March 24, 2016, A Homily for Maundy Thursday – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
No recording is available for this sermon.
Maundy Thursday, the celebration of the New Commandment, is all about love. The gospel passage begins by telling us how much Jesus loved his friends. “Having loved his own who were in the world,” John says, “he loved them to the end.” And it ends with the Command – Jesus repeats it three times, just to make sure they don’t miss it. “I’m giving you a new commandment, that you love one another,” he tells them. And again, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” And just to be sure they don’t miss it, Jesus tells them, “This is the way people will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The single defining mark of a disciple of Christ is this: the love we have for one another. Love – and specifically the love we have for our brothers and sisters in Christ – is our witness. Without love, Paul wrote, our witness in this world is nothing but a big clanging, banging, annoying noise.
And so, on this last night of his life among us, Jesus gave us a demonstration of love in action, an example for all of us, who want to be his disciples, to follow. He got up from the table. And he washed their feet. And because Jesus told us that he was giving us an example to follow, we need to watch very closely to see what he did.
First of all, John says that “during supper, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table” That’s the heart of it. Everything that Jesus did, every act of his love, came out of knowing that he was the beloved Son of the Father, as God proclaimed at Jesus’ baptism, the one in whom the Father delights.
For us, if we aren’t rooted firmly in God’s love, we don’t get very far in our own loving. Jesus told his disciples “Abide in me, and you will bear much fruit.” Abiding is rooting ourselves deeper and deeper in Christ, because unless we hold fast to the certainty that we are beloved sons and daughters of the Father, our love for one another will become merely a duty, just a burden and not a joy to us. A child that grows up without love will find it hard to love others; but the truth is that no matter what your human experience has been, you are a beloved child. You are the apple of your Father’s eye. We can be sure of that because the love that we see in Jesus is the Father’s love towards us. “Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his nature,” the writer to the Hebrews wrote. Paul wrote to the Colossians, “He is the image of the invisible God.” And Jesus just said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.”
During supper, then, Jesus got up and took off his outer robe and tied a towel around himself. He had arrived at the supper dressed as the Teacher and Master they all knew and respected. But suddenly their Master shocked them all by dressing like a mere servant. Loving so often means peeling away those barriers that we keep between us and the other person: our dignity, or our status, or our rights, or our traditions. It is hard to love someone if we are clinging to those things that keep us above them. It is impossible to wash another person’s feet if we are not willing to get down on our knees before them.
And now you notice we’ve gone from loving people to serving them. The disciples were scandalized when Jesus began to wash their feet, and no wonder. The world’s-eye view of servitude or slavery is the farthest possible thing from love. But Jesus made it plain that his kingdom doesn’t follow the rules of this world. This world runs on power; that’s why the disciples were forever bickering about who is greater than who. But the guiding principle of the kingdom of God, Jesus kept reminding them, is love. And a lover, Jesus showed us by his example, a lover is one who serves: willingly, joyfully, gently, humbly. We see it in the relationships that God has ordained. A mother who loves her little baby, a wife who loves her husband or a husband who loves his wife, one who deeply loves a good friend – anywhere there is real love, to serve is the truest and most natural act. “I am among you as the one who serves,” Jesus taught his disciples. “I didn’t come to be served, but to serve.”
Not surprisingly, it was Peter who gave Jesus the most grief about having his feet washed. “Never in a million years!” is approximately what he said when Jesus knelt to wash his feet. But Jesus insisted. “If I don’t wash your feet, you have no share with me.” The Living Bible translates it, “you can’t be my partner.” Love is a two-way street; it calls for a response. It creates a relationship. When we serve one another in love, there has to be love on both sides – love to offer oneself, and love to receive – and that calls for humility. We humble ourselves when we give of ourselves to another in love, offering help or forgiveness or kindness or comfort. But we also have to humble ourselves in order to receive what is offered. And it is that partnership of love, born in humility, that is such a powerful witness to the world that we belong to Jesus Christ, the God who is all love and who humbled himself to become part of the creation he loves.
On Maundy Thursday we follow the tradition of washing one another’s feet, as a sign and reminder, given to us by our Lord, that love is the mark of our discipleship, and that service is the acting out of our love, and that humility is the grace that makes it work. Maybe we feel foolish or stiff or awkward bending down to wash someone else’s feet. Maybe we feel embarrassed or undignified or uncomfortable taking off our shoes and socks and letting someone else wash our feet. That’s perfectly OK. No one is required to wash feet or have their feet washed. But if you do, it’s OK to feel awkward. Offer that to your brother or sister in love. It’s OK to feel embarrassed or nervous or uncomfortable. Offer that to your brother or sister in love. It is an opportunity for you to practice being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Because the more we serve one another in love, the more clearly the world will see Jesus for who he really is.