I still remember vividly the first Episcopal Maundy Thursday service I attended. It was probably in 1992. I had begun attending an Episcopal Church in a city north of Boston earlier that year and for whatever reason I decided to check out the service that Thursday. I’m glad I did. Together with the Great Vigil of Easter that I attended two nights later, that experience of Holy Week made me an Episcopalian.
The drama of tonight’s liturgy is overwhelming. From the intimate, and offensive act of washing each other’s feet, to the remembering, the anamnesis of the Last Supper, to the end of the service as the nave and chancel darken and the clergy, assisting ministers, and altar guild strip the altar and the chancel of all adornment while the congregation recites Psalm 22, we progressively prepare ourselves to enter into Jesus’ story as he walks from Gethsemane to his death and burial. As we worship, our own defenses are stripped away, even as the altar is stripped and we walk with him on his journey and remember his suffering, death, and self-sacrifice.
But this evening is not Good Friday and while the cross looms over all that we do tonight, we are here for other reasons; above all to commemorate the last meal Jesus shared with his friends. Tonight’s gospel is the version of the last supper as recorded in John’s gospel. Unlike the other gospels, John does not relate the first Eucharist. Instead, he focuses on another symbolic action of deep meaning, an act that sets the stage for Jesus’ lengthy conversation with his disciples.
Up to this point in John’s gospel, Jesus has been clear that “his hour had not yet come. But now is the time. The description in the first few verses makes clear the change in tone as well as Jesus’ certainty about what is going to happen. It also says plainly for the first time something else: that Jesus loved his disciples. In fact, he loved them to the end.
“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” It’s a surprising and strange little sentence. On the one hand, we probably think it’s self-evident that Jesus loved “his own” that is, his disciples. On the other hand, what might it mean that he loved them to the end?
Well, the Greek word translated as “end” has several different connotations or meanings. It could very well, and probably does, mean that Jesus loved them to the very end, that is to say throughout the coming days, his arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection. In case that’s not meaningful or powerful enough for you, there’s another possible connotation. The Greek word is telos, and while it does mean in “end” in the sense of ending, it can also mean purpose. Most interesting of all, perhaps, is that the same word is at the root of Jesus’ very last word from the cross in John’s gospel, “It is finished.”—which might better read, “it is accomplished or completed.” And just a further note about all of this. In chapter 12, when the Greeks came to Philip asking to see Jesus, Jesus responded by saying, “My hour has not yet come.” Now, of course the hour is here.
All that’s made clear in the very next verse. After reminding us that Judas was about to betray him, the gospel writer continues, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.”
Ponder that a moment. The gospel writer is clearly setting the stage. Just a chapter earlier, we’re reminded that the hour for Jesus’ glorification had not yet come. Now, we’re told that it has come, that Jesus knows this. We’re also told that Jesus loved his disciples to the very end, presumably even the one who was about to betray.
Knowing all that—we readers of the gospel know all of that—but Jesus knows it as well. Knowing all that, perhaps because he knew all of that, that his hour had come, that Judas was about to betray him, Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, tied a towel around himself and began to wash the disciples’ feet.
I’ve read and studied this gospel for years. I’ve preached on Maundy Thursday numerous times, though not in the past few years, and I had never made the connection between what we’re told Jesus knows, and his actions that occur immediately upon that knowledge. I mean what would be the first thing you did when you learned of an impending arrest and likely execution? Run and hide of course, but even if you were able to put your affairs in order, make your farewells with your closest friends, what other actions would you take?
Well, we know what Jesus did. Knowing all this, that Judas was about to betray him, that he had come from God and was going to God, knowing all this, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, all of them, even the feet of his betrayer.
It is in act of profound humility and great intimacy. It is offensive on many levels, as Peter expresses when he resists Jesus. For a teacher, a master, to wash the feet of one’s disciples, for a host to abase himself to wash the feet of his dinner guests, was unthinkable. It still is. For a human being to touch, to wash, the feet of another, while it might have been customary in first-century Palestine for a servant to wash the feet of his master’s guests, it wasn’t then, nor could it be imagined now, as something two relative equals would do.
But Jesus did it. He did it to demonstrate something about himself and his ministry. He did it to teach his followers. As much as the cross represents Christianity and Christ’s love for the world, the towel and basin are a symbol of Jesus’ ministry. They are also a symbol of our own calling as Jesus’ disciples.
That simple act, that towel and basin, show us what and who we are called to be and to do: humbly, intimately, to serve others. Humbly, intimately, to love one another. The towel and basin are as much a symbol and demonstration of Christ’s love as the cross. The towel and basin are a symbol of our commitment to follow Jesus. This evening’s gospel concludes with the familiar commandment of love:
“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.”
We see and know Christ’s love in his crucifixion, as his outstretched arms embrace the world and draw the world to himself. It is a love so great, so amazing, that we can do little more than receive it. But we also see his love in that humble and intimate gesture when he girded himself in a towel and washed his disciples’ feet. That may be no easier to comprehend than the cross, but it is an act we can imitate in so many ways. And when we do, when we show forth our love, in humility and intimacy, we make Christ’s love present in the world.