Today is Maundy Thursday according to the Church’s liturgical calendar. For those outside of liturgical traditions, including most Baptists like myself, Maundy Thursday is essentially the day that focuses on the “Last Supper” of Jesus and his disciples. It is, in many ways, preparation for Good Friday. Maundy comes the Latin for commandment, and is derived from Jesus’ declaration in John’s Gospel of “a new commandment I give to you: that you love one another just as I have loved you.”
On Sunday, I talked about how Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem marked a different kind of revolution. In this revolution, a temporary political shift wasn’t going to happen; instead everything, from the very foundation of this world, was going to change. In the Lord’s last supper we catch a glimpse of that.
John’s description of the Last Supper is unique. While in the other three gospels there is a focus on Jesus taking the bread and cup and instituting what we now call the Lord’s Supper or Communion, John instead focuses on this other episode that took place during dinner. Jesus stands up, without saying a word, wraps a towel around himself begins to wash feet, the lowest task. This, for John, was the integral part of the Lord’s Supper. There are a few interesting things to note about this:
First, Jesus takes on the role of the servant. God, the creator of the universe, the make of heaven and earth, the one who has sustained and renewed his covenant with Israel again and again, takes on the lowest task of a household. God was turning our society upside down. If Jesus, whom we proclaim as our Lord, takes on this role, what does that mean for our actions? Paul makes it clear that our attitude ought to be the same as Jesus, to empty ourselves for the sake of others. Jesus himself declares that this is what we are to do: imitate him in his humility. No job is too lowly or unimportant. Brother Lawrence, who wrote the book Practicing the Presence of God, worked in the monastery kitchen. He did not consider his dishwashing beneath him or too mundane and his written work has been recommended by many over the centuries, including John Wesley and A. W. Tozer. Hildegaard von Bingen prayed to God that she would be but a feather on the breath of God. While a feather may seem inconsequential, on God’s breath it has an impact. God’s word goes forth and does not return void but accomplishes its purposes. Jesus’ actions mean that the one for whom we work determines the value of our task, not what society tells us.
Second, Jesus’ actions demonstrate our need for grace. We were so incapable of doing anything for ourselves, of even doing the simplest task of cleaning, that God had to come and do it for us. That is love. That is grace. Grace is a response to our own ineptitude by God’s omnipotence. Because we could not fulfill our obligation, because we were incapable of following God or coming to where he is, God came to us. By coming to us he drew us closer to his side and changed our relationship from the core. By dying for us he made the change in our relationship more drastic, and by rising again he made that change permanent for all eternity.
These first two points make me think of my own relationship with my son. He’s still in diapers at the moment, but is running around like crazy. When he has a dirty diaper, he recognizes it immediately. Upon noticing the change in his demeanor (or the unpleasant smell), I ask him if he needs his diaper changed. Almost every single time he says “no”, shakes his head vigorously and runs away. Now, his diaper needs to be changed. He is uncomfortable and it is unhealthy to remain in that filth. Yet, even though he seems to be aware of his own discomfort, he is reluctant to let me change him. This is something he (at least right now) can’t do for himself. He needs me to change his diaper. If you have ever changed a diaper, you know that there are few tasks less glorious than changing a child’s dirty diaper. Yet, despite that, because I love him, not because of anything he has done, I pick him up, take him to the changing table, clean him, and put a new diaper on him, even when he doesn’t want me to do it. That’s how God’s love works. That’s the picture Jesus is painting when he goes around washing his disciples’ feet.
Third, Jesus washes everyone’s feet. Even Judas. Go ahead, look at the passage, Judas doesn’t leave until after Jesus washes his feet. This demonstrates the wide breadth of God’s grace. I believe that if, after having handed Jesus over to the soldiers Judas had, upon realizing the gravity of what he had done, thrown himself at the feet of Jesus and asked his forgiveness rather than running off to his death, that Jesus would have forgiven him and he would be a much different character. But he didn’t. Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss and did not look to Jesus for forgiveness. Even though Jesus knew this, he still washed his feet. He served his enemy and offered grace and forgiveness to us. Jesus changes the way our relationships with each other work. No sin against one another is so great that you are absolved from serving each other. Persecution, whether from the world or friendly fire, does not remove your responsibility to act the part of servant, even to your persecutors.
Following the footwashing episode, Jesus, in a conversation with Peter, gives the line from which Maundy Thursday derives its name, “a new command I give to you: love one another; as I have loved you so you must love one another.” There are a few key things to keep in mind about this command. First, John seemingly makes no mention of the new covenant the Lord’s Supper brought about, mentioned most clearly in Luke. In Luke, Jesus states that “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” This says something very peculiar about God and his relationship with us.
The language used in Luke, as well as Matthew and Mark, is that of a Jewish betrothal ceremony. The Jewish wedding, in the first century, was considered a covenant of blood. The initial betrothal was entered into when the male suitor offered the woman a cup of wine. She could accept it by drinking it, or refuse by silently handing it back. If the proposal were accepted, the groom to be would go off to his father’s house to prepare a room there where the honeymoon would take place, only to return much later (often unexpectedly in the night) for his bride. Until then, the bride was reminded of her proposal every time she drank from a cup. If this all sounds familiar, it should. This type of wedding imagery, with Christ as the groom, runs throughout the entire New Testament. This is also behind Jesus’ phrasing to do this, as often as you drink, in remembrance of him. Jesus came to establish a marital covenant.
But John doesn’t use the language of Luke, or Matthew or Mark. However, he does talk about covenant. John’s recollection of Jesus’ words refers to a “new command.” The phrasing used is meant illicit the images of the covenant God set up with Israel at Sinai. There it was a covenant of a stronger party, God, toward a weaker party, Israel. Here in John, though, Jesus refers to a “new” command. This command seems similar in wording to the old covenant (love one another), but Jesus adds a caveat: what is generally translated “as I have loved you.”
Now, while that is a fine translation, and certainly a theologically correct one, I don’t think that gives the full perspective of what is going on here. The word, καθὼς , usually translated “as” or “just as”, could also be translated causally: since or because. If we take it in that sense, together with the rest of the sentence, Jesus’ words would read “I have loved you in order that you would love one another.” There are at least two implications to what Jesus said.
First, it says something about the way we fulfill the command. We are not commanded to love just because it is correct, though it certainly is correct. We are told to love because God loves us. We are able to love only because Jesus loves us. The love that God in Jesus has for us causes us to love one another. Mutual Christian love is the natural outflow of a relationship with Christ.
Second, it means that our relationship with God has fundamentally changed. God no longer comes to us under the terms of the Mosaic covenant, as a greater party condescending to a weaker party. He has already done that, and did so most expressly through the incarnation of Christ. Instead, God made himself nothing, a lowly servant, so that he might meet us on equal terms. The old covenant, while there was a strong element of choosing to follow, was nevertheless handed to you from birth. The new covenant, instead of being about your initial birth, is about second birth. It gives you a choice. God came down to do what we could not do for ourselves that he might meet us where we are, in the midst of our filth, and lift us out of it. When he lifts us up, and stands us on a rock, we see him for who he really is, high and lifted up beyond every name. On Maundy Thursday, then, we remember that God, because of his great love, change his relationship with us. By changing that relationship, for those who accept it, God fundamentally changed our relationship with each other. Every one of us, then, is servant, is brother/sister, is child, is an heir, is crucified, and is resurrected, all because Jesus was first and he came to us to give us a different kind of relationship.
How does it change your perspective on God’s covenant to understand it in terms of marriage? Do you sometimes struggle to love others in Christ? What “mundane” task has God put before you that could be bigger than you could imagine? Does your pride get in the way? What relationships have you neglected because of this pride? In what ways does this prepare you for the Cross of Christ?