Maundy Thursday. If you’re anything like me, you may have to be reminded each year what the word “maundy” means; it’s not a word that comes up in everyday conversations. “Maundy” is derived from the Latin word mandatum, from which we get our English word “mandate.” Mandatum, then, refers to a mandate or a command. In the context of tonight’s liturgy, it is tied to Jesus’ words in John 13:34, where he gives his disciples a mandatum novum, a “new command,” namely, to love one another as he has loved them.
What’snewabout that? we might ask. After all, hasn’t God always been a God of love, and haven’t God’s people always been instructed to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself”? (Luke 10:27)[ii]This command did not originate with Jesus and his followers; it was deeply embedded in the religious tradition they practiced.[iii]
The command itself isn’t new, but the radical way in which Jesus teaches and embodies it surprises and challenges Jesus’ disciples; it goes beyond their expectations[iv]:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then 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.
To understand the full impact of Jesus’ action at the last supper we must understand that in first-century Palestine, no host would ever offer to wash his guest’s feet. Washing feet was a dirty, menial task; done by a slave, if possible, or by the guest himself if no slave was available. A polite host might offer a bowl of water and a towel, but no free person would ever stoop to wash the feet of another free person.
When Jesus takes up the bowl and towel, he takes on a menial task that only a slave would perform, but in doing so, he changes it into an act of extraordinary strength and beauty, and demonstrates to his disciples and to us the power of sacrificial love. True love is measured by such acts of humility and service, and it often startles and surprises us by showing up when we least expect it.
This is Jesus’ new command, his mandatum novum: that we love one another with this same startling and surprising love, a radical love that is willing to humble itself, to lay aside its own preoccupations and selfish interests, and to serve in response to human need. Jesus teaches us and shows us that there is nothing more important than love: In God’s kingdom, love and love alone determines and defines our relationships with one another. We continue to have roles and the status that often accompanies them, but these do not define us. And, they are always to be employed in the service of love.
The love to which Jesus points us is more than polite behavior or kind acts or nice words. It does not rely on positive feelings or warm thoughts. Nor does it depend on personal attraction. The love to which Jesus points us requires an openness, a receptivity, a posture of self-giving towards the other; the kind of openness with which we choose to receive into our hands the feet of another person, regardless of whose feet they are or where they have been. It implies a willingness to hold those feet tenderly, regardless of what they look like or what they have done. It requires us to forgive the feet that have kicked us, and to ask forgiveness of the feet that we have stepped on. It is remembering that the feet we hold belong to one who was created and is loved by the same God who created and loves us. It is recognizing how much those feet look like our own.
”I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34,35)
“Love one another…just as I have loved you.” Taking the bowl and towel, Jesus assumes the place of a servant and washes the feet of his disciples – all of them. No one is left out: not Peter, who will soon deny that he ever knew Jesus; nor Judas, who will betray him with a kiss; nor the rest, who will turn away from him in his hour of greatest need. All of them are washed; all of them are loved.Jesus knew what was in their hearts and he still loved them.
Tonight we replicate that act of love: we remove our socks and shoes and place our feet into the hands of another to be washed, and we likewise receive the feet of another in our hands, and wash them. We are imitating Christ’s actions; acting with the same generous, surprising, and intimate love with which he loved us.
This is the way of Christ. This is the way of love. Not just tonight, but every day and every night. Not just in the liturgy, but in the world. We cannot choose to love only those whom we like and to whom we are attracted. We cannot choose to love only those whom we deem deserving of our love, or those whom we admire, or those who look and think and act like us or with whom we feel a certain kinship. No, this new commandment – this mandatum novum– is not based on feelings or emotions or personal preferences. It is based on a choice: a choice to recognize and respect the dignity of every person, a choice to see them as God sees them (as bearing the image and likeness of God and worthy of love); a choice to love and serve them with the same humility and generosity with which Christ has loved and served us.
No one said it was going to be easy. No one said it was going to be comfortable. It will require us to be open, to be vulnerable, to be humble, to offer ourselves in loving service to others, regardless of who they are or what they have done. Only Christ can teach us this love.
[i]Ideas for this sermon were drawn from the writings of Adam J. Copeland, Michael K. Marsh and Tony Reinke.
[ii]See also Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, for example.
[iii]The lawyer who came to Jesus in Luke 10:25-28 articulated it well. Jesus commends him for his answer.
[iv]Jesus responds to the lawyer who has correctly summarized the Law by telling the story of the Good Samaritan, in which he challenges and extends common assumptions of what it means to love one’s neighbor as one’s self (Luke 10:25-37).
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