Maundy Thursday – The New Old Commandment
Jesus says to you today: “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” “Maundy Thursday” comes from the Latin words mandatum novum, or “new commandment,” taken from this verse (John 13:34.)
Now why is love a new commandment? The commandments to love God and love your neighbor as yourself come from the Old Testament. But they are hidden away among 612 other commandments. Each of these is either about loving God or loving neighbor, and yet it is easy to miss. So Jesus gives us a new commandment – in fact, the commandment above all others: the commandment to love. He gives it in a new way because it is through Jesus Christ Himself that we see the love incarnated that we are commanded to have.
On Maundy Thursday, in John 13, even before the ultimate story of love found in Good Friday, we find a complete teaching on love. For on Maundy Thursday, Jesus gives us the example of love, the commandment of love, and the strength to love.
Though the entire life of Jesus was an act of sacrificial love, on Maundy Thursday, Jesus gave His disciples – and that includes us – a striking example of love. For on the night in which He was betrayed, He did not demand that His disciples serve Him . . . . He didn’t pamper Himself . . . . He didn’t give His body rest and luxury to prepare for the exhausting and most trying day ahead.
On the night in which He was betrayed, which was also the night He was tried and sentenced, before He did anything else . . . He washed His disciples’ feet.
Now we may not appreciate the significance of this job in 21st century America, but in Jesus’ day, this was one of the lowest jobs around, reserved for common servants. You may not appreciate how humbling it is to wash another person’s feet, especially in a culture where sandals were worn every day and baths were only as frequent as new moons. But feet in the 1st century – who are we kidding? – feet in every century – are dirty, stinky, and smelly. As a parent of young children, I see that every day. (That’s right, blame the kids!)
I remember once in eighth grade when I was on a youth leadership retreat, and the leaders of the youth group decided to have a foot-washing ceremony one night. Earlier that day, I had gone off by myself to explore and play. I seem to remember something about a tire swing on a tree and a bunch of really wet mud all around it. But I digress.
We gathered in a circle to wash each other’s feet.
I may have been embarrassed, but Christina Cathcart was mortified. How humbling to her, and yet more than anyone else that night she had an opportunity to understand love.
But what if the person washing your feet were Jesus Christ Himself, wiping your feet with His own clothing? This was only one among many acts of love He performed in a life that was a living, walking advertisement for love. As John writes of Jesus, “having loved his own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end.”
When Peter learned the lesson of love, He asked to have not only His feet but His whole body washed. And we, who are His disciples, are to have our whole bodies and souls washed by Him. This is what He does for us in baptism, coming to us in love, and offering to cleanse us. This is what He does in the Lord’s Supper. In the Prayer of Humble Access we pray: “Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood.”
Here, on Maundy Thursday, then, we see both Baptism and the Holy Communion, as Jesus offers Himself to us that we might live in love.
How humbling, that the Lord who washed His disciples’ dirty, stinking feet in the upper room, has washed your sinful soul – much, much dirtier and stinkier than feet can ever get. How humbling, that the King of Glory should come to His disciples this way, and dirty Himself with the stains of our darkest sins, day after day, broken commandment after broken commandment of dirty, slimy sin!
Notice that Jesus gives the example of love first, and then the commandment – as if to say to us: “anyone can tell you to love, but let me show you first that you will truly understand.” Which is easier? To say “Love one another” or to actually love and then say “Love as I have loved you”? Jesus follows up His humble example with a concrete commandment, John 13:34 – “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”
It’s not enough for us to simply have our feet washed by our Lord: He washes us so that we might become like Him. He washed their feet, so that they might learn love. And He washes your body and soul, so that you might learn to love and serve, as He did.
This love that was so real in the life of Jesus must be made just as real in the life of His disciples. Palm Sunday taught that the Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of humility, service, and love. And Jesus says “If you want to be great in the Kingdom of heaven, then learn to be the servant of all.” “No disciple is greater than His master but strives to be like Him in all things.” And now: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”
It is your Christian duty – and a duty that should proceed spontaneously from a washed soul – to wash the feet of the saints. “Love one another, as I have loved you.”
Look for opportunities to serve; make yourself the most humble person you know; take the lowest job in the room. Anoint the Body of your Lord Jesus Christ – anoint His Body, the Church – by loving one another, as He first loved you. The new commandment to love one another begins by loving God but must continue by loving the saints. But it must conclude by loving those not like you. Love those who are not like you and who may not reciprocate the favor. Love those who hate you. Remember that Jesus washed the feet and offered His love feast to the very one who betrayed Him.
If we keep opening our arms and doors of our churches, God’s communities of love, we will get some different, strange people come through those doors – and we must love them. We might get some teenagers and young people who don’t dress quite like us or talk just like us or who might say or do some startling things. And we must love them. We might meet neighbors who will eat our food, and play our games, and hear our music – and never even think about coming into God’s house – and we must love them too.
“As I have loved you, you also love one another.”
But how shall we ever find the strength within ourselves for such an impossible task – to love as our Lord loved us? Jesus was able to love perfectly, in spite of the pain He endured, in spite of being rejected, not just because He was God but because His human nature actively choose to obey the Father and was sustained by the Holy Spirit. That is where He found His strength.
We can only obey this great commandment of Jesus – to love as He loved us – through the same strength that Jesus Christ found: the strength of God the Father through Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit.
There are many ways to find the strength of God, but all of them are only through Jesus Christ. But Jesus gave His disciples a special way to celebrate His love and be strengthened to love with His love and power: His supper. After Jesus had shown His disciples the example of love, and after He had given them the commandment of love, He gave them the power of love through the sacramental meal He ate with them. He gave Himself to them, just as He would on the Cross a short time later.
Here before us, on the Lord’s Table whenever we partake, is liquid and solid love – given for you. Here is the power to keep His commandment. And here before us every day, in all of the ways that Jesus offers Himself to us each day, we have Jesus Christ, love incarnate and the power to love.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”
Prayer: Father, as You have loved us by sending Your Son; Jesus, as You have loved us by giving up Your life for us; so may You give us the gift of love through Your Spirit that we may obey Your commandment to love and be made like our Master in all things. Amen.
Points for Meditation:
- As you meditate on the Gospel narratives of Christ’s betrayal, Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, meditate on the love of God as He gives them through the life of Christ.
- As you prepare to partake of the Lord’s Supper this week, take extra care to prepare yourself by meditating on the Lord in His Supper.
Resolution: I resolve to find one specific way to love today.
Jesus Washing the Disciples’ Feet – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license