[This was shared during Maundy Thursday worship with the people of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this evening.]
John 13:1-17, 31-35
On this Maundy Thursday, I want to talk with you about four gifts that God gave us on this special day: an example, a Savior, a command, and a power.
But first, a story to explain why we need these gifts. On a Tuesday in Holy Week a few years ago, I was in a hurry to get back to my office and get some work done. Yet I was stuck in checkout line 4 at the local Kroger. I wondered if there really was a conspiracy designed to keep me from doing what I needed to get done. Just then a clerk popped his head out from between two unused check out lines. “You can check out on three now,” he announced. A woman who’d just happened by when the clerk appeared, quickly slid into line 3 and I pushed my cart in behind her.
I was internally celebrating my good fortune when I looked back and saw the woman who had been standing in front of me in the congested line 3. It wasn’t until I left the store that I wondered--or maybe it was only then that I allowed myself to wonder--had I stormed ahead of her? I felt a pang of guilt. After all, she’d gotten into the longer line before I had. Hers was the right of first refusal on entry into the newer, quicker checkout line.
Bags stowed in my vehicle, cart put into its corral, engine on, I briefly considered trying to find the woman to say, “I’m so sorry that I pushed ahead of you like that. I didn’t intend to.”
But I realized that would have been a lie. Whether I actually had pushed ahead of her or not, honestly, I had intended to push ahead of whoever was in my way. I had been in a hurry and I thought the world needed to give way.
That’s your pastor, folks. Not a pretty sight, I'll admit. I had been guilty of me-first thinking. But the Bible has a more direct term for it: sin.
You and I are born with the condition of sin, a condition of alienation from God. As the Bible and the Lutheran confessions teach, this condition of original sin is really sin. From our parents, we inherit the condition of fallenness and alienation from God as surely as we inherit their other genetic characteristics.
On top of that, our condition predisposes us in big ways and small to push ourselves ahead of others, at the expense of others. To worship ourselves. To put our desires ahead of God’s will for human beings. To leave God and neighbor in the dust.
It’s sin that makes our world such a mess.
It's sin that messes up our individual lives.
It’s sin that causes us to behave badly at grocery stores and other places.
And the proper punishment for our sin is death, everlasting alienation from God. So what’s to be done about it all?
God has done something about it and that’s why we’re here tonight, of course.
And that leads us to those four gifts.
On a Thursday night of a Passover week some two-thousand years ago, the sinless God-man, Jesus of Nazareth, defied propriety by washing the feet of His disciples. John 13:3-5 in tonight’s gospel lesson tells us: “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”
In first century Judea, you know, washing the feet of another person was generally only done either by servants or by a loved one anointing the body of a deceased family member. (And sometimes, as a liturgical action in Jewish worship.)
It wasn’t done by a king. Or an important person.
But God-in-the-flesh, Jesus, doesn’t care about usual human conventions.
He breaks our rules--the rules that human beings often use to make themselves more important than others--in order to break us free from the grip that sin and death have over us. He breaks our rules in order to break open the kingdom of heaven to us.
John 13:12-17 tells us: “When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them. ‘You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.’”
Jesus deals with sin first of all, by giving us example of sinless living. In Him, we see what a life free from the sinful impulse to push ahead of others is like. That’s the first gift from Jesus on Maundy Thursday.
But, thank God, following Jesus Christ is about more than having an example. The condition of sin prevents us from living and acting like Jesus. No matter how much I may want to be like Jesus, I can’t use my willpower to follow His example. I can’t resolve to be righteous; my very nature conspires against any such resolutions.
That’s where the next gift comes in. It was given, of course, less than twenty-four hours after Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. He went to the cross, becoming what John the Baptizer had said of Jesus on the banks of the Jordan, “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.”
On the cross, Jesus entered into our alienation from God and accepted our punishment for sin, so that rising from the dead, He could offer new and everlasting life to all who believe in Him.
Jesus saves sinners like me. Jesus isn’t just an example. He is our Savior. Thank God!
But the events of this night remind us that there’s more to being a Christian than having an example or being saved.
Every Christian should wonder, “Saved for what? What new life can God help us to live because Jesus is our Savior?”
This day is called Maundy Thursday, the word maundy coming to us from the Latin word mandatum, meaning mandate or command. That’s because after washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus gave a new command to all who make up His Church. He commands all disciples to love their fellow believers precisely as Christ has loved us.
This third gift of Maundy Thursday may not seem like a gift to us, at first. After all, if Jesus only knew how annoying Christians can be. He know that, in fact. He even knows how annoying you and I are. But He he gives this command to us anyway.
Jesus was willing to die for the good of the Church; He commands us to also be willing to die for the Church.
You can't be a Christian without being part of the Church, this family instituted by Christ. The Church is the living embodiment of Jesus in our world. The Church is the place where recovering sinners are made to feel safe and where in our fellowship with one another, we experience Jesus using us to love others.
This is why Jesus so values the Church, the only thing that will survive the death of this world and carry over into Christ’s new creation.
And this is why Jesus commands us to love the Church and the disciples who are part of it with our whole lives, even to the point of death.
If you’re like me, you’ll find that overwhelming. But it’s also comforting: It shows us just how valuable each and every individual believer in Jesus Christ is in the eyes of God.
Fortunately for us, our Savior Jesus doesn’t just give us an example, save us, or give us a command without also giving us the means to fulfill His call on our lives. He gives a fourth gift, power.
Jesus gives us the power to live as saved people, the power to follow His example even when we’ve failed, the power to recommit ourselves to doing as He commands despite our sinful natures.
Sometimes, through the years, in explaining to Catechism students what happens in Holy Communion, I have mentioned that old saying, “You are what you eat.”
On the first Maundy Thursday, Jesus instituted Holy Communion. Through it, even tonight, Jesus hands us bread and says, “This is My body”; He gives us wine and tells us, “This is My blood.”
In a mysterious way we can’t understand or explain, Jesus literally enters into the bodies and the lives of those who renounce sin and entrust their lives to Him.
We each come together in humble need of Christ and His forgiveness and He gives to each of us His very self.
Christ uses this sacrament to help us, from the inside out, to follow His example and to fulfill His commandments.
In the body and blood of Holy Communion, He sets to work to transform the lives of those willing to follow Him. Through the Sacrament and the Word, Christ makes us more like Himself. Jesus gives us power to become Christlike.
We are and, while we live on this earth, will remain in the process of becoming what we eat, the heir of our Father in heaven.
Among the many gifts God gives to us through Jesus Christ, four are good to remember tonight: His example, His salvation, His command to live with sacrificial love for His Church, and the power to become more like our Savior by regularly receiving His body and blood in the Sacrament we’re about to receive again.
Speaking as one needy sinner to other needy sinners, I have to tell you how grateful I am that tonight, I have a Lord who loves me enough to give me these four gifts...and so much more!
I’ll gladly take my place in the back of the line in His kingdom because I know that even there, I am a child of God and, if I keep following Him, Christ will never let me go. Amen