Maundy Thursday at St Andrews Episcopal Church
April 21, 2011
John 13: 1-17, 31-35
If you’ve been around the church very long, you’ve probably heard this passage dozens of time, maybe even hundreds. Suddenly this week the poignancy of it struck me anew. This moment is the time for which Jesus has been working, planning, moving throughout John’s Gospel. In this Gospel we do not meet a Jesus who responds to the actions of the elite around him. We do not meet a Jesus who is the victim of plots and conniving on the part of threatened religious authorities or political entities. We meet a Jesus who came for a purpose, and who marches with quiet determination toward the completion of his mission. He comes to show God’s power and God’s final action to bring God’s people finally to the full redemption, which has been promised to them from the earliest stories of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.
This is the hour in which we see Jesus say goodbye. Every word of the story we have before us tells us of Jesus’ deep and tender love for his disciples. He is forging a link for them from his own work of teaching and molding God’s people in God’s own love to their own coming work to carry this message and this work out into the world beyond the territory they have walked together. Every word is filled with the weight of his coming murder. We know what those disciples don’t know, that this night will end horribly for Jesus, as it will end for those other lambs that will be slaughtered and consumed in the Passover feast.
At the end of this night, Jesus will be going to the Father, moving upward into the very heart of God. It is his “glorification,” a word the Gospel writer has been using for most of this writing. As the words tell us that Jesus loved them to the end, the writer tells us that the whole journey has been about love so strong, so everlasting that it goes all the way through shameful, brutal death to new life forever. Now comes an amazing symbolic act on the part of the man who has been addressed as LORD and MESSIAH.
Like any slave stationed in the doorway, he lays aside his robe and wraps himself in the towel he will use to wash and wipe the feet of the guests. In the same way, he laid aside his heavenly position to wrap himself in our vulnerable flesh. He pours out water into a basin, says the Gospel writer, choosing words that bring our attention to the pouring out that is right around the corner, the pouring out of his life on behalf of his people.
Peter’s reaction seems so right to me, he is horrified that the one he calls Lord should do such a servile task. But then aware of the implications, he wants to be washed from head to toe.
What can this washing possibly be that it has such power that it means they will now have a share in the life of God? “This washing, from which Peter at first recoils, is none other than the cleansing flood of God’s own outpoured love, coursing with tidal force through Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, pouring into a reluctant world. God’s love is a river. It has the power to purify and vivify forever.” Says Robert Smith in his commentary on this passage. (Smith, R.H., Wounded Lord: Reading John Through the Eyes of Thomas. Eugene, Wipf & Stock, 2009) He comments that Jesus has assigned revolutionary definitions to the old words “teacher,” “master,” and “servant.” Now in this washing he summons his disciples and us, to extend these new definitions into all their relationships.
With the washing and the meal, everything is now ready for Jesus’ “glorification”. What an odd word. Isn’t death the final defeat? John’s Gospel has used this word from beginning to end, mulling over the meaning of Jesus’ death. He sees it as victory not defeat. He sees it as the precise moment when the cleansing flood of God’s love is made complete. God is highly honored in this lifting up, and Jesus is received back into God as he has been sent from God. “You cannot come with me where I am going,” he tells them, calling them little children with great tenderness. But now they must learn new connections to him. “A new commandment,” is not really new”, says Smith in his commentary. “It is new because a new age dawns when Jesus mounts up to God via the cross, because the Son of Man links heaven and earth in fresh ways opening up new access to God and the life of God.”
As we meditate on this Bible reading, what can it possibly mean to us here tonight, 2011 years later? How can exposing our ugly feet to our pastor give us a share in the life of God described in this incredible story? When you take off your shoes, you are opening your heart to receive the love poured out so graphically in the water Jesus’ poured on that long ago night, but your are also receiving the cleansing flood of love that God poured out in the death of Jesus. That love is yours completely and forever. When you receive it, it will change your heart forever. You, like Jesus’ disciples on that night, will be called to become the rivers of love in your dealings with others and with every part of your life. There is no cost, there is no sacrifice required to come and be washed in this outpouring of love. As a matter of fact, the love you receive frees you from all requirements to be anything but who you are. Jesus came to free you from the inability to act in love, to give you the power to live this commandment to love one another. Your pastors are also the recipients of this joyful, cleansing flood, and a pale shadow of the One who really comes to wash you tonight. But they bring the sign that you are free, forgiven, and girded to be a sign of God’s outpouring of love in the world, So we pour out this water, we taste this bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood for us, as we embrace each other, encourage each other to be what we have become, the Body of Christ in this world.
Now may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.