A New Commandment? (4/13/17)
Window in Christ Church, Kortal, Germany: Footwashing
I love the intimacy of the Maundy Thursday worship service. There is something qualitatively different about sitting around a table (or three) for worship, rather than gathering in the sanctuary.
Good evening! I have to tell you, I really appreciate and value the intimacy of this service of worship. I think that sometimes, when we focus on the number of people in the pews in the sanctuary on a Sunday, we then lose the intimacy of worship. I think the Lord’s Supper is different when we’re all gathered around the same table. The sharing is more direct when we serve the elements of communion to one another.
Don’t get me wrong—I love it when I see 70 or more people in the sanctuary. But a service of worship like this reminds us of our connection to the earliest Christian communities. They were close-knit. Everyone knew everyone else, and knew them very well. They all depended upon one another.
That sense of intimacy is present in this evening’s Gospel lesson. In this story, we hear Jesus give his final instructions—his final lesson—to the disciples. But first, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. This is Jesus at his most pastoral; first and foremost, he is the pastor to the disciples, and he is also their friend, mentor, and teacher, and in this story, Jesus speaks “to every emotion that accompanies such relationships.” And at the end of this story, Jesus gives the disciples a new commandment: Love one another, just as I have loved you. My temptation, as your pastor, is to say, “Go and do likewise.” But it’s not that simple.
On the surface, there’s nothing particularly new about this commandment. The commandment is first stated in Leviticus 19:18—love your neighbor as you love yourself. What’s more, Jesus names that as one of the two greatest commandments. So how can it possibly be new?
The short answer is Jesus. Jesus gives this commandment and Jesus is the new answer to an old question: How do we live into the commandment to love one another? As I said, it’s not so simple; we can’t just “go and do likewise of our own will.”
Jesus begins this final lesson by washing the feet of his disciples. He shows what it means to be a servant leader, and then he teaches what it means. While the foot washing is not a miracle story in and of itself, it follows that same format—sign, dialogue, discourse. The explanation of the sign is as important as the sign itself. And through these signs, Jesus shows the meaning of the incarnation, of the Word made flesh. Jesus makes people whole; he offers restoration to those who have been cast out of their communities; he offers salvation—in the present!
What is new about this commandment is not that we are to love one another, it is how we are to love one another. We are to love as Jesus does. It is a self-giving love; it is humble; it is about loving and serving everyone. This is why the foot washing is so important—it’s not separate from the final meal; rather, it takes place “during supper.”
Note that Peter is reluctant to have Jesus wash his feet; he misinterprets what Jesus is really doing.
Peter is astonished that Jesus is going to wash his feet, that a master would be washing the feet of a disciple, or a host washing the feet of a guest when it should be a servant’s job…. Peter cannot fathom that Jesus would wash his feet…. Jesus’ response makes a subtle yet important shift from washing feet to, “unless I wash you,” indicating that there is more to this washing than standard hospitality practices for dusty feet in the ancient world.
Foot washing should be a servant’s job, so Peter thinks that it’s beneath Jesus’ dignity to do this task. But it must be done by Jesus; it can only be done by Jesus.
The Lectionary serves us this story of the disciples’ final meal with Jesus every year on Maundy Thursday. Yet it skips over verses 18-30; it omits Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, which Jesus foretells. But Judas isn’t the only person in that room who will betray Jesus. Peter will also deny Jesus. This is another reason why the foot washing is so important; it recalls Jesus’ healing of the man who was blind from birth, whose sight was restored after washing in the Pool of Siloam:
The washing restores his sight, but also makes possible his ability to recognize who Jesus is. While it is true that the act of washing heals the man’s blindness, the washing also enables him to see where Jesus comes from, and, in the end, he is brought into the fold of the Good Shepherd.
Both stories—the healing of the man who was blind from birth and Jesus washing the disciples’ feet—are about washing away the barriers that prevent people from seeing who Jesus really is, and thus prevent them from full participation in the community that Jesus is cultivating: “the washing makes possible having a share with Jesus, being in a relationship with him, in his community, in the fold, as opposed to being cast out, like the blind man or going out, like Judas.”
Remember, in the Gospel of John, sin is not knowing who Jesus is. Sin is a lack of understanding and the inability to be in a relationship with the human Christ, the Word made flesh. While Peter will deny Jesus, he truly knows who Jesus is because Jesus has cleansed him. Peter can return to the relationship. Judas also knows this, but he chooses to leave the relationship; Judas leaves the fold. Of course, Jesus loves them both and Jesus offers relationship to both, knowing that each one will betray him.
In both the foot washing and the final meal, Jesus gives the disciples the way forward, the way to sustain themselves in Jesus’ absence. It is not simply that the disciples practice love for one another, it is the quality of that love, as Jesus has expressed it to them.
So, yes, we are commanded to go and do likewise! We are commanded to love one another as Jesus loves us! We must always remember that we cannot do this on our own. We can only do these things in the name of Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the way of the humble servant-leader; this is how we must go and do likewise. Thanks be to God. Amen.