Well this is the weirdest Maundy Thursday we have ever experienced. Our celebration of Maundy Thursday focuses on the last supper that Jesus shared with his disciples. The central event of this meal was Jesus’ institution of the Sacrament of the Altar. And so the service on Maundy Thursday repeatedly focuses our attention on the Sacrament.
You heard it in the language of the Service of Corporate Confession and Absolution which spoke about the Sacrament again and again. You heard it in the Collect of the Day which said, “O Lord, in this wondrous Sacrament You have left us a remembrance of Your passion. Grant that we may so receive the sacred mystery of Your body and blood that the fruits of Your redemption may continually be manifest in us.” You heard it in the Hymn of the Day that we just sang, “O Lord we Praise Thee,” which is about the Sacrament of the Altar.
Everywhere you look in the service tonight, you hear about the Sacrament of the Altar. However, when you look at the altar, you don’t see any communion vessels. You don’t see any bread or wine. Instead, the altar is bare.
And the reason for this is that tonight we aren’t celebrating the Sacrament. We aren’t, because none of you who are seeing this via the internet can be here to receive the true body and blood of Jesus. It isn’t possible for the congregation to come together to receive the Sacrament of Unity. And so we are not going to have a private Sacrament that only the Surburg family receives because their dad is the pastor. You can’t be here, so we won’t celebrate the Sacrament at Good Shepherd until we can gather here again.
So on this evening when we are not celebrating the Sacrament, the Gospel lesson is in fact an especially appropriate text. It is because the account of the last supper in John’s Gospel doesn’t even mention our Lord’s institution of the Sacrament. This is a unique feature of John’s Gospel, since the other three Gospels all include an account.
It is generally believed that the Gospel of John was the last Gospel written. John writes with the assumption that his reader already knows the basic details of Jesus’ life and ministry. He does not feel compelled to tell us the same things all over again. And so instead he is free to bring out other aspects that had not already received attention.
Our text 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.” John tells us that Jesus’ “hour” had come. This term “hour” has recurred throughout the Gospel. On several occasions Jesus’ opponents want to seize him, but they are unable to because, we are told, “his our had not yet come.”
But things had changed in the previous chapter after Jesus had entered into Jerusalem at the time of the Passover. Our Lord said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus’ reference to death makes it clear that his hour is about Jesus dying as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This was the reason the Son of God had entered in to the world. As our Lord went on to say, “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.”
As we saw during our mid-week Lent sermons, in John’s Gospel Jesus speaks about his ministry as a whole – a single movement down in death and burial, and then back up in resurrection and ascension. And so our text describes the hour as the time for Jesus to depart out of this world, and return to the Father.
He does this, we are told, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Our text describes the disciples as “his own who were in the world.” The exact same description is true for you. On the way to the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus said, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” Through the word of the Gospel and through baptism Jesus has called us out of the world. We belong to him. Yet we are his who are still in the world. As Jesus prayed to the Father, “And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”
We are told that Jesus “loved them to the end.” Certainly Jesus had loved the disciples to this, the end of his earthly ministry. But more than that, it means that Jesus loved them completely – he loved them all the way. And so next, our Lord did something in order to demonstrate this for the disciples.
We learn that during the supper Jesus rose and laid aside his outer garments, and took a towel and 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.
It was a shocking action. Wearing sandals and walking on dirt paths and roads in the dry climate of Palestine left people with dusty, grimy feet. When people arrived at a house, part of the hospitality provided was the washing of the feet. However this menial and demeaning work was the task of a slave. It was not something you expected a person who was your equal to do, and certainly not something you would ever expect your superior to do for you.
Peter recognized the incongruity of the action and when Jesus came to him asked, “Lord, do you wash my feet? But Jesus replied, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Like so much else with Jesus, it was only later, after his death and resurrection, that the disciples would truly understand the meaning of what Jesus had done.
When Jesus had washed their feet and put on his outer garments he 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.”
Jesus was indeed their Teacher and Lord. Yet he had washed their feet. In this humble act of service he had provided an image of what he was about to do for them … and for us. Jesus washed their feet knowing what awaited him later that evening in the Garden of Gethsemane. He knew the arrest, trial, torture and crucifixion that was about to happen. Our Lord knew that he was about to serve us by offering himself as the sacrifice for our sin. Jesus, the sinless One, was about to suffer and die in order to rescue all who were slaves of sin.
Jesus has served us in this way. He had told Nicodemus, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus was lifted up on the cross in death, and then on Easter he was lifted up from death in the resurrection. Now, as those who believe in him, we have eternal life.
In our text Jesus says, “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, of course, does not mean that we are supposed to go around whipping off the shoes and socks of other people so that we can wash their feet. If anyone tried to do that me, I would react to it as a violation of my personal space and would have to resist the urge to shove them to the ground.
Instead this action from the culture of first century Palestine teaches us that we are to provide humble service to others, just as Jesus Christ has for us by his saving death. We are to put the needs of others before ourselves, just as Jesus did for us. This does not come naturally. It is not the way of the world that is always focused on me, myself, and I. It is only those who have been born again of water and the Spirit who can find in Jesus the reason that we now seek to act this way.
Today is known as Maundy Thursday, a name derived from what Jesus said about this topic later in the chapter. There he said, “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.” The Latin word for “commandment” is mandatum, and this gave rise to the name “Maundy.”
Our Lord says that we are to love one another as he has loved us. This is love that serves others as we put their needs ahead of our own. This is love that is willing to sacrifice in order to help those God has put in our life.
Just after our text Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” The servant is not greater than the Master. Jesus has shown us how to live, not simply by washing the disciples’ feet, but by the action to which this pointed forward - by giving himself as the sacrifice for us on the cross.
Our Lord has shown us this love and given us eternal life. Because of this, we now respond, and seek to follow our Lord’s example by loving and serving others. As Jesus would say later that evening as he began his journey to the cross, “This is my commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.”