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John 13:1-17; 31b-35

You have probably heard about the derivation of Maundy Thursday, and that Maundy comes from the Latin word for Commandment, referring to Jesus’ “new commandment,” which we read about in today’s text.

1Now 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. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then 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.

I find it striking… Jesus, having known and acknowledged that the Father, God Almighty, put all things under his power, acknowledging that He had come from God and was returning to God, and this is what He does next.

The Son of Man gets up.

He takes off his outer clothing.

He wraps a towel around his waist like a servant, and he begins to do the ordinary, mundane, unpleasing thing that a servant does…he starts to wash the feet of His friends. Recognizing that He holds all power and authority, this was Jesus’ response.

In this moment we are reminded that the incarnate God of the universe, Jesus Christ, in taking on human flesh, was opening himself up to the ordinary, mundane, mediocre, and unpleasant ways of serving and loving people. He did not bypass an opportunity to love them and serve them in this way and teaches them exactly what this means.

6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10Jesus 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.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

It’s truly difficult to imagine that not only is Jesus willing to take the posture of a servant, kneeling on the floor and washing the dirt off the feet of his friends, He does so for those who will betray Him, and even those who will deny Him. He knew that Judas would betray Him, and while He acknowledges the gravity of this betrayal, it doesn’t stop Him from loving and serving Judas just the same. He even does the same for Peter, who He declares will deny Him three times before it’s all said and done.

Perhaps Peter is hesitant to allow Jesus to wash his feet because he is aware of his shortcomings. Could it be that deep down, Peter senses what he is capable of? I don't know about you, but every time I read this passage, I cannot help but read it with a certain emphasis in mind: “Lord…YOU are going to wash MY feet?” Like Peter, how often are we tempted to reject the radical love of Christ because we, too, are aware of how undeserving we are? By the way, we wouldn’t be wrong, and yet…who are we to dictate how and when Christ demonstrates His love?

On the other hand, we can also identify with Peter in another way, thinking about moments of being fully immersed in Christ’s love. We, too, would want to be “drenched” in that love and mercy, soaking every part of our bodies in it! Whether it’s in his sincere humility, or audacious requests, we likely relate to Peter in this moment in some way.

12After 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? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

This question is worth repeating: Do we really understand what Jesus has done? Did the disciples? We know that disciples were taught by their teachers, their Rabbis, and they were expected to imitate what their teachers did. So, I wonder if while the disciples likely struggled to wrap their minds around what Jesus was doing and why He was doing it, perhaps they understood that these words from their teacher meant something…even if they didn’t quite know what that something was. This is where the Revised Common Lectionary jumps to verse 31b, which, in my mind, essentially explains a point Jesus is trying to make.

Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little 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.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Do you feel the weight that rests on those last two verses? “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.” Like me, you probably look around at the Church and wonder… if the world is to know us by our love, are we remotely recognizable? Take for instance that passive-aggressive social media exchange, those telling glances to the person you least enjoy being around, or the judgement we haphazardly cast on one another? Jesus has a very different idea in mind as to how we are to humbly love one another, and it looks nothing like these things.

I’m reminded of Paul’s words in Philippians 2:5-8 “5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”

If Jesus didn’t exploit opportunities to show anything but love, even while strongly correcting those He loved, why would we think we can? This strays far from the important command that demands our attention today.

Maundy Thursday begs us to consider the weight of Jesus’s command, which is why that question, “Do you understand what I have done” is so important. Considering passages such as Leviticus 19:18, Jesus is not really giving a new command, but He is setting a new example, one which His followers have yet to see fully demonstrated among the religious leaders — we are called to humbly serve one another. Without a doubt, this becomes extremely difficult when we imagine how hard it is to love and serve those with whom we disagree, those who are the hardest to love, those who are the most unlike us.

For the preacher who might be leading his or her congregation through the liturgy of Maundy Thursday, perhaps these are appropriate questions to ask of ourselves:

Are we willing to let Jesus be Jesus, loving us in the ways he sees fit, even though it seems radical?

Are we willing to let him do the same for those we dislike or those with whom we disagree?

Are we willing to do the same for others — those we deeply love and those who are the most difficult to love?

On this Maundy Thursday, may we humble ourselves and open ourselves up to the Spirit of the Living God who can and will empower us to love one another – all others – as Jesus has loved us.