John 13:1-17, 31-35
Karl Barth is considered one of the giants of Christian theology in the twentieth century. He was a world-renowned theologian in a time when the words of orthodox Christian theologians were covered by the mainstream media.
[This is a TIME magazine cover featuring Barth. Click on the image to enlarge. Notice what the text in the corner ribbon says.]
Once, Barth came to America for a lecture tour. A reporter from The New York Times was on hand to cover his appearance and to interview him. Barth’s work on the basics of Christian faith, called Church Dogmatics, runs to fourteen thick volumes. His books take even the most learned people a long time to wade through. But The Times reporter learned that Karl Barth had the faith of a child. He asked Barth, “In all of your work, sir, what are you trying to say?” Barth thought about that question for awhile and then answered, “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.”
That’s one of my favorite stories, because it gets at the essence of the Good News of Jesus Christ. While we were still sinners, the New Testament book of Romans says, Christ died for us. He did that because of His love for us.
God knew that death was the rightful punishment for our sin. Yet, horrified by the notion that He might lose us all forever, God made an incredible decision. He decided to become one of us, lead a sinless life, and then make an offering of Himself on a cross.
In Jesus Christ, God the Son, God became the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world. Anybody who will simply come to God, confessing their sin and receiving Jesus as their Lord, becomes a beneficiary of the love God gives through Jesus.
“Jesus loves me” is absolutely true and the cross is proof of it. The Good News on which Christ’s Church is built is the tough, perseverant, eternal love of God!
But Maundy Thursday stands as a reminder to us all. The love that we followers of Jesus talk about isn’t about God’s love for us alone.
The word Maundy comes from a Latin word, mandatum, that means “mandate” or “command.”
That's because on the Thursday before Jesus was murdered, He celebrated the ancient Jewish meal of Passover with His closest followers. There, He also instituted a new dinner. We call it Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, or from a Greek word meaning "thanksgiving," we may call it the Eucharist. But Jesus did something else in that quiet room with the twelve: He gave them a mandate, a new command.
Characteristic of Jesus though, He didn’t give that new commandment without first giving them a stunning illustration of it, an illustration that would have had particular vividness and power to the people of first century Judea, where Jesus lived.
The Judeans of Jesus’ day regarded the foot as the filthiest portion of the human anatomy. That's still true of Semitic peoples, Jews or Arabs, to this day. Once, journalist Dan Rather went to Baghad to interview the one-time strongman of Iraq, Saddam Hussein. Rather apparently forgot himself, because during the interview, he crossed his legs, exposing the bottom of his shoe to Hussein. Hussein flew into a rage, left the room in an insult, and had to be coaxed back to finish the interview. Later, after US Marines entered Baghdad and helped Iraqis topple a statue of Hussein, the citizens of Baghdad showed their disrespect for Hussein by repeatedly hitting the statue with the bottoms of shoes.
In first century Judea where Jesus lived, it was common whenever a guest had traveled dusty roads by foot for a slave to wash the feet of the traveler before dinner was served. But this odious task would only be done by a slave. It was considered beneath the dignity of anyone else.
But as Jesus prepared to give His disciples the mandate to love as He loved them, He did something that no self-respecting lord or teacher would ever do. Jesus stripped off His only garment, wrapped a towel around His waist, and began to wash the disciples’ feet.
Simon Peter—the man we call simply Peter—was appalled. “Lord,” he tells Jesus, “You are never going to wash my feet. I won’t hear of it. It’s beneath the Savior of the world.” (It’s funny how Peter was always trying to teach Jesus the “right” way to be the Savior, as though he knew better than Jesus!) But Jesus tells Peter, “If you don’t let Me serve you in this way, you really don’t have anything to do with Me.” On hearing that, Peter, always impetuous, says, “Lord, not just my feet then, but also my hands and my head.”
After Jesus finished cleaning each foot, even the feet of Judas, the man He knew would soon run to the religious authorities and be paid to betray Him, Jesus took His place at the head of the table and said:
“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet...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.”
The love of Jesus isn’t a pretty ornament that you pull out and gaze at. Jesus’ love is like a million pulsating nuclear power plants living inside of us. Jesus’ love is meant to power us in loving and serving others just as Jesus has loved and served us.
Jesus’ Maundy Thursday mandate tells us that we dare not horde His love; it’s meant to be passed on.
When I was a boy, I remember an assembly at our elementary school at which we welcomed a local TV show host named Mr. Perkins. At one point in the assembly, Mr. Perkins had a large group of us stand holding hands in a circle around the perimeter of the multipurpose room. One person in the front laid the palm of one hand against the surface of a large metal ball that was connected to a small, hand-cranked electric generator while holding the hand of another student, who held the hand of another, and so on. Mr. Perkins began cranking the generator and within seconds, everyone of us felt a small but noticeable jolt. He explained that each of us had acted as conductors of electricity. We felt it and so did the person we touched next to us.
There are some people, stuck in a perpetual spiritual adolescence whose entire thinking about Christ and the Church is composed of the question, “What’s in it for me?” For people like that, Christian faith is nothing but a selfish pursuit of goose bumps and jolts. They engage in constant hopping from one experience or church to another because the “high” they got before wore off.
But Jesus says that if we want to keep His love alive in our lives, we need to move from being mere consumers of His love and become reproducers of His love. For those grateful for the grace given in Christ, being a passive recipient of God’s love isn’t enough! We need to pass the grace on. We need to love the imperfect people with whom we go to church and the imperfect people in our world, just like Jesus loves imperfect people like us.
Facing certain death, Jesus still served His imperfect, unworthy disciples. He could do that because the love the Father had for Him gave Him confidence to keep on loving in spite of His circumstances.
Jesus wants us to live and love and serve with the same confidence!
Once, I had a conversation on the fly with a neighbor. For a long time, I had been praying for him and his wife, people I really liked a lot. I decided that now was the time. So, in my head, I said another quick prayer and I invited this guy and his wife to worship with us this some Sunday. Without a second’s hesitation, he said, “Yes.”
Soon, I was in my car heading for dinner with Ann and some friends. But I tell you, I felt so good! Jesus had made a connection of love with my neighbor through me! By taking the risk of passing Jesus’ love onto someone else, I could feel Jesus stoking the fires of my faith and making it grow.
Listen: Our love for God and neighbors always grows when we give it away! (So does our faith!)
Anything else we may give away in life leaves us with less of it. Not so the love of Christ. The more you give, the more you have!
In the few days before Easter, God may give you and me opportunities to make such connections. We can invite people who need Jesus in their lives to be with us for Easter worship.
And in a few weeks, you’ll have new opportunities to serve our neighbors in Jesus’ Name when the Servanthood Team leads us in our PPSST! community food drive.
You and I can say and sing with confidence that, “Jesus loves me!” And that’s an awesome and life-transforming thing.
But when we show others through our loving, witnessing, serving, giving, and living that Jesus loves them, that’s when the God of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday truly brings us to life!