Maundy Thursday 2005
The New Commandment
Sermons year A 2005
It is a pity that so few people tend to come to church on Maundy Thursday. It is the beginning of the most important period in the Church’s year – the climax of Holy Week, when we commemorate the darkness and desolation of the cross, which are followed soon afterwards by the joy and ecstasy of Easter. Services on Easter Day, of course, have always been much better supported; maybe this reflects people’s natural tendency to prefer to have the celebration without the mourning, the light without the darkness, the resurrection without the crucifixion.
Maundy Thursday is a day when several of the things which lie at the heart of our faith come together all at the same time.
- First, the last supper – which became the meal which we re-enact whenever Holy Communion is celebrated.
- Secondly, the giving, by Jesus, of the “New Commandment” – the commandment to “love one another, as I have loved you”, as he said. (This is where the name “Maundy” comes from – from the Latin “mandatum”, which means “commandment”.
- And thirdly, Jesus’ washing of the feet of the disciples. Jesus took a bowl of water and a towel, and bent down to do the task of a slave – washing the dirt and the dust away from his disciples’ feet. This was certainly not something that a teacher, a master, someone with Jesus’ status would normally do. Indeed Peter immediately objected. He didn’t want the person he respected and revered to do something so shameful and humiliating. But Jesus explained that he had to do it – to demonstrate to the disciples how he wanted them to behave towards one another. “If I, your Lord and Master”, he said, “have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example: you are to do as I have done for you”. (John 13. 14-15)
I think we often fail to take seriously enough the true meaning of that self-abasing act of Jesus. How seriously do we take to heart Jesus’ command that we should wash one another’s feet? He didn’t of course mean that we should take this literally, but that we should be to others as he was to his disciples, in other words that we should be servants to others. Indeed he meant even more than this, which is why his action was at first so offensive to Peter – we are called to be as slaves. What, though, does this really mean for us today? It means several things:
- It means that we are to put the well-being of others first. This may seem familiar, but it is a truly radical command. It flies in the face of so much of the culture and the prevailing mindset of today. Jesus was saying that if everyone just looked after their own interests, the world would be a far poorer place – at least in spiritual terms. It means that we can never rest as long as there are those whose needs are greater than our own.
- This may seem hard, but it gets worse. It means that we shouldn’t only help others or meet their needs when we want to, or when it doesn’t put us out too much, or when it’s not too uncomfortable for us, or when we get something back in return. Helping people when there isn’t any reward, or when we are not going to be thanked; doing something for someone simply because they want it, even though we may disagree with what they’re asking; foregoing something ourselves so that others may benefit – this is what it really means to put others first. These things may not be instinctive to us, but they are the route to true self-giving.
- There’s still more to the call to serve which Jesus extends to us: the call to obedience. It cannot have escaped Jesus, or his disciples, that a slave’s life involved total obedience to his master. A slave didn’t just do what he had to do when he felt like it: it was his role to obey at all times. Again, this may seem hard. But it means that God’s call to serve him is non-negotiable. Yes, it helps if we respond to his call readily and willingly: but we must also serve him when we don’t feel like it.
This message is not an easy one in the ‘me first’ world of today. But there’s no getting away from the fact that it the true meaning of what Jesus was doing when he washed his disciples’ feet. We all usually fall far short of this ideal. Which is why it’s so important to remind ourselves of it from time to time, and Maundy Thursday is a good time for doing this. But Jesus knew that the power of service is one of the most powerful forces for good in the world. It is the way of carrying out Jesus’ command to love God and our neighbour; words which we repeat so often in church, but which we so often fail to fulfil.
I don’t want to leave you feeling preoccupied by guilt and inadequacy. All the same, far too many Christians are not honest enough with themselves. There are times for us to be brutal with ourselves about our spiritual life, and face up to the fact that Jesus’ commands are not just optional extras to a conventional and comfortable lifestyle.
I’d like to finish with an example of the power of Jesus’ command to serve others. Just under two weeks ago, a woman called Ashley Smith had been taken hostage in Duluth, Georgia, by a man called Brian Nichols. He had already shot and killed a judge and a Federal agent, and two other people. After having talked with him for a while, Mrs Smith asked if she could read from a book called The Purpose Driven Life, by a Californian minister called Rick Warren. She opened it at the chapter for the day – 33 – in which she found the words , “We serve God by serving others. The world defines greatness in terms of power, prestige, possessions, position. If you can demand service from others, you’ve arrived. In our self-serving culture with its ‘me first’ mentality, acting like a servant is not a popular concept”.
Something about those words – and about the way Ashley Smith had treated him – as a person, not as an ogre – moved Nichols. She told him even he could be God’s servant, telling other people in prison about Jesus. He let her go, and gave himself up.
I don’t know what exactly went through Nichols’ mind when he was moved to give himself up. He certainly had no need to do so – he could quite probably have shot Mrs Smith and got away. Whatever it was, there was something in him which responded to Jesus’ call to serve those around him – and not just to put his own self-interest first. He realised that in spite of all that he’d done, he could still serve God, and his neighbour, even if he was in prison.
The power of service can change lives – and it can change the world. Jesus knew that, and left us that enduring message, a message which we should remember whenever we commemorate the washing of the feet. So may the New Commandment, to love one another as Jesus has loved us, never grow tired and stale; and may it always inspire us with the ideals of love and service which were at the heart of Jesus’ legacy to us and to the world.
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