Last Sunday, Palm Sunday around midnight a 26 year old man was murdered on my street. Shot dead in cold blood as he got out the car in front of his mum’s house. Shocking, appalling… challenging.
Where is the love of God that comes in to redeem our lives, our communities, our world? The love that really makes a difference. The love that enables us to love with courage?
The problem is that there is something about THAT LOVE that also shocks and appalls and challenges us..
This is Maundy Thursday. There’s something about Maundy Thursday that makes you squirm. One of the ancient practices of the church on this day is to submit to having your feet washed. We’ve often talked about whether we should adopt that practice here - does it culturally translate? maybe it would make people feel too embarassed, too awkward. But you see - that’s the whole point! There’s something about the love of God that makes us uncomfortable but until we move beyond that discomfort and accept his love and our utter need to be served by it we can never become agents of real change in his world..
The term maundy in Maundy Thursday comes to us from the Latin root maundatum, or commandment, from Jesus’s words in John 13:34:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.
The command to love of course was nothing new. But the command to love in the manner that Jesus has loved - that is new. And the command to love, having been loved first by Jesus - that is new.
How is it that Jesus has loved us ‘to the end’ - that we might then love?
v3 “Jesus, knowing that the father had given all things into his hands, that he had come from God and was going back to God, got up from the meal … and began to wash his disciples feet..”
For the sandal-wearing disciples, washing your filthy feet was a common cultural practice, as common in their day as brushing teeth is for us. When you arrived at a home a basin of water was provided for you to do the necessary… Now it could happen that in a very well to do household a servant would wash your feet. But this would only be the lowest gentile slave. Jewish slaves were exempted from such a low task. Everybody knows washing dirty feet is nasty. It’s base.
It’s difficult to find a contemporary cultural equivalent for the washing of another’s feet in Jesus’s day. A number of years ago i travelled by train from Mumbai to Delhi. Travelling by train in India, it is the lowest caste people - often those with disabilities - who clean the trains. They do it by crawling on their bellies across the floor and gathering up rubbish and food which has been dropped there with their clothes. And they are largely ignored because their work is so humiliating.
Do you get, then.. Do you get ..something of the utter, raw, appalling sigificance of what Jesus does here when HE takes off his outer garment and drops to his knees to wash feet?!!! We hear the shock in the voices of the disciples who are SO embarassed by his actions.. Jesus, their master, their LORD - is crawling on his belly gathering their filth.
The Creator on his knees.
And this.. is only the beginning, this is nothing….
incredibly, He will go even lower still -- for contained in John’s account are allusions everywhere to Jesus’ imminent humiliating death.
The verbs John uses for Jesus laying aside his outer clothing and then putting his clothing on again are not usual. They are the verbs John uses elsewhere in his gospel for Jesus saying he will lay down his life only to take it up again at the resurrection. The footwashing, this whole scene, is a picture, a parable of the greater humiliation of God - mocked, spat on, stripped, bruised, bleeding, stretched out, naked, nailed to a cross. A slave’s death. The cross - where the righteous and pure son of God became sin .. so that sinners like you and me could be made righteous and pure..
‘You do not realise now what i am doing,’ Jesus says to Peter v7 as he washes his feet.. ‘But later you will understand.’
Understand the breathtaking servant love of our God. Who serves us right at the point of our need - for cleansing, for forgiveness. Who loves in humility. He gives up His rights and privileges. Who loves in an utterly costly way. Who loves even under pressure – the cross was just hours away! Who loves unconditionally – these men would, by the end of the night, betray Him, desert Him or deny Him. Yet He lovingly washes all their feet, even Judas’s. And He loves in self-forgetfulness – He doesn’t care that He loses face. He is not concerned for His own self-image.
Here is the God who stoops, who serves, who gives everything, who gives his life that we might live.
And Jesus says A new commandment I give to YOU: love one another. As I have loved you so you must love one another.
How? I mean I’m an incredibly loving person … until it means inconvenience, or a loss of face, or until my love is not returned in kind. And how often does my love evaporate when i’m under pressure from other quarters? As i have loved you, you must love one another??!! Are you kidding me???
But Jesus doesn’t just give us the manner in which we are to love. He also gives us the means by which we are to love. As I have loved you ..so you must love ..
See the order? First be loved. Then love. First know, realise, appreciate – then do. First receive Jesus’ love. Then pass it on.
But receiving is hard for us. It humbles us. We like to provide for ourselves. You can’t love me, God. I haven’t had the chance to prove my own worth yet. And so we resist ‘You shall never wash my feet’ says Peter.But Jesus answers ‘unless i wash you, you have no part in me.’
It reminds me of those extraordinary moments I’ve witnessed where one cares for the physical needs of an infirm loved one.. maybe helping feed them or wash them when they cannot do it for themselves. For those of us who are able bodied, the idea of submitting to that would be startling, humiliating, weird..
But the truth is, spiritually we are infirm, utterly dependent. We can only serve like Christ if we are first served by Christ. We can only love as he has loved if we are first loved by him.. We must overcome that aversion, lay down our pride and let him serve us. Apart from me you can do nothing… nothing
God knows about the murder of young men. Maundy Thursday reminds us that God the Father sent his only Son who willingly came as a lowly slave, to serve us, to be crushed for us, to free us from the sin slavery that leads to eternal death.
Sisters and brothers, we are in receipt of incredible love.We have gathered here on this special night to experience that Love again. We are here to be fed so that we might go out and feed others.
Tonight, let us remember to claim the love that Jesus gives, and to receive the command that comes through Christ’s self-giving spirit to share that love with a hungry, love-starved world. Amen