Maundy Thursday (and dying with Christ) John 13: 1
When Jesus and his disciples met for a meal in Jerusalem about the time of the Passover, I imagine the disciples were excited. The previous Sunday Jesus had entered the city as Israel’s promised Messiah, mounted on an ass rather than a warhorse, as the Prince of Peace. Many people had welcomed him, even though the authorities had not. Perhaps Jesus would soon inaugurate the New Jerusalem of peace and justice that Isaiah had foretold. As close friends of Jesus, they looked forward to prominent roles in his kingdom. St Luke writes that some of them were arguing as to who would be greatest among them (Luke 22:24). They had absolutely no idea that Jesus was about to be betrayed and crucified.
While the disciples were discussing who would be greatest in Jesus’ new kingdom, Jesus was worried that they still did not understand what his kingdom was like. They imagined themselves like other rulers, telling people what to do. But Jesus knew that if one lives by God’s spirit of altruistic love, one has no interest in one’s own greatness, and one seldom tells people what to do. Instead one’s concern is for the wellbeing of others, to help them in any way one can.
With his death immanent, Jesus seized the moment to remind them of this important fact. According to St Luke Jesus told his disciples that, although he was the greatest among them, he had lived a life of a servant. This is what Luke writes:
Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and those who rule like the one who serves. …I am among you as one who serves.” (Vv.25-6, 27b.)
No doubt these words stopped the disciples from squabbling over who was the greatest. But did they really get the message? It is St John who writes that Jesus put a towel around his waist and washed his disciples’ feet. That was considered too menial a task even for Jewish slaves. It was the job of Gentile slaves, or women or children. Would the disciples ever forget that: having their feet washed by their master? Today even the Pope calls himself the servant of the servants of God, and washes a few feet on Maundy Thursday.
So the first lesson we can learn from this reading is that we too must forget about our social standing and must refrain from bossing people about. Instead we must humbly offer to help people as best we can, in loving concern for their wellbeing.
Does this mean that Christians should go around as lowly servants? Yes and No. They should put concern about their own status to one side, and instead do whatever they can to meet the needs of those around them. Now they might do that from a position of power, as head of a big institution: the Pope, after all, is head of the Roman Catholic Christians. Or one might serve others in humble obscurity, for instance as a mother tending a sick child by day and by night, with no-one to praise her for doing so, except God. The love that Christ showed us, and that animates his friends, is focussed on serving others.
In serving others, of course, one does not obey their every whim, as a slave obeys his master. Christians serve God above all, and his love has the well-being of people at heart, physical, mental, social and spiritual. We should help people to find wholeness in their lives.
Finally, the injunction that we should love others does not mean we spend all our time in humble service of others. God also asks us to worship him, and to thank him for his blessings. So it is right that sometimes we celebrate life with our friends, as the disciples did with Jesus, at a dinner party.
St John’s account of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet has a twist in it. Peter was appalled that Jesus should serve him in this way, and objected. But Jesus said to him: “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” (v.8b) What did he mean by that? Jesus also said to Peter: You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” (v.7)
As John’s gospel unfolds, it becomes clear that in washing Peter’s feet, Jesus is saying to Peter, I am not only cleaning your feet. I am also washing away the guilt and sinfulness that could keep you from loving me. I am cleaning your soul. . The act of washing the disciples’ feet was not merely a demonstration of humility. It was also a symbolic act of cleansing.
Later at the dinner, Jesus says to Peter: “before the cock crows, you will disown me three times.” (v.38b). And according to the gospel, as you know, that is what happened.
Peter wept bitterly after he had denied Jesus three times, and consumed by his guilt, must have wondered how Jesus could ever forgive him, ever love him. So for Peter to be reconciled to Jesus once again, he had to discover that, although he had denied Jesus, Jesus was willing to forgive him. Later that day Peter might have heard Jesus say to those who crucified him: “Father forgive them, for they not what they do.” (Luke 23:34). Jesus’ loving forgiveness of his enemies knew no limits. Peter must have realized that Jesus would forgive him too.
People can know they are forgiven by Jesus, but still not be part of him. Forgiveness removes the power of guilt to keep us from a relationship with God. Knowing that he still loves us despite our rejection of him means we can love him again. But knowledge of Jesus’ love and forgiveness is not enough to bind us to him. It is always tempting to think, I’m glad Jesus loves me and forgives me, but I’ll go on living life my way, thank you very much. To partake in the life of Jesus, we must commit ourselves to his will. That is why St John, at the end of his gospel, has Jesus ask Simon Peter three times: “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” And when Peter said he did, Jesus said “Feed my sheep”, that is, commit yourself to serving me. Only when that commitment has been made, when we have committed ourselves again to serving Jesus, is our life part of his.
Jesus washed Peter of the power of guilt and sin. But can he wash us? There is a passage in the first letter of John which says that he can. It reads:
God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (I John 1: 5b-9)
Notice the two references to purification. First, the blood of Jesus can purify us; and second, once we repent of our sins, Jesus will purify us from all unrighteousness.
The decision to follow Jesus is a turning point in one’s life, as it was for Peter when he first obeyed Jesus call to leave his nets and follow him. But after making that decision there are always times when our commitment fails, when we walk in darkness and not in his light. On those occasions, how can the blood of Jesus purify us, as John puts it, or wash us clean?
As I said before, when we see the Son of God crucified, praying to his father to forgive those who tortured and killed him, we know that in his love he forgives us when we act contrary to his will. That event shows that our guilt is no barrier to his loving forgiveness. You might say that his blood removes the power of guilt to keep us from loving God.
But what about the power of temptation to lead us again and again into sin? How can we be cleansed of the power of sin? St Paul answers that question in Romans ch.6 with these words:
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning…? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised in Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:1-4)
Think about Jesus, for a moment, as an obedient son. We should distinguish between his dying from the sin of his persecutors, and his dying to sin. He died to sin in that when he was tempted to disobey God, he remained dead to that temptation, he did not allow himself to be animated by it at all. Imagine how tempting it must have been for Jesus to save himself from the cross, but he did not yield to that temptation because it was contrary to God’s will. He remained dead to sin, and instead offered himself to God in obedience.
What St Paul is saying is that we should identify ourselves with Jesus, and in particular with this aspect of his character. Just as he remained dead to sin, so should we, in order that God can raise us by his Holy Spirit.
To do this, to identify with Jesus in his death and to receive his life, I find Holy Communion a help. In accepting the broken bread, I’m identifying with Jesus in his death; and in taking the cup, I’m accepting his life-giving blood, his Holy Spirit. The Christian life is one of remaining dead to sin and alive in God.
So you can see, when the Son of God died on the cross forgiving his murderers, he displayed for all to see the depth of God’s forgiving love. And when as a man he humbled himself in obedience to God’s will, he remained dead to the temptation to sin, even to death, showing us the path of discipleship.
Thanks to his death we are washed free from the power of guilt to keep us from God. And thanks to his humble obedience to the point of death, we have a way to overcome the temptation to sin. Our souls are cleansed thanks to the loving forgiveness of the Son of God, and the obedience unto death of the Son of Man.
To whom be the glory, for ever and ever, Amen.