This day in the Christian year is called ‘Maundy Thursday’; the word ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin word ‘maundatum’, which means ‘commandment’. This day is called ‘Maundy Thursday’ because on it we remember the new commandment that Jesus gave us – the commandment to ‘love one another as I have loved you’ – and his dramatic demonstration of that commandment when he washed his disciples’ feet. Of course, we just heard that commandment in today’s gospel:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
We might be a little puzzled to hear Jesus referring to this as a ‘new’ commandment’. Surely the command to love is not new? After all, in the Old Testament the Israelites were commanded to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, and Jesus has already confirmed this as one of his two great commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. So how is this a ‘new’ commandment?
Two things are new here. The first is that this is not just a general commandment to disciples to love their neighbour; it’s a command about the love that is shared in the community of disciples. This is a commandment that the Christian community is to be characterized by love for one another, and this love should be obvious and visible to outsiders: ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’. The second new thing is the example of Jesus; he doesn’t just tell us to love each other in any old way, but ‘just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another’. Let’s think about these two things for a minute.
First, then, Jesus tells us as Christians not just to love our neighbour as ourselves, but to ‘love one another as I have loved you’. This love for one another is meant to be the family characteristic of Christians. When people think of the Christian church, the first thing that comes to mind should be the visible love between members of the Christian community.
When I think of my family of origin, and I ask myself ‘what are our family characteristics?’, two things come to mind immediately. The first is that we seem to have rather large heads – I mean that in the physical, not the metaphorical sense! The second is that we share a love of a good argument. We can’t resist it, and once we’re in it, we can’t let it go. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed the second characteristic receding a little in me, but I’ve still got the big head!
I wonder what family characteristics come to mind when people outside of Christianity think about the Christian church? I would suspect that in many cases they are not good characteristics.
This week, as Holy Week was starting, I noticed on Facebook that some Christians couldn’t resist the temptation to start an argument about the meaning of the Cross. People who take one particular viewpoint accuse other Christians – their brothers and sisters in Christ – of believing in a God who ‘commits cosmic child abuse’. Those other Christians respond by accusing their brothers and sisters in Christ of being ‘revisionists’ and dismissing the clear teaching of scripture. Meanwhile, the world is watching. Facebook is a public forum. Is the world thinking ‘See how these Christians love one another’? I don’t think so. The world is thinking, ‘See how these Christians love to attack each other’s opinions’.
This is serious, because in our verse for tonight Jesus has given the world the right to judge whether or not we are his followers on this one point. The world, says Jesus, has the right to see visible love between members of the Christian community, and if it doesn’t see that love, it has the right to judge that the people in question are not disciples of Jesus. That judgement may be wrong, but according to Jesus, the world has a right to make that judgement.
We’re called to be a ‘city set on a hill’. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said:
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:14-16).
So this is the first distinctive: we are meant to be a community of love for one another, so that the world can see we are followers of Jesus. The second thing is that Jesus tells us ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’.
People today are often confused about what ‘love’ actually means. When we use the word ‘love’ we tend to be describing a feeling; “They’re so in love with each other”, we say, meaning, “the feeling of love they have for each other is overwhelming”. If we’re defining love in this way, we’ll find it very difficult to understand Jesus, because it’s very difficult for us to make ourselves feel something.
That’s why it’s important for us to remember that when the Bible talks about love it’s almost always talking about choices and actions, not feelings. To love someone, in the Bible, means to choose to be a blessing to them, to serve them in humility, with practical actions. This is made very clear by the example of Jesus. When we ask ourselves ‘How did Jesus love his disciples?’ two answers come to mind immediately: by dying for them on the cross, and by washing their feet.
Dying for them on the cross is perhaps the main thing that John has in mind in this passage; in verse 1 he says, ‘Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’. ‘Loving them to the end’, of course, meant loving them all the way to death, even death on a cross.
So one essential characteristic of Christian love is sacrifice. There were no limits to Jesus’ love for his disciples; he literally loved them more than he loved his own life.
The chances are that you and I will probably not be called to die for our fellow Christians, although we might do well to ask ourselves what it says about us that sometimes we can’t even make time to have coffee with one another and get to know each other a little better. But the second example cuts closer to the quick for us: the example of the footwashing. This was a thoroughly practical action: the roads of Judea were dusty and muddy, and people walked in open sandals, so their feet got filthy and smelly. At the door of the house was a container of water, and when a guest came into the house, the first thing that happened was that a servant would wash their feet. For some reason, on the night of the last supper this had not happened; perhaps there was no servant there that night. And the fact that it had not happened became painfully obvious to the disciples, because in those days people didn’t sit down to eat on chairs as we do; they reclined on couches around a low table, and their feet would literally have been in their neighbours’ faces!
By washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus radically redefined the social structure of the Christian church. It wasn’t to be a church where some were lords and some were servants. ‘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 for you’ (vv.14-15). No one is too important to do the servant jobs; everyone is called to acts of practical care and compassion for one another. This is what it means to love one another as Jesus has loved us.
We might ask ourselves today what practical acts might be the equivalent of footwashing. Tonight we will be washing feet as a symbol of practical love, but the fact is that, in our day and age, this is no longer a pressing need! It would be good for us to ask ourselves what essential and practical tasks we need to be ready and willing to do for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Back in the 1980s when I was living in Aklavik in the western Arctic, the local native people sometimes asked me if I would do their income tax returns for them. I always refused; I was too busy, I said, which was a lie. I wasn’t too busy; I just didn’t want to be bothered. But I knew how to do tax returns, while for many of them, tax returns were absolutely incomprehensible. One of my predecessors, Tom Osmond, had done dozens of them each year. He understood what the command to love one another was all about; it meant doing practical acts of love, even when you don’t feel like doing it. I was a long way behind him.
So to sum up: tonight we remember the new commandment that Jesus gave us, to love one another as he has loved us. He loved his disciples by washing their feet and by giving himself for them on the cross. He calls us to love each other sacrificially and practically, so that the world can see that we are a community marked by his special brand of love.
Tonight we symbolize our willingness to do this as we participate in the symbolic action of washing one another’s feet or hands. But it’s important not to stop with the symbol, but to go on to live it out in practical ways when we leave this place. So let’s remember what Jesus says in verse 17: “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them”.