The celebration of Maundy Thursday is something of a puzzle to me at times.
We mostly think of this service as commemorating the institution of the Last Supper, yet in the story of this Passover meal in John 13 we see no focus on bread and wine, we see no reference to “my body and my blood,” no direction to “remember”.
What we have in this story is two commandments:
“I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet. You, then, should wash one another’s feet.” v.14
“And now I give you a new commandment: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” v.34
It is these two commandments that are behind the name “Maundy”. The Latin word for ‘commandment’ which is mandatum, but linguists cannot readily explain how that word morphed into Maundy. So the focus this evening should rightly be on the commandments rather than the Lord’s Supper.
The story has some powerful elements which we might easily pass over out of familiarity. Did you notice right at the beginning the statement that Jesus loved his friends to the very end? John is clearly getting us ready for something – and this is what we celebrate.
This is the day that Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment.
This is the day that Jesus models that commandment to his friends around the Passover meal table.
This is the day when Judas sneaks off into the night to begin the undoing process.
This is the day and the night when Jesus eats and drinks and touches and loves and prays.
This is the last time that Jesus was a free man.
“I have set an example for you so that you will do just what I have done to you. I am telling you the truth, no slaves are greater than their masters, and no messengers are greater than the one who sent them. Now that you know this truth, how happy you will be if you put it into practice.
Even on the last night of his life, Jesus is beating the same drum:
hearing is good, doing is better;
knowledge is good, doing is better.
if the story is to be told, it has to be lived.
This is another thing we can pass over in the story. But this is the piece that we need to grapple with every-single-day because there is a big, big difference between knowing and doing. There is a big, big difference between knowing about love and loving.
What this meant for Jesus was to act in ways that turned many rules and social conventions upside down. Jesus, the host of this meal and a guest in another’s house, strips down, grabs a towel, then bends over and begins, gently but insistently, to wash the dusty feet of his friends.
Now washing feet was an everyday occurrence in 1st century Palestine. People walked everywhere. Dinner gatherings were enjoyed reclining on and couches around the table full of food. Putting your dirty feet up on someone’s couch simply was not done, it was impolite in the extreme. Water, towel and basin would be provided to all, as an act of welcome, of hospitality.
Ordinarily people would wash their own feet when they came into a house as a guest. A wealthy homeowner might have a servant to do this. The host did not wash his guests’ feet. This task was given to the lowest member of the household: the servant.
For the Teacher, the Rabbi, the leader of the band, to ‘assume the position,’ to bend down and do the dirty work — well, it just was not done. It was an extremely humble act, and I imagine it was a humbling thing to receive as well.
Jesus had turned the rules upside down before:
· Touching lepers
· Eating with tax collectors & sinners
· Reinterpreting the Sabbath command to honour women and children
Jesus was wiling to change the meaning, to tweak it in such a way that it could never be looked at the same way again.
“Watch and learn,” seem to be his bywords. “Let me tell you the story in a new way.”
And in this particular piece of the story, the action precedes the commandment. “Let me show you,” he says, “let me show you how to love one another. Then go, and do likewise.”
You know, life would be so much simpler if he had said something like, “Go and think likewise.” Or, “Go, and believe likewise.” But he didn’t say that.
He said, “Go, and DO likewise.” And most of us find this really hard to do.
Like you, I am sure, I have thought about the Christian faith a lot and for all sorts of reasons I have decided to believe it. I am constantly working on and refining what I think and what I believe – clarifying what I call the content of my faith.
But the actual doing part; that part is much tougher for me.
I am impatient,
I am cranky,
I am judgmental,
I am intolerant — with myself and with others.
I don’t always look for ways to ‘be the servant’ in a given situation but. . . most of the time, in most situations, that is, and always will be, the best, the truest, the most-likely-to-line-up-with-the-story thing to do. BE THE SERVANT.