Maundy Thursday (April 9, 2020)
“Behold the Man: A God Who Loves”
Children know the song: “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” Every power is at His disposal. Every authority under heaven and earth is His. He has created everything. And He holds everything in His eternal hands. And now, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”
Jesus holds the whole world in His hands. And what will He do with those hands? He will remove the garments with which He, the eternal God, is clothed. Lay them aside, take up a bowl of water, untie the sandal straps of his disciples, and take into His divine hands their scummy, dirty, travel-worn feet. And wash them. He’s got the whole world in His hands. And He knows that the Father has given all things into His hands. So He takes into His hands the filthy feet of the men who have walked with Him day after day.
God has hands. This is not metaphorical language. In the Person of Jesus – the Body of the God who has joined Himself to human flesh – God has hands. And feet. And eyes, ears, fingers, lungs, nostrils, teeth, legs, fingernails, and cuticles. And with these, He descends to take up the feet of sinful men into His hands.
You can understand Peter’s protest. His God should not wash his feet. This is unbecoming of a proper God. Gods should be far removed from their creations, distant from the creatures they created, especially if their creatures have rebelled and set themselves against the goodness and graciousness of the god. Gods should not become men, should not unite themselves with sinful humans, should not have human flesh – nor hands – and use those hands to take up the sweaty, sandal-shod feet of the men who follow such an incarnate God and presume to wash the grime from between those toes. “You shall never wash my feet!” You would protest, too, given the opportunity.
But then, Jesus’ reply – “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” – frustrates Peter’s pious pretensions. He relented, but his gut reaction was that this was all wrong. Washing feet is not what the Christ should do … not what a god should do. This is slave labor, a servant’s task. If God descends to take human flesh and then stoops to the lowest position, the foot-washing place, the whole arrangement of the relationship between God and Man is turned upside down.
As if that weren’t enough then, Jesus continues, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” And, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Good grief. As if Christianity weren’t hard enough to buy in to. Now “Do as I have done to you.” And “as I have done” is taking the lowest, most servile position of the foot-washing servant? Love one another like that?
This is painful. You might put up with the command to love others … to a certain point. “Love one another any way you wish,” is the creed of American popular religion. But, “Love as I have loved you?” With a foot-washing, self-deprecating kind of love? No thanks. That’s too much for me.
You know what it means to love others as you wish to be loved. But to love as Jesus loves you? To love selflessly and sacrificially? That’s a tall order. But Jesus gives this new commandment – this mandatum novum (as it is in Latin), the reason we call today “Maundy Thursday” or “Mandate Thursday” – he gives this new commandment on the night when He is betrayed, given into the hands of sinful men. “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Simple. Do this, Jesus says. Love like this. Like I do. Love those who can never deserve it, those who hate you, who reject you, who betray you, who deny you, who are inclined toward your destruction. Wash their feet. Assume the posture of a servant. Or worse, absolve their sins. Give them forgiveness for sins they could never deserve. Love like that. Okay? “By this all people will know that you are my disciples,” if you have love for one another like this.
This new commandment He gives you: love like this. Love incarnationally. Love as flesh among flesh. Love as sinners among sinners. Love those who cannot and will not ever deserve your love. Love to forgive those who are completely unforgiveable. Love with your hands. Love in order to remove the filth, the guilt, the shame of your brothers and sisters. Love in order to get the dirt of your fellow man onto your own hands so that he might be clean. Love because your love will never be repaid. Love sacrificially. Love and never expect anything in return. Love as I have loved you, Jesus commands.
Ok, then. Who does that? No one. And yet, “As I have loved you,” is pretty absolute. Jesus loves perfectly and doesn’t wait for your love toward others to show His love for you. He loves. If foot washing were the extent of Jesus’ love, that would be difficult enough to emulate. But He doesn’t have hands just to take up His disciples’ grimy feet. He doesn’t have fingers merely as instruments to scrub between their toes. He has the whole world in His hands. And He intends those hands to be nailed to the cross. This is His love.
Behold the Man who loves those who are completely unlovable. Behold the Man who loves those who, in just a short time, will abandon Him, who will flee to save their own lives. Behold the Man who loves the unlovable, the rebellious, the sinful. Behold the Man who loves those who could never deserve it. Behold the Man who is God who, in order to love His creatures perfectly and completely, has become Man. Behold the Man who loves the world completely and perfectly in His death on the cross.
If you want to love like this, like Jesus did, like He commands His disciples to love, you will never get there relying on your own, deficient, selfish love. If you want to love like this, you’ve got to BE loved like this. And you are. And to show his love even further, Jesus gave the fruits of his sacrificial love in His Holy Supper for you to eat and to drink … not tonight because of this blasted virus, but as soon as we can gather together again. You are loved and forgiven now and empowered to love one another. And in an even more personal and real way, the feast of love that Jesus gave to His Church fulfills Jesus’ command to love one another. As you are fed and nourished with the Body and Blood of the only One to ever love like this, you are strengthened, as the liturgy says, in fervent love toward one another. Disciples who feed together on the same loving Lord are united together in love. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
You have fed on his Word tonight. Behold the Man, Christ for you in the Scriptures. At some point in the near future, we will be able to feed on his Body and Blood again where you will behold the Man, Christ for you on this altar. In Word and Sacrament, behold the Man who loves you enough to forgive you freely, fully, week-after-week.
Based on a sermon series by the Rev. Jeff Hemmer