[This was shared during worship Maundy Thursday worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church and our guests on March 28, 2013.]
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
On the first Maundy Thursday, in an upper room, Jesus enjoyed the last few uninterrupted moments He would have with the twelve apostles before His crucifixion. He had a message for them, something it was essential for Jesus to convey to them. Otherwise, everything about to take place--His arrest later that night, His trial before an illegal court, His death on a cross on Good Friday, and even His bodily resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday--would make no sense to them.
The twelve, along with the rest of Jesus’ hundreds of disciples, were about to be immersed in a chaos of events. Jesus wanted them to know, even when they experienced the first day, Good Friday, when He was executed; the second day, Holy Saturday, when His body lay in the tomb; and the third day, Easter Sunday, when Jesus, God in the flesh, rose from death, that He had been in control all along.
In the chaotic events of our lives, we need to know the same thing! Jesus is still in control.
Often, when Jesus wanted to make teaching points, He told parables. But here, in the upper room, Jesus acts out His message, as the Old Testament prophets sometimes did. We’re told by John, was in the upper room that night, that Jesus “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.”
You’ve probably all heard enough Maundy Thursday sermons to know that washing the feet of dinner guests was the job of a household slave and not of a host.
You know that Jesus is demonstrating, as He said elsewhere, that He came into the world--God in flesh appearing--to serve.
You know about what Jesus says after He has finished washing the disciples’ feet: “You call me Teacher and Lord [that is, your master, maker, I AM, God Himself] 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.”
Later on Jesus says that all of this points to a new commandment He gives gives to all who believe in Him, that just as He has loved us, we who are part of His body on earth are to love one another.
It’s this commandment that’s behind name of this day, Maundy Thursday. That word maundy comes to us from the French word, mandé, meaning something that has been commanded and goes back to the Latin translation of Jesus words in John 13:34. I don’t know Latin, but the words are, “Mandātum novum dō vōbīs,” or “I give to you a new commandment.”
That commandment to love our fellow believers is essential. We who belong to Jesus Christ are to love one another.
Love, of course, doesn’t mean approval. If, as a parent, your child is doing something that is dangerous to them, love will compel you to confront them or discipline them.
Christ has given the responsibility to proclaim the forgiveness of sin to the repentant and the condemnation for sin to the unrepentant. That’s called the Office of the Keys [see Matthew 16:19; John 20:19-23].
But love must always be the reason for exercising that responsibility.
Christ loves sinners and hates our sins, even yours and mine.
We are to love as we have been loved.
We are to humbly serve one another, just as the Lord of all creation has served us.
And we are, in the words of Ephesians, to speak God’s truth in love to one another, even when we would rather not. That’s part of love too.
But there is a deeper significance even than Jesus’ command to love one another in Jesus’ enacted lesson in the upper room.
Near the beginning of John's account of Maundy Thursday, there's a chilling passage. “Having loved His own who were in the world [the disciples], [Jesus] loved them to the end.” And then: “The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray [Jesus].”
Imagine this moment: Jesus loves everyone around that table. Jesus washes the feet of all around that table. Though John makes no mention of it, Jesus will also give Holy Communion to everyone at that table. But on Judas, all this service, all this love, all this grace, was of no avail. The devil had already entered Judas’ heart.
How does something like that happen?
Judas had spent time with Jesus as an intimate, an apostle. He had heard Jesus preach and teach. He saw Jesus turn water into wine, give sight to a blind man, feed the 5000, raise Lazarus from the dead. He had received the Word of God from the One Who, John says, is the Word of God, the creator of the universe. It seems that His heart should have been filled to overflowing with faith.
But, as Jeremiah 17:9 reminds us, “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse, who can understand it?”
The New Testament teaches that faith in Jesus Christ is a gift from God. And we know that, by God's grace, it is faith in Christ that saves us from sin and death.
And blessedly, we know too, that God doesn’t command that we have faith of a certain magnitude. Just faith.
One of my favorite prayers in the Bible is still that of the father who asked that Jesus would cast a demon from the boy, if Jesus were able to do it. His initial prayer to Jesus was, “If you are able.” Jesus responds with the man’s own words, “If you are able--All things can be done for the one who believes. Immediately the father cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
Once I heard a pastor recount how people, knowing that salvation is by God’s grace through faith in Christ alone, would ask him, “How do I know I’m not going to hell?” His response: “The fact that you don’t want to go to hell is evidence of your faith.”
It’s similar to what I tell people when they confess that they’ve gotten mad at God, afraid that such emotions indicate no faith in God. I tell them: “If you didn’t believe in God, you wouldn’t get mad at Him. You only get mad at a God you believe is there!”
The problem with Judas was that His heart was closed to God. A heart closed to God is wide open to the devil.
That’s how, despite a constant exposure to the Word of God the Holy Spirit wanted to turn into faith, Judas turned down the gift. He turned down Christ. He wanted thirty pieces of silver more than he wanted Jesus.
He wasn’t the last person to choose the dying things of earth over the life that only Jesus Christ has to give.
But just as Jesus never gave up on offering faith to Judas, we in the Church must never give up on those in need of faith in Christ around us!
John says that Jesus, back in the upper room, confident that He and the Father were one and that He was returning to the Father, did this extraordinary thing. He took off His outer robe. Half naked, He wrapped a towel around Himself and did the work of a servant. No one made Jesus do this. It was a voluntary act. He chose to love His disciples in this way. He chose to lay aside His clothes and His dignity in a culture that regarded personal dignity as important. Later, after having done the work of a servant, Jesus put His outer garment back on and resumed His place at the head of the table, their Lord and Teacher.
Here’s what Jesus was telling the twelve. In a few short hours, temple police would arrest Him. Roman guards would strip Him of His clothing. They would mock Him, spit on Him, beat Him, whip Him, and then nail Him to a cross, naked to the elements, to die. Jewish and Gentile leaders, powers equivalent to the modern Church and State, and the opinions of the mass of humanity all would conspire against Jesus. And people would think, “He’s not such a big deal after all. We showed Him. He’s not God. We are. We’re the decision makers around here.”
In the rush of horrible events surrounding Good Friday, the disciples were in no shape emotionally, mentally, or spiritually to remember the lesson of Maundy Thursday. But later, they would remember Jesus saying of His life on earth, “I lay down my life in order to take up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”
No one took Jesus’ life from Him. He gave it up willingly. And He died at the moment He decided it was time, for only God has the right to give and take life away. “It is finished,” Jesus said. And He breathed His last. On Easter Sunday morning, Jesus took His up life again and He did it, as a servant, for us, for our needs for forgiveness, new life, fellowship with God, and a purpose for living.
After Easter, the disciples must have looked back on the events of Maundy Thursday and thought, “Of course! Of course the Lord of creation laid down His life in service and love for all sinners, hoping even to reach those in whose hearts the devil had entered, so that they might embrace the gift of faith. Of course, it was in Jesus’ power to lay down His life and take it back up again. Hadn’t he told Martha that day in Bethany, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die’? And then they would remember that Jesus asked Martha, ‘Do you believe this?’”
Jesus asks the same question of you and me tonight: “Do you believe that I am the resurrection and the life? Do you believe that I am the only way and the only truth on whom a life can safely be built? Do you believe I am the only way to eternity?”
A few weeks ago, the pilot light on our furnace went out. We decided to put more blankets on the bed and call someone in the morning. When we hit the sack that night, the house was about 51-degrees. When we woke up the next morning, the thermometer was at 41-degrees. The absence of a tiny pilot light left a vacuum for the colder air to move in and take over where once there had been warmth.
Our faith may be small, like that pilot light. Our faith may only be our desire to have Jesus in our lives. I know that my faith goes small and dim sometimes. But then I think of Jesus laying down His dignity and His life, as He did symbolically on Maundy Thursday, and as He did really on Good Friday. I think of how Jesus took His authority and power back up when He went back to the head of the table on Maundy Thursday and how He took back power over the destiny of the whole cosmos when He rose from death on Easter Sunday. I’m amazed and overwhelmed when I think that He did that for me, a sinner who can sometimes be a Judas who betrays Jesus, a Peter who denies him, or a disciple who runs for cover when it comes time for me to stand up for Jesus and my faith in Him.
Maundy Thursday assures us that if we want Jesus and His Lordship over our lives, however dim our faith, He is glad to have us as His own.
In the chaos and the glad times of this life, may knowing and trusting that Jesus loves us enough to give the repentant freedom from sin and the believing eternal life, bring us comfort, hope, and joy. Amen