John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Before the Festival of Passover, Jesus knew that his time had come to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully.
Jesus and his disciples were sharing the evening meal. The devil had already provoked Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing. When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.”
“No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!”
Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.”
Simon Peter said, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!”
Jesus responded, “Those who have bathed need only to have their feet washed, because they are completely clean. You disciples are clean, but not every one of you.” He knew who would betray him. That’s why he said, “Not every one of you is clean.”
After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.
Jesus said, “Now the Human One has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify the Human One in himself and will glorify him immediately. Little children, I’m with you for a little while longer. You will look for me—but, just as I told the Jewish leaders, I also tell you now—‘Where I’m going, you can’t come.’
“I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”
Tonight, we remember the new commandment, the mandatum novum given by Christ to his disciples and to us. It is this mandatum that gives this Thursday its name, Maundy Thursday. We have continued to remember this commandment for two thousand years, and with each passing year, this commandment feels more necessary than ever before. Jesus first shared this commandment on a night when he washed his disciples’ feet, broke bread, and shared a common cup with them. It was a night of trouble and of betrayal. It is in the midst of all of this that Jesus delivers the commandment, “Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.” My friends, it is not the trouble of our times that should define us, but rather this command that even in the midst of trouble we must love each other as God first loved us.
Certainly, there was trouble on that night so long ago as recorded by the Gospel of John, though not fully captured in the lectionary reading for tonight. Our reading skips right over Judas’ betrayal, but it is there nonetheless. Jesus knows that in a little while he will be betrayed and arrested and his close friends and followers will abandon him, even go so far as to deny all knowledge of him. The crowds who earlier sang out “Hosannas'' will soon cry out “Crucify him!” Here, Judas Iscariot troubles the mind of Jesus, for even as Jesus has washed his feet and shared a meal with him, Judas still intends to betray his friend and teacher. Judas has been a part of the community, one of Jesus’ closest companions, working and sharing in the ministry of Christ and the disciples. Now, the time has come when he will leave the table and go to sell Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.
We do not know what motivated Judas. Was it greed? Did he no longer believe in Christ? Could it have been that Judas was troubled in his own heart and mind because Jesus, this Messiah, was not who Judas thought he would be? Where were the armies of Judah led by the Messiah using the might of God to drive away the Roman oppressors? Maybe, just maybe, Judas thought to give Jesus another chance to be this kind of Messiah at the moment of the arrest, where Jesus would finally cast aside his days as an itinerant teacher and preacher to rise up and overthrow this foreign power as a great warrior of God! Still I wonder, did Judas feel disturbed in his heart and mind? Was his spirit troubled to betray all that this teacher taught and lived for in this one chance to have things Judas’ way?
How about us? Are there any here tonight that have something that troubles or disturbs our minds and weighs upon our souls? Do we find our spirits troubled by the world, by one of our neighbors, and even by our own failings? Perhaps we even know what is to be betrayed by someone we love, and perhaps some of us also know what is to betray another. Perhaps we find our world troubling with all the unrest, political tensions, and a worldwide pandemic doing nothing to ease our minds. What do we need to ease these troubles?
Should we be like our lectionary scripture reading which skips over trouble, going from good part to good part only? I mean, couldn’t Jesus have just kept quiet and not shared at all about the betrayal? At the very least, couldn’t he have done more to prevent Judas from betraying him and keep Peter and the rest from abandoning him when trouble arrived? He could give a good ending, free of trouble! Surely we could use that today, no troubles at all, only good endings. Instead of keeping quiet or skipping over the bad bits, Jesus seeks to give us and the disciples a way through the troubles of this world, by trusting God and following Christ’s example rather than simply avoiding them.
Jesus sets an example of trust earlier in the evening when he disrobes, takes up a towel, and does the task of a lowly servant by washing the disciples’ feet. He sets the example of service by setting the needs of others ahead of his own position or honor. In a troubled world, they must learn to serve each other as Christ served them. Again, after Judas leaves at the end of the meal, he answers their troubled hearts and minds with a commandment based on his own example, to love each other as he has loved them.
At first, Jesus begins by saying, “Love each other,” which does not sound much different from another command given by Jesus to love your neighbor as yourself. This other command is something we have all heard before. Even as a child, I was told not to do things like cutting in line, saying unkind things, or being greedy with toys because you would not want someone to treat you that way! Still, as an adult, I hear it again in sayings like “walk a mile in another’s shoes.” We find this golden rule writ large in the lessons taught to us as children and adults, but they come with a flaw! To love another as you love yourself means you have to love yourself well enough for it to work, so we must ask how much do we value ourselves? For if we trust only in our own strength, maybe we will be like Peter and run when trouble starts or things look bleak. Maybe we will be like Judas, unhappy that things are not going the way we would want them to so we turn to betrayal of ourselves and others. How much love do we really have for each other? In the end, Jesus’ command seems like yet another rule to trouble our spirits, another thing to mess up, and something else to betray.
Jesus, however, does not give us another version of the Golden Rule in the Gospel of John, instead, he gives us a new understanding of how to love one another. Jesus tells us to love one another, not as we would love but as God would love. In troubling moments, the answer to anxiety and unease is in trusting God and loving each other. Christian theologian C.S. Lewis provides insight into this kind of love of God when he says, “In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give.” In other words, the infinite love of God through Christ imparts infinite love and worth to each of us! Instead of relying on our own limited reserves, we draw the love we have for each other from the love God has for us. This reserve can never be exhausted or emptied. This love carries us through betrayals. It loves us for our wrinkles, gifts, shortcomings, and virtues. It is love for each and every one of us, and it is love for all of us. It is the love that flows through Christ to define our communities of faith, as Jesus says, “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” We are bound together by God’s love for us.
Friends, this world will be filled with trouble, but Christ has given us a way through. That way involves the continued presence and everlasting love of God and the support our community connection brings. We must serve and love each other as God first loved and served us. None of us is perfect, to the point where perhaps we share more in common with Peter and Judas than with Christ, but that is why we have God’s loving grace. The power of this love is one that lasts longer than betrayal, anxiety, and longer than anything that might trouble our hearts and minds. Where we depend on our own strength, we will fail, but where we depend upon God’s love and the relationship we have with each other, we will flourish. Tonight then, how can we serve and love each other in this place and in this time until our troubled spirits become ones of hope? How can we be imperfect people who still thrive as a community of grace and love? Let us tonight start by leaning on the living faith and everlasting love of Christ to live out the commandment to love and serve one another as he first loved and served us. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman