One of the features of our culture today is that it rejects hierarchy and authority. Indeed, those are almost bad words to many people. The idea that it is good and necessary to have individuals in positions of authority and responsibility, and in turn that those individuals should be treated with respect is rejected by many as the oppressive tool of an archaic past.
Instead our world often does everything it can to undermine anything that looks this. There are different ways that this occurs. One of the most effective is the drive to be “less formal.” Informality, we are told, is so much better than that old fashioned past.
You see this in the way children now often call adults by their first name. There was a time – not that long ago – when this would have been unthinkable. But certainly during the lifetime of my children it has become very common for children to address adults in this way, and for adults to consider this acceptable. And if it is not the first name alone, then some kind of term of address introduces the first name such as, “Ms. Amy.”
It’s a “softened” version if you will, and the same thing also happens in church. If not calling the pastor by his first name, then the term “Pastor” is placed before the name, and you get “Pastor Mark.” This is considered by many to be a great thing because it is, of course, “less formal.”
However, it’s only during the last two minutes of the history of the world that anyone has ever thought in this way. And the reason for this is that people have always recognized that hierarchy and authority are good and necessary. They are needed to make life work. Since language shapes the way we think about things, people have used language that respects individuals in these positions.
You see this in our text tonight. Jesus says, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.” The disciples never said, “Hey Jesus.” Instead they addressed him as Teacher and Lord because he was in a position of authority over them. This was true from a cultural standpoint because they were gathered around him as their rabbi – their teacher. And in an even deeper way this was true from a religious standpoint because they knew that Jesus had come from God.
Jesus’ statement, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am” provides the necessary background for understanding what takes place in our Gospel lesson for Maundy Thursday. John tells us about what happened at Jesus’ last supper with his disciples on the night when he was betrayed. He begins by saying, “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
Jesus knew that his hour had come. In the previous chapter, our Lord had said during Holy Week, “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour'? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.’” Jesus lived his life knowing that he had a mission – a purpose. This mission had a timing that fulfilled the Father’s will, and during his ministry Jesus had departed from situations when there was the potential to disrupt this timing.
Yet now, the hour had come and so Jesus did something to help them understand what was going to happen during the next twenty four hours and what it meant for them. Jesus and the disciples would have been reclining at a low table as they ate. Jesus was in the place of honor because he was their Teacher; their Lord.
But then, John tells us that during supper Jesus, “laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”
This would have been surprising and shocking for several reasons. First, foot washing normally took place before a meal began. Nobody washed feet in the middle of a meal. More significantly, servants who were normally slaves did this job. Yet at this meal Jesus, their Teacher and Lord, begins to wash their feet! It turned the normal order of things upside down, and as you can hear in Peter’s response it made the disciples uncomfortable. This wasn’t how things were supposed to work.
When he had finished, Jesus put on his outer garments, resumed his place, and said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet.
For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”
Our Lord says that his action is meant to give them an example. It was an example that he provided at a very particular moment – the moment when his hour had come. And when we look at the language John has used in the Gospel it becomes clear that it is an action that we must understand in relation to what happened the next day. John says that Jesus “laid aside” his outer garments. It is the exact same Greek verb that was used in chapter ten when Jesus said, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.” Jesus lays aside his outer garments to serve, just as he will soon lay down his life in service on the cross.
Now as sinful people, we don’t want to serve. We don’t want to put other people ahead of ourselves. The sinfulness that still dwells in us doesn’t turn us out toward others. Instead, it curves us back into ourselves. Our self is selfish. We choose to ignore the needs of others if it is going to hinder the fulfillment our desires.
That is why it was necessary for Jesus’ hour to come. That is why it was necessary for Jesus to serve us. Jesus offered himself on the cross as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He laid down his life on the cross in order to take away your sin. No one forced him to do this. Our Lord was very clear on this point. He said, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” Jesus did it out of love for the Father. He did it out of love for you.
This sacrifice – this love – has taken away your sins. That just happened again at the beginning of this service as Lent came to a close. After his resurrection Jesus appeared to the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” In Holy Absolution Jesus spoke that forgiveness to you. You cannot get a more direct application of the cross to be received by faith.
And in the Sacrament of the Altar that Jesus instituted at the Last Supper he gives you his true body and blood given and shed for you. The Lord who was with his disciples at that last meal continues to be bodily present with us in his meal. And through his body and blood he gives us the forgiveness that he won on the cross. What he won there and then, he gives to us here and now.
Jesus action of washing the disciples’ feet explains what was about to happen on Good Friday. But perhaps even more so, it demonstrates what the sacrifice of Jesus means for how we live.
Jesus says in our text, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” Naturally, our Lord is not telling us to be taking off each other’s shoes and socks all the time. Instead, he describes the life of loving service.
Jesus went on to say in this chapter, “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. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” It is the Latin word for commandment, “mandatum” that has given this day the name we use: Maundy Thursday.
On this evening, our Lord went on to say in John’s Gospel, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
Holy Week occurs only once a year. But the events that we celebrate and remember speak to every single day of the year. Jesus loved us by offering himself as the sacrifice for us on the cross. His love prompts us to love one another. The Spirit of Jesus leads us to live with the love that Jesus has loved us.
Love is a word that our world throws around all the time. For the world, love is something that makes you feel good. For all that the world talks about loving others, it’s really centered on what’s in it for me.
In our text, Jesus shows us what this love really looks like. It is action. It is service. It often means humbling ourselves in order to attend to the needs of others. The objects of this loving service are already right there in your life. They are your husband and wife, son and daughter, father and mother, brother and sister. They are your fellow congregation members and your pastor. They are your fellow employees and your employer. These are the people Christ has called you to serve through his saving death on the cross. He has served you through his suffering and death. He has freed you from sin, so that now you can serve others – so that you can love them as he has loved you.