Texts: Exodus 12:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31-35
This is why we call this day Maundy—from the Latin word mandatum, meaning mandate or commandment—because it is Jesus’s commandment that we should love one another as he loves us that makes us who we are, that sets our course in life. In commanding us to love one another, Jesus isn’t telling us to have warm, fuzzy feelings toward each other; he is telling us to wash one another’s feet and to let others wash ours, to live out the love of God no matter the consequences, to give all we have—even our lives—for one another, to entrust ourselves into God’s care so that we may be free to proclaim the gospel at all times in both word and deed.
When we call ourselves Christians, we are calling ourselves by the name of One whose love was so strong and so deep that he gave his life for us. By taking his name and choosing to be identified by him, we are saying that we, too, are a people of that love; a people who will follow in his path and love so strongly, so deeply, that we, too, will give up everything—goods, honor, child or spouse, even our lives—to show God’s love to the world and make it the place God has dreamed of from the beginning. That is what it means to be called a Christian, a disciple of Christ.
To have this kind of love for one another is almost impossible for us; we are too broken, too suspicious, too fearful. We can gaze lovingly at Christ on the cross with gratitude and adoration, but we cannot so easily translate that gratitude and adoration to the people around us who annoy and threaten and harm us. Our hearts are too hard to give ourselves in service to those who hate us, as Jesus did.
For that we need to repent. Each year on Ash Wednesday, we repent of our hard-heartedness and we confess our brokenness, our inability to love as we ought. Throughout the season of Lent, we meditate on the ways that our brokenness harms us and the world around us, but we do so remembering that what is impossible for us is not impossible for God. In God’s mercy, Jesus Christ became human to redeem a fallen humanity, and to save creation from the caustic effect of our sin. Tonight we begin our three-day journey with Christ from death into life by receiving our long-awaited absolution.
Outside this room, the darkness of sin and death gathers. While we snuggle safely into our warm beds in our safe homes in our quiet cul-de-sacs, others sleep under freeways, in refugee camps, and in abuse shelters. Our world is falling apart because of the fear and pain caused by our inability to love one another with our whole selves, because of our hard hearts. God’s response is not to punish or shame or threaten us, but to show us love: love that is embarrassing in its opulence, love that is so powerful it transforms us, love that does nothing less than save us.
During the meal tonight, as we will soon hear once again, Jesus gets up, takes off his dinner jacket, and proceeds to wash his disciples’ feet. Foot washing has never been very popular here, and Jesus’ disciples were probably just as uncomfortable with it as we are. Feet are dirty; they are smelly. Peter and the others squirmed at the thought of anyone—especially somebody whom they loved and respected—having their dirty, smelly, ugly feet in his face. It is embarrassing that one who is called Lord and Master should do a job that not even a slave should be made to do.
And yet, this is just what Jesus does, because it is only by this extravagant show of love that Jesus can teach his disciples what it means to love. As disciples of this Christ ourselves, we are generally comfortable with loving and serving others, but just like those first disciples, When it comes to the idea that anyone should wash our feet, when anyone should offer us their assistance or support, we are sometimes too embarrassed to accept it. “I don’t want to be a bother,” we say. “I don’t want to put you out.” “I’ll be fine, don’t worry about me.” “I can handle myself.”
True as they may be, those statements sometimes belie a subconscious belief that we are not worth the love or consideration of another. In our culture, dependence is a vice; self-reliance is the virtue. We are afraid that if we accept gracefully the loving acts of others, we will lose their respect; they will come to resent us for our insipid feebleness. Perhaps, deep down, we do not believe that we are worthy of such attentions.
This is why it is so hard for us to love each other as Jesus does: if we cannot believe that we are worthy of Jesus’ immoderate love, neither can we truly believe that others are any more worthy. When we see in others the worst parts of ourselves, we can no more believe that God loves them than we can that God really loves us. That is why Jesus washes his disciples’ feet: it is only in understanding their own worth to him that they can begin to understand the worth of the people around them. Jesus teaches us to love by first loving us.
That is how this love saves us. In a world that is beset and divided by anger and hatred and mistrust, Jesus teaches us to love one another as he loves us. He loves us “to the end”—the end of his power, the end of his strength, even the end of his life. That love is what makes us his disciples, what makes us able to give our lives to make this world the place that God has always dreamed it would be. Once we truly get how much God loves us—loves the world—we cannot help but feel that same love for one another, and that love makes its way from our minds to our hearts and finally to our bodies, allowing us to live fully for the sake of others.
Tonight, as we begin our three-day Triduum worship service, we will come again to the table so that we may receive the body and blood of Jesus himself, the love of God made flesh and given for us. But before we receive the meal, Pr. Stephanie and I will wash your feet. We do this at the command of our Lord Jesus, but also because of our love for you. This community continues to amaze us with your passion, your concern for the world, your generosity, and your care for us. One of the gifts of God’s great love is to form us into this community of the Church, and we are grateful to have been called by God and this congregation to serve as your pastors. It is with deep joy and heartfelt gratitude that we kneel to wash your feet so that you may know how much we love you, and how much God loves you.
Our Triduum worship service this week reminds us that the love of God we celebrate and share is not without cost. After the meal tonight, the table where Jesus meets us will be stripped of its paraments, just as he was stripped and beaten before his execution. We will leave in silence, remembering the price he paid for loving us so dearly—the price we, too, will pay for loving the world as he does.
But the story does not end there, and neither does our worship. We will pause, we will go to our homes and our families, but we will return tomorrow night to meditate upon his crucifixion, and again on Saturday to remember our baptism into his death and await his resurrection. As we journey through this story together, we hold in our hearts the conviction of faith that just as we know this story will end in the joy of new life on Easter morning, so too does the story of our lives, and the story of all creation.