John 13:1-17, 31-35
On this Maundy Thursday, I want to talk with you about four gifts from God:
- an example,
- a Savior,
- a command, and
- a power.
On Tuesday, I was in a hurry, yet stuck in checkout line 4 at Kroger Eastgate. I wondered if there really was a worldwide conspiracy designed to keep me from doing what I wanted 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. 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 van, 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, the fact is that I'd intended to push ahead of whoever was in my way. I had been in a hurry and I thought the world owed me.
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 that predisposes us in big ways and small to push ourselves ahead of others, at the expense of others. To worship ourselves. 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.
So what’s to be done about it all? God has done something about it and that’s why we’re here tonight! And that leads me to discuss 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 to wash the feet of His disciples. Our Bible lesson tells us:
“...during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 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 and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”As I mentioned a few Sundays ago, 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 lord. Or a king. Or an important person. But God-in-the-flesh, Jesus doesn’t care about usual human conventions. He breaks our rules in order to break us free from the grip that sin and death have over us. He breaks our rules in order to break the kingdom of heaven open to us.
After washing each disciples’ feet, Jesus explains, “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. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
Jesus deals with sin first of all, by giving us example. In Him, we see what a life free from the sinful impulse to push ahead of others was banished. That's the first of the four gifts I want to discuss tonight.
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 will power to follow His example. At least not for long.
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.” There, Jesus entered into our alienation from God and accepted our sentence 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’s also a 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.
You and I are called not simply to love God and love neighbor. We’re also called to love each member of the Church, to respect one another, to build each other up, to help one another experience the grace and goodness of God, given as free gifts to all who believe in Christ. 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. That’s our command!
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. That’s where a fourth gift of Maundy Thursday comes in. That gift is 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.
A few days ago, I met with Tiffany and her mother, Paula. Tiffany will receive Holy Communion for the first time on Easter morning. One of the things we talked about was the old saying, “You are what you eat.” Eat lots of fatty or sugar-filled foods and you end up looking like I do around the middle. 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 Communion, He sets to work to transform the lives of those willing to follow Him. Through the Sacrament, Christ makes us more like Himself. Jesus gives us power to become Christlike. We are what we eat.
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 in a fellowship of love within the 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.