SERMON FOR MAUNDY THURSDAY, APRIL 13TH, 2017
Text: John 13
ALMIGHTY Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, did institute the Sacrament of his Body and Blood; Mercifully grant that we may thankfully receive the same in remembrance of him, who in these holy mysteries giveth us a pledge of life eternal; the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.
Bruce Thielemann, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, told of a conversation with an active layman, who mentioned, “You preachers preach a lot, but when you get right down to it, it all comes down to basin theology.”
Thielemann asked, “Basin theology? What’s that?”
The layman replied, “Remember what Pilate did when he had the chance to acquit Jesus? He called for a basin and washed his hands of the whole thing. But Jesus, the night before his death poured water into a basin and proceeded to wash the feet of the disciples.
The Synoptic Gospels, St. Matthew, St. Mark and St. Luke, provide us with accounts of the Last Supper and institution of the Holy Communion. But St. John’s Gospel presents an event not mentioned in the other Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, namely, our Lord’s washing of the disciples’ feet. The name “Maundy Thursday” derives from the first words of the antiphon for that day being “Mandatum novum do vobis”, “a new commandment I give unto you” (St. John 13:34). This new commandment was that Christians should show the same love to one another that Christ has shown, and does show, to them.
BACKGROUND AND PURPOSE OF OUR LORD’S WASHING OF THE DISCIPLES’ FEET
It is noteworthy that the giving of this new commandment would have been preceded by the Institution of the Holy Communion at the Last Supper, and by our Lord’s act of service in washing the feet of all the twelve Apostles. This act of service itself demonstrated the love that He showed to his disciples, the very same love that he was commanding the disciples to show one another. Before washing the feet of his disciples, “St. John,” as Calvin commented, “states in a single word, that the Lord testified, by this visible sign, that the love with which he embraced them was firm and lasting.” This assurance of our Lord’s love is given in the first verse of our reading, in the words, “Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end.” The words “unto the end” carry a double meaning: they signify “up until the last”, and also “to the point of completion, or perfection”.
St. John provides us with the insights that our Lord already knew beforehand that Judas Iscariot was about to betray him to the chief priests and rulers, and that it was the devil who had motivated him to do this. But, though Jesus knew this, he also knew that “the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God”. This brings home the truth to us that our Lord washed the feet of all his disciples, including Judas Iscariot, knowing full well what Judas was going to do. This shows how utterly unprejudiced our Lord was, in loving even the person who was going to betray him. It also shows that, though our Lord would be the victim of betrayal, in fact, he was the victor, because God the Father “had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God”. He was fully in control, having yielded himself to the Father’s will, and he knew that after his death, resurrection and ascension, he would be with God again forever. He also knew that the Father had entrusted him with this mission of the salvation of mankind. Therefore, he was strengthened in his determination to succeed in this mission, and also to encourage his Apostles by giving them a memorable example of service in washing their feet, and symbolically showing the nature and depth of his love.
What did our Lord Jesus intend to show his disciples by washing their feet? Today’s feet hardly require special ablutions, since people in our civilization, when they wear sandals, hardly walk miles along dusty roads from one town to the next. But in our Lord’s time, in first century Judaea, a slave would wash the feet of guests on arrival at someone’s home. It was a menial task, but our Lord here sets the example of loving service, commanding Christians to serve one another, as He has done for them.
Through the foot washing our Lord teaches us a memorable example, saying, “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that ye should do as I have done to you.” After the institution of the Holy Communion at the Last Supper, the lesson of the foot washing reinforces the New Covenant instituted by our Lord. For in the spirit of self-sacrifice and mutual service, Christians must celebrate the Holy Communion and embody Christ in every aspect of their lives and relationships. After the Cross, the foot washing takes on even greater significance, for in acts of mutual service, we go on revealing to others the love of Christ, by which he was obedient to the point of dying on the Cross to reconcile the world to God.
In terms of the example of Christ in washing the disciples’ feet, what can you learn about serving your fellow-Christians all your days on this earth? What does Christ’s example of washing his disciples’ feet teach you about your service of your fellow Christians, and about your attitude to such service?