This is a strange night, this Maundy Thursday. It always is, as we are in the depths of Holy Week, with the Palm Sunday shouts of adulation having already faded, and Jesus’ arrest, trial and Crucifixion looming large in the shadows. In between those two events, Jesus and the disciples have been in the Temple every day, participating in the daily worship life, as well as giving Jesus an opportunity for focused and intensified teaching.
And now they have gathered for a meal, a time to feed their souls, as well as their bodies. It’s the last meal that Jesus has with his followers, this band of Twelve who have spent three years together – teaching and learning, praying, eating together, preaching, traveling, healing the sick, driving out demons. We who are their descendants know what comes next, even if the disciples couldn’t see it.
This is a strange night for us, as well, as we are in our second year of pandemic restrictions. Ordinarily some of us would have gathered for dinner earlier in the evening – a reminder that the Last Supper was a real meal, and that we present-day disciples have the same need for food and companionship that our first-century forbears did.
And then we would have gathered in Church to wash one another's feet and to celebrate Eucharist together – to be fed by the Body and Blood of Christ. Instead, we are gathered in time and in prayer and in spirit. And we are perhaps more acutely aware than ever of our connection to one another because of our physical absence from each other.
It is a strange night, indeed, and yet maybe we can contemplate Jesus’ words and actions in a slightly different way, step back from them a bit, get a wider perspective.
In John’s Gospel we don’t hear the words that Jesus speaks over the bread and the wine. Instead, we see Jesus taking upon himself the role of a household servant, washing the feet of the disciples. This was a shocking thing – the master, the revered teacher was doing something that would have been considered beneath him. And if we are squeamish about having our feet washed or washing someone else’s feet – we whose feet are nicely protected from the elements by shoes and socks – we need to remember that in the first-century people wore open sandals and the streets were full of all kinds of dirt and refuse. Foot-washing was an unattractive job, to say the least.
So why does Jesus do this? Why does he model this behavior for his followers? What does this reveal to them about the attitudes and actions they need to take on if they are to continue to be his followers?
Jesus wants the disciples to understand that his way is a way of love, and that love is not a feeling, nor an idea, but an action, a way of being. The love of Christ serves others in a humble way; it is self-effacing, unpretentious, giving up any claim of privilege or power. Yet it is paired with dignity and purpose and even joy – a quiet river of love.
But there is also a fluidity here: Jesus has taken off his outer garment and wrapped himself in the servant’s towel, and when the task is finished, he puts his own clothes back on again. He is both the master and servant.
The Gospel writer tells us that Jesus, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” He loved them completely, his love fulfilled its purpose, which is to draw all people to God, and to bring about the salvation of the world.
God’s love for us is full, complete, purposeful. We are loved for who we are in all our specificity and individuality, as well as in our overarching humanity. But even more than that, Jesus called, and taught, and trained a group of people, a fellowship. There could be no redemption, no salvation, no “new humanity”, no Church, no Body of Christ without the community of the faithful.
And so Jesus says to his disciples – including us, and all those who have preceded us and all those who will come after us – “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.”
This was the final piece, the last bit of formation. The disciples as faithful Jews knew they were to love God first and foremost, above all else. And they knew that they were to love their neighbor as themselves. It was right there in the Torah, in their Scriptures, and Jesus certainly taught them that as well.
But this love for one another was something deeper, something a bit different. By showing humble, joyful, loving service to one another, the disciples would show the world the nature and truth of God’s love, and the world would recognize that the disciples did indeed belong to and represent God because of the love they showed for one another.
Christian faith and discipleship finds its most complete expression in the community gathered around Jesus. That was true at the Last Supper, it was true in John’s Gospel, it has been true throughout the ages, and it continues to be true for us – even now, when we have had to spend so much time physically apart from one another.
We are not a Christian community because we are already people who love one another; but because we are loved by God and are called into community by Christ, we take on the task and the role and the responsibility of learning to love one another – in speech and action, in prayer, and even in affection.
It is the quality and character of our love for one another as disciples and as members of Christ’s Body that will be a sign of hope and truth to the world around us - a world that doesn’t know whether to cheer Jesus or to crucify him. In our love for God enacted in our community we are, like the bread of the Last Supper, broken open, and our lives are poured out like the wine, and Christ is revealed. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
April 1, 2021