Maundy Thursday – March 29, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Loudonville, NY
Tonight is a holy, yet strange service in the life of the church. Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, named after the Latin word Maun datum or mandate, is unlike any of our other services. On Good Friday we are asked to reflect on Jesus suffering and death, and that is a difficult and painful reality to face. It’s heart-wrenching to think of what Jesus went through because of our sinfulness. Yet tonight is an uncomfortable service for a different reason. Tonight there is a physical responsibility on our part, as we are asked to actually do something. And not merely asked, but mandated or commanded by Jesus to do something – something quite uncomfortable. We are asked to love one another as he has loved us. At first it seems easy enough. We all know how to love one another, at least we think we do. But the kind of love Jesus is commanding of us, his disciples, is not an easy kind of love. What Jesus requires of his disciples is tough. And the reaction to foot washing today is just as shocking as it was for the first disciples. Like Peter, we too protest against having our feet washed because it means we have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and allow others to get closer than we’d like.
On this night we remember the last meal Jesus had with his disciples before he was arrested, suffered, and died. Jesus knew what was going to happen and that’s what makes the events of this night so significant. He knew one of his disciples was going to betray him. He knew one of his disciples was going to deny him. He knew the other disciples and followers would abandon him. Yet knowing all this, Jesus gathered them together and shared a meal with them. This was the very last meal, the very last thing that Jesus would do with his disciples. It was no ordinary meal. It seemed like it at first until Jesus got up from the table right in the middle of the meal, and he did something shocking. He took off his outer robe, tied a towel around his waist, and then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. The disciples were shocked! That’s servant’s work, not work for Jesus, their Lord, and the one Peter professed to be the Messiah!
They were just as shocked when only a short time ago some of these same disciples witnessed Mary, Lazarus’ sister, interrupt another meal where they were gathered and drop to her knees and anoint Jesus’ feet with oil and wipe them with her hair. That was not what a woman in Jesus’ time was supposed to do, and this was not what Jesus was supposed to do. At least, not in everyone’s eyes. Everyone but Jesus, that is. For Jesus, these are exactly the actions of a faithful disciple. These are exactly the actions that proceed out of great love.
Yet, Judas protested when Mary dropped to her knees and anointed Jesus with costly oil. Peter protested when Jesus dropped to his knees and washed his disciples’ feet. And we protest today when we are commanded to drop to our knees and show one another our dirty feet and wash them clean. It’s uncomfortable. It’s hard for us to do something so intimate. It’s hard for us to be that vulnerable. Sometimes it’s hard for us to allow ourselves to both give and receive love, but in doing so we give each other a gift. Our natural tendency is to want to keep our distance, to not get that close to people, especially people who we may not necessarily like. It’s dangerous to do what Jesus is commanding us to do because it might change the way we feel about people. It might actually change and transform us. And change is something that most people try and avoid at all costs.
But that is exactly what Jesus came to earth to do. He came to change the way we think and the way we act. He came to transform our understanding and perception of life. He came to awaken us a new way of living, a way that is based on sacrificial and self-giving love. Yet that is exactly what caused people to turn against him. On Palm Sunday Jesus began his entrance into Jerusalem greeted with crowds cheering him on and praising his name. Yet, the plot to get rid of him was already underway. And the one who would betray him was one of his own disciples. Judas was sitting right there at the dinner table with Jesus and the other disciples. How could Jesus even be in the same room with him? Yet Jesus celebrated his last supper with the one who was about to betray him. Jesus got down on his knees and washed the feet of the one who was about to betray him. Jesus showed love and tenderness to the one who was about to betray him. That’s what real, true, honest love looks like. And that is what Jesus commands us to do.
That’s why this night is so difficult. That’s why this service is such a challenging one, because Jesus is commanding us to do things that may go against our very nature. He is commanding us as his disciples to love exactly like he loved, which means to love even when you know you will not receive love back. Even when you know that the very things you say or do will be rejected. We are commanded by Jesus to take and eat, and then, fed with the very life of Jesus, to act as he did – to feed others with the grace we have received, to care for their physical and emotional needs, to really listen to people and try to understand them instead of judging them, to listen to their stories, to put ourselves in their shoes. Instead of our own individual needs taking priority, Jesus commands us to focus on others and the mission of spreading the kingdom of God here on earth. We are to love like Jesus. Live like Jesus. Be like Jesus.
Jesus’ call to follow him pushes us to go places we’d rather not go, to try new things, to go beyond our comfort zone, and focus on the real mission of the church. One church community in Atlanta, Georgia, The Open Door Community – takes Jesus’ command of washing others feet so seriously that they now hold a foot care clinic on Thursday evenings where the homeless of that city can come to have their feet bathed and their foot problems treated by medical volunteers. We don’t have to duplicate that ministry, but there are different ministries that the Holy Spirit is calling us to do right here where we are so that others can hear and experience God’s message of love and grace.
Jesus’ command to wash the feet of others is only the beginning, but it is where it begins. It begins right here tonight as we wash each other’s feet, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and open to experience the amazing power of God’s love – love that begins with service. There is a power in serving, a power that comes from Jesus and can transform lives. On this night, we have been given new symbols of the Christian church. In addition to the traditional symbols of the cross, a cup, and some bread, Jesus lifts up a towel, a basin, and some water. Jesus kneeled down in service in order to lift up the glory of God. May the Holy Spirit give us the grace and power to do the same. Take, eat, and serve. Amen.