washed, we are kept with and in Christ.

Just as the disciples had to take off their sandals and allow Jesus to wash their feet, so must we admit our misguided loves, not hiding, but presenting “our dirty feet” to be washed by the Lord.  That’s what St Paul reminds us.

Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgement on himself. …But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.

Jesus said to the disciples that night, If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.  Unless we receive on an ongoing basis this love from God, his purifying mercy, we cannot in turn love one another as he loves us.

True love is not something we stir up of ourselves, but something imparted to us by Jesus as we receive his forgiveness, receive His love, and know it at ever deeper levels in our soul… and a fire is kindled in our hearts to do likewise, without thinking about it, to our neighbours.  We sink into the heart of our Lord and become ignited by His love.

Jesus concludes, If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.

Washing one another’s feet is bearing with the sins of others and offering forgiveness to those in our midst – to “the dirty feet” of our neighbour.  What you forgive on earth shall be forgiven in heaven.  What I have done to you, you should do to one another.

We love with the love that we know from our Lord.  It’s not some superhuman effort on our part, but by the allowing of ourselves to be ministered to by Christ, we dwelling in Him and He in us – love fills us… and the desire of God for our salvation… becomes our desire for the salvation of others, our love for them.  We condescend, we gird ourselves with the towel of a servant, we go beyond the sin, to see the person whom Jesus loves, just as he did and is doing with each of us.

Tonight we have opportunity to come up to the altar to receive Jesus in this mysterious sacrament that he initiated that same night.

Let us uncover before Jesus our “dirty feet” and allow him to wash them with his blood, to receive the perfect forgiveness he offers us, to receive his love.

And let us ask Jesus to bring to our mind someone who offends us, someone we’ve held at a distance, and ask Jesus to give us the grace to see beyond that person’s “dirty feet”, to love that person with a love like His – forgiving, forbearing, washing, stirring up our love and theirs.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another:
just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.

Amen +

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