March 24, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
The night in which Jesus is betrayed is His last opportunity for extended discourse with His disciples. He begins the night with something that sets the tone for the entire evening, yes, for everything that will follow His death, resurrection, and ascension. Before the Passover Festival Jesus knew the time had come for Him to leave this world and go to the Father. He had loved His own who were in the world, and now He loved them to the end. It was during the supper. The devil had already put the idea of betraying Jesus into the mind of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. Jesus knew the Father put everything in His hands and He had come from God and was going back to God.
To introduce this final teaching, Jesus washes His disciples’ feet. This simple gesture encapsulates the entire Gospel and the Christian life. It’s an example for me and for you and for all who would call themselves Christian.
Jesus’ Maundy Thursday Example Shows Christian Love as Service and Forgiveness
Holy Thursday is also called Maundy Thursday, from the Latin word mandatum. It means “mandate” or “command.” The new command that Jesus gives is really not all that new. Love one another as I have loved you (Jn 13:34). Love has been the summary of the Law ever since there has been the Law (which is from the beginning), but Jesus adds a caveat: as I have loved you. This shows us that we cannot come to love on our own. Neither does the Law cause us to love. Whether it’s in its simplest form of, “Love God; love your neighbor,” or whether it’s expanded in Ten Commandments, or even more explicitly and thoroughly described in Jesus’ own ministry, you cannot cause a person to love by telling him to love. It would be like a young man who is attracted to a young woman following her around, constantly yelling at her to fall in love with him. She won’t fall in love with him; in fact she’ll probably be turned off by him. And if he keeps it up, he might wind up in jail.
No, love can never be engendered by the Law. St. Paul says that the Law increases sin (Rom 5:20). That is to say that while the Law tells you what it is to love, it does not make you love and, in fact, robs you of love. So we need an example.
So Jesus rose from supper, laid aside His outer garment, took a towel, and tied it around Him. Then He poured water into a basin and started to wash the disciples’ feet and to dry them with the towel that was tied around Him. And so He came to Simon Peter. “Lord,” Peter asked Him, “are You going to wash my feet?” “You don’t know now what I’m doing,” Jesus answered him. “But later you will understand.” “No!” Peter told Him. “You’ll never wash my feet.” “If I don’t wash you,” Jesus answered him, “you have no share in Me.” “Lord,” Simon Peter told Him, “not only my feet but also my hands and my head.” “Anyone who has bathed needs only to have his feet washed,” Jesus told him. “He’s clean all over. You’re clean, but not every one of you.” He knew who was betraying Him. That’s why He said, “Not all of you are clean.” After He had washed their feet and put on His garment, He lay down again. “Do you know what I’ve done to you?” He asked them. “You call Me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and you’re right because I am that. Now if I, the Lord and the Teacher, have washed your feet, you, too, should wash one another’s feet. I’ve given you an example so that you will do as I did to you.
Jesus’ example is more than an example. It’s not just for us to imitate. All over Christendom, from the pope to evangelical megachurches, people will be reenacting this Maundy Thursday foot washing. But it’s nothing more than play acting. It’s very easy to make a show of washing the feet of someone you know, but if you’re going to do it, it would be better to wash the feet of strangers, especially those with nasty feet, ingrown toenails, fungus, and deformities. And don’t do it in front of cameras or an entire church packed with people. Do it in private. You Father will see what you do in private, and reward you in private.
So the example that Jesus leaves us with is not how to love someone, but the nature of love. Love is service to your neighbor. It’s not an emotion. It’s not about what another person can do for you; it’s about what you can do for him. What’s more, the example of Jesus is actually love. Before He gives the new commandment to love, He must love first. Love one another as I have loved you. Love engenders love. It’s not a zero-sum game of give and take. Love creates love, and so Jesus must love first. Not because there’s anything in us worth loving; His love makes it so. Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.
There’s also a corollary to the Office of the Public Ministry. When Jesus takes off His outer garment, wraps a towel around Himself, and kneels down to wash the disciples’ feet, Peter objects. This is not how it should be. The disciples should be serving the master—the lesser serving the greater. That’s how it is in the rest of the world. But the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many (Mt 20:27-28). Water does not flow up hill. In the Kingdom of Grace, the greater serves the lesser, and thus makes the least the greatest. It is not an honor to preach the Gospel, to serve the Sacraments. The honor is in hearing, the honor is in receiving. If I don’t wash you, you have no share with Me, Jesus says. The honor in Jesus’ kingdom is to receive the gifts. And there is no greater honor in this entire world than to hear God’s Word spoken to you, to receive His body and blood, given and shed for you. That’s what the words, for you, require you to believe.
And it’s not the minister who’s doing the ministering. The Prophet Isaiah writes, How beautiful on the hills are the feet of the messenger who brings the good news and announces peace, who tells the good news of salvation, and tells Zion, “Your God is King!” (Is 52:7-8). But the beautiful feet of the preacher are not because of the preacher’s beauty. It’s because Jesus is the One who makes them beautiful. Peter wanted His whole body washed, but that was not the point of Jesus’ washing on Good Friday ( the forgiveness given in Holy Baptism is what gives that kind of washing—Peter was already clean). Jesus washes the disciples’ feet because He was about to send them out to be His witnesses, to preach to the ends of the earth.
In addition to the explicit example of washing feet, there’s also an implicit example. Jesus shows love, but He also shows what must precede love. The bookends of this act of love are the clue. Before He washes their feet Jesus lays down His outer cloak, and when He’s done He takes it up again. These are the same words that Jesus uses in John 10 about His own life. No one takes His life from Him, but He lays it down and takes it back up again.
Foot washing is a fine example of love, but the ultimate love is when Jesus lays down His life on the cross. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13). All love must finally come from the life of Christ, laid down to make His enemies His friends.
The love with which you love others is supplied by the death of Christ. You participate in this death by the Holy Sacrament. The bread is participation, a fellowship, a communion with the body of Christ; the wine likewise with the blood of Christ. The same body and blood that was crucified. And so as often as you eat the bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes again.
The love of Christ is forgiveness. And so your love for others is also forgiveness. Imagine washing someone’s feet who is jealous of you, who lies about you, slanders you, robs from you, commits adultery with your wife, who is constantly angry with you or even has physically attacked you. It’s impossible to do—unless you first forgive. Not because your neighbor is a good person, or even because he’s truly sorry for what he did. But because Christ has forgiven you.
The new commandment of love is an old commandment, but made new again by Jesus. Love one another as I have loved you. This love is not only shown, but also engendered by the loving act of Jesus. His foot washing shows that Christian love is service for your neighbor, and is a love preceded by and formed by the forgiveness of sins. Tonight that love is given to you in a Holy Supper, to strengthen you in faith toward the One who loved you, and in fervent love for one another.
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard