Maundy Thursday, by Zachary Helton
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
It was before the Feast of Passover, and Jesus realized that the hour had come for him to pass from this world to Abba God. He had always loved his own in this world, but now he showed how perfect this love was.
The Accuser had already convinced Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus, so during supper, Jesus rose from the table, took off his clothes and wrapped a towel around his waist. He knew that God had put all things into his own hands - that he had come from God and was returning to God. He then poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and dry them with the towel that was around his waist.
When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said, “Rabbi, you’re not going to wash my feet, are you?”
Jesus answered, “You don’t realize what I am doing right now, but later you’ll understand.”
Peter replied, “You’ll never wash my feet!”
Jesus answered, “If I don’t wash you, you have no part with me.”
Simon Peter said to Jesus, “Then, Rabbi, not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well!”
Jesus said, “Any who have taken a bath are clean all over and only need to wash their feet—and you’re clean, though not every one of you.” For Jesus knew who was to betray him. That is why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
After washing their feet, Jesus put his clothes back on and returned to the table. He said to them, “Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher,’ and ‘Sovereign’—and rightly, for so I am. If I, then—your Teacher and Sovereign—have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.
“The truth of the matter is:
no subordinate is greater than the superior;
no messenger outranks the sender.
Once you know all these things,
you’ll be blessed if you put them into practice.”
Then Jesus said,
“Now is the Chosen One glorified
and God is glorified as well.
If God has been glorified,
God will in turn glorify the Chosen One
and will do so very soon.
My little children,
I won’t be with you much longer.
You’ll look for me,
but what I said to the Temple authorities, I say to you:
where I am going,
you cannot come.
I give you a new commandment:
Love one another.
And you’re to love one another
the way I have loved you.
This is how all will know that you’re my disciples:
that you truly love one another.”
This is one of our most sacred stories,
Thanks be to God.
This story is powerful. Year after year we tell it again, right here near the heart of our most sacred story. It is the primer, the lens through which we are to see the cycle of tales we’ve deemed the cornerstone of our faith. Our hero, God made flesh, the King of the Cosmos, stripping off his modest robes, tying a towel around his waist, and choosing the form of a servant, washing the feet of his friends.
We live in a perennial culture that, for whatever egoic reason, like to paint God in fully glory atop inaccessible thrones in a faraway heaven, or floating sternly on a cloud above Roman chapels… but here at base of all of it, there is this story. Here is God, not at the top of some ladder, but outside mowing his neighbor’s lawn. Out there delivering groceries to those who can’t get out. Spending hours on the phone with his friends, reminding them they’re not alone. Risking everything to show up and care for the sick that might cost him his life. Here, it turns out, in this humble, self-emptying love, is where the glory of God lies.
“I give you a new commandment,” Jesus teaches, the smell of the dirty water still on his fingers. “Love one another.” This is the commandment that should, more than anything else, more than any prayers we pray or music we sing or language we use, define us as followers of Jesus. “This is how all will know that you’re my disciples.” Maundy. Mandatum. The Mandate. The Commandment. Love one another.
But, there’s a problem. In the source code of the story as we often want to tell it, there is a distortion which, left unacknowledged, runs the risk of corrupting the entire thing. Many of us hear this story, and understandably, what we walk away with is the commandment. Love one another. That’s admirable, but here’s the thing: We’re not a people shaped by commandments. We’re a people shaped by stories and shaped by grace.
Commandments open us up to all manner of shame and guilt. They take our minds to words like better than, worse than, judgment of, disappointment in ourselves and others. Commandments, as Paul implied, can quench the Spirit of Love faster than most anything else.
So please hear me.
This is not about the commandment.
It’s about the story.
It’s about what came before the commandment: These words were not spoken from a podium, atop a mountain, or in a bestselling book. They were offered by a man with a towel around his waist surrounded by his friends.
It’s about what came after the commandment: “Love one another, the way I have loved you.”
The first step, the essential, crucial, necessary step that we, like Peter, are often too proud and guilty or whatever to take, is accepting the fact that you are loved. Unconditionally. Without qualification. Whether you think you deserve it or not, no matter what you’ve done or how dirty your feet are, Jesus does not give a damn. You are loved just as you are.
But it’s as Jesus said to Peter. “If you can’t accept this love from me, if you can’t see yourselves, just for a second, through my eyes and experience this Love firsthand… then how can you expect to extend it to another?”
Or, as the great theologian RuPaul would later paraphrase, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”
In 1997, at the 24th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards, one of my heroes, Fred Rogers, was being presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Tim Robbins called him up to the stage, introduced him with very kind words, and gave him his award. When the time came for Mr. Rogers to give his thank you speech, he quipped, “It’s a beautiful night in this neighborhood!” There were some chuckles. But then, as much the real Mr. Rogers on the set as off, he said this to a room full of Hollywood elites:
“So many people have helped me to come here to this night. Some of you are here, some are far away, and some are in Heaven. All of us have special ones who loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are – those who cared about you and wanted what was best for you in live. Ten seconds of silence. I’ll watch the time.”
And then they sat. An entire theater sitting in silence. And as the seconds ticked by, they began to realize he was serious. They were, for a moment, children in his neighborhood again, and so they did what he’d asked. Some bowed their head as if praying, calling faces to mind. Some began to wipe warm tears away as they remembered those who had loved them into being.
7… 8… 9… 10.
“Whomever you’ve been thinking about,” Mr. Rogers concluded, “how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they have made.”
Who has loved you into being? Who has looked at you through eyes of grace and given you the space to become? Who has loved you and washed your feet? Can you, for a moment, see in yourself the child they saw? Sometimes scared, yes, sometimes hurt… but never any less worthy of being embraced and kissed and helped and having their feet washed.
As you have been loved, go and love one another.
Then they’ll know we’re his disciples.
Now more than ever.