Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
John 13:1-5, 12-17, 21-38
Jesus Washes His Disciples’ Feet
1It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent
him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
21 After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.”
22 His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. 23 One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. 24 Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.”
25 Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?”
26 Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. 27 As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.
So Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” 28 But no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. 29 Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor. 30 As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.
31 When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him.32 If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.
33 “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
36 Simon Peter asked him, “Lord, where are you going?”
Jesus replied, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.”
37 Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”
38 Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!
Maundy Thursday is the day on which the church remembers Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples – the foundation of our Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We typically commemorate the event by holding evening services to celebrate that sacrament. The designation ‘Maundy,’ by the way, comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means “command.” The name for the day notes the new command that Jesus gave the disciples on that night – that they love one another.
The passages we’re reading and thinking about today come from the Gospel of John, which has the longest and most complete account of the Last Supper.
One thing we don’t find in John’s Gospel is the words of institution that are considered essential to the Protestant observance of the sacrament. The scholars say that’s probably because John’s gospel was written long after the Lord’s Supper had become an established practice among Christians, and John and his disciples thought it was more important to pass along the many other things that were said and done on that night. Our reading for today includes three parts of John’s account, and those parts cover some of the most important aspects of the Last Supper story.
First of all, this reading includes the passage in which Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. It’s such a familiar story to us that we miss what a shocking act it would have been when it happened. Washing the feet of others was considered such an indignity that Jews weren’t supposed to have a Hebrew slave wash their feet – only gentile slaves were supposed to do it. So when Jesus got down on the floor to do this, he was symbolically humbling himself below the lowest of his people.
But of course, Jesus didn’t stop with washing the disciples’ feet – he also commanded them to wash the feet of others. We understand that the commands Jesus gave to his first disciples apply to us as well, but the church has never really agreed about whether he meant for us to take this literally, or just to humbly serve others. (For one thing, there can be issues of sensuality involved with men and women washing each other’s feet.) And since washing the feet of others amounts to a pretty radical degree of humility, Jesus made it hard for us as his followers to set limits to how much we are willing to serve others.
I can’t read this passage without thinking about the fact that when he was washing the feet of the disciples, Jesus was washing the feet on one person he knew would betray him, one who would deny him, and one who would doubt him. (Which seems to raise his command that we “do likewise” to a whole other level.) How can we refuse to serve those who offend us (usually in pretty trivial ways, if we’re honest) if we claim to follow a master who got down on his knees and washed the feet of those who would betray and deny and doubt him?
And what’s more, it seems to me that all of us, if we are honest with ourselves, would have to admit that there are times in our lives when we do all of those things – when we all betray Jesus and deny him and doubt him. So that seems to underscore the unconditional love God demonstrated in Jesus, not to mention the incredible privilege it is to be invited to the Lord’s table.
And finally, of course, there’s that great command: the command for us to love one another as he has loved us. Jesus said that the world will know his disciples by our love for one another.
I can’t think of any of Jesus’ commands I find more intimidating. We’re commanded to love others as he loved us – which means even when they have betrayed, or denied or doubted us. No matter how bitterly other Christians may criticize us for theological differences or our interpretations of scripture, we are still commanded to love them as Jesus loved us. If we are really to be ‘the body of Christ’ at work in the world, we are commanded to love other believers in such a way that those outside the church see us and, as the old song goes, “know we are Christians by our love.”
Maundy Thursday is regarded as a fairly important occasion in the life of the church. But the truth, it seems to me, is that it ought to be regarded as a very important observance. Because at the Last Supper it commemorates, Jesus established a sacrament we practice regularly, he gave us a model for genuinely sacrificial service to others, and he gave a commandment that’s meant to be the mark of his true followers in the world, even today.
Let’s pray. Lord, by the power of your Holy Spirit, move us to model the life of faith Jesus gave us at the Last Supper. Let us serve others as humbly and lovingly as he did. And move in our hearts to fill us with such devotion to the unity of the church that we reflexively are willing to love and serve all other believers, even those who may criticize and condemn us. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalm 116; Exodus 12:1-14; and I Corinthians 11:23-26.)