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“Mandated Love”

April 6, 2023 Preacher: Minister Thomas Houston

Scripture: John 13:1–17, John 13:31–35

1Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
31b“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”



May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.

Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

This Maundy Thursday evening we read gospel writer John’s version of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.  And because John is focused on, and wants his readers to connect with the humble nature of Christ, in his role as suffering servant, John’s gospel naturally differs somewhat form the account of the events found in the synoptics; Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  In these, the Last Supper takes place during the Passover meal, the seder.  In John’s gospel, Jesus’ final dinner with his disciples happens on an evening before the Passover festival.  In the other three accounts Jesus institutes the Eucharist, Holy Communion; John excludes this rather important part of Jesus’ actions, ostensibly because his readers have been aware of the Lord’s Supper and have been engaged in this practice for some time.  Fortunately for us, the people who select the readings for our worship services have included the Exodus passage which describes the first Passover, as well as Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in which he reiterates for us the ritual of the Eucharist, of Holy Communion.  So, collectively we have a complete picture of what happened during Jesus’ last meal with his first and closest followers.

Which affords us the opportunity to consider the several divergent messages that Jesus is proclaiming during his last evening with his disciples.  For Mathew, Mark, and Luke, the emphasis is on Jesus’ institution of Holy Communion, and his pronouncement that we are to continue this practice as a remembrance of his sacrifice for the world.  Also, in these synoptic gospels the account of the flight of the Jewish people from Egypt is memorialized through the observance of the Passover meal.  This also sets the tone for Jesus to be referred to as the Passover lamb; again, giving thanks for his willing sacrifice for the salvation of God’s people.  And as we heard, John omits these portions of the event and focuses instead on Judas’ betrayal, Jesus washing the disciples feet, and of course the “new commandment”.  This directive, this command, this mandate to love one another is the reason this day is named “Maundy” to begin with.  Maundy is an Old English word originally from the Latin.  It sounds a bit like “mandate”, and mandate morphs into “command”; so John uses “maundy” to describe the new “commandment” of Jesus to “love one another”.   


But first, why is John so concerned with dirty feet?  And why does he contend that Jesus’ washing of them is a more important message for his readers than recording that the Last Supper took place at the Passover?

This is the most important festival celebration observed by the Jewish people; odd that John’s account doesn’t take place during that evening.  And why highlight foot washing rather than Holy Communion?  What point is John trying to get across to his early readers, and ultimately to us?  Well, it seems the lesson that Jesus taught that night is singularly focused, and John is making sure that it is conveyed in a way that leaves no possibility of misunderstanding.  Jesus’ words and actions during this dinner are meant to express the most imperative lesson of his ministry.  “Love one another” Jesus commands the disciples…and us.  But he doesn’t lead with this new commandment, he portrays for the disciples the extent they must be willing to go to affirm their willingness to abide by this mandate.  He speaks of servanthood and humility; no, it’s actually not humility, rather it’s about being willing to face humiliation.  Same root word, vastly different experiences.  Humility, the act of being humble assumes that we acknowledge that we are not above anyone else and that we are willing to stoop in service to others.  Humiliation, on the other hand requires that our actions involve enduring shame or degradation.  Humility might be expressed by offering your place at the table to another person while genuinely accepting that they may, for some reason be more worthy than you to sit there.  Humiliation is a willingness to strip down to your undergarments and wash the filth off the feet of that other person.  Let’s talk a bit about the humiliation involved in foot washing.

The host would always ensure that the feet of his guests were washed when everyone met to dine in his house.  More than being offered simply as a traditional courtesy, when you consider the condition of the roads in ancient Israel, this becomes a necessity.  The streets, if they could really be called that, were sand and dirt.  People wore sandals and their feet would be grimy after a short time walking about in these dusty, dirty conditions.  And let’s not forget that even domesticated animals aren’t particular about where they relieve themselves.

It would not be uncommon for people to enter the home of their host with their open-sandaled feet covered with a mixture of sand, dirt, and excrement.  The washing of these feet would certainly be humiliating.  Thus, the task would fall to a servant; under no circumstances would a host lower themselves to assume the role of the foot-washer.

And most likely, the job of washing a guest’s feet would be assigned to a female servant of the household.  No way would a male who was not a servant humiliate himself by stooping to wash the dirt and feces off the feet of another.  Yet Jesus Christ, the Son of God took off his robe, wrapped a towel around himself, dropped to his knees and washed his disciples’ feet.  He got right down amongst the sand, and dust, and dirt, and animal soil that was clinging to the feet of those he had called to be his followers.  Jesus was humble, yes; but in this action he chose to humiliate himself in order to drive home the point that John acknowledges is even  more important that remembering the Passover or instituting Holy Communion.  “Love one another” is Jesus’ new commandment.  He so desperately wants the disciples, and us to understand the importance of this new mandate that he is willing to assume the humiliating role of the female household servant.  No wonder Peter was appalled.  Master doing the work of the servant; male accepting the role normally relegated to a woman; teacher serving the students; Son of God up to his elbows in filthy water.  You will never wash my feet”, Peter exclaims to Jesus.  Jesus replies, “If I don’t, you will not understand the importance of this new rule I’m about to proclaim to all of you.  I must go to this humiliating extreme so you will truly know how imperative it is that you follow my new commandment to ‘love one another’”.  “This is the example I must show you”. 

After he had finished and returned to his place at the dinner table, that’s when he said to his shocked disciples, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

This extreme example of a willingness to undergo humiliation was meant to signify the lengths to which Peter, the other disciples, and we are called to go in order to perform our servanthood toward others.  And being a servant is how we are ”commanded” to show that we “love one another”.  I often think that this is Jesus’ first-century way of telling us today that “talk is cheap” and “actions speak louder than words”.  We are called to put our faith into action; our deeds demonstrate our devotion to following the Way of Christ.  In order to express our love for one another we are often required to practice humility in service to others.  It’s generally not necessary that we face humiliation in performing our deeds of service.  But we must not forget that Jesus was willing to undergo humiliation for humanity; in the washing of the disciples’ feet and in suffering a humiliating death hung upon a cross.  And his willingness to give his life for us is an even greater example of Jesus’ new commandment to us to “love one another”.  He loves us enough to die for us; we only have to be humble servants to others, humiliation not required.                 
Will you pray with me?  Good, and gracious, and holy God, on this holy night we recall your Son’s new commandment, as he calls us to love others as he loves us.  Help us to be willing to humble ourselves as we come to the aid to those whom Jesus commands us to serve.  And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who stooped to wash his disciples’ feet and was lifted upon the cross to save the world.       

God is Good, all the time.  All the time, God is GoodAmen.