My sermon for Maundy Thursday


Here’s what I said at our Maundy Thursday mass, just before the washing of feet.

John 13.1-17; 31b-35

They’re very popular on TV. Murder mysteries, whodunnits – Poirot, Miss Marple, Midsommer Murders, and more recently the excellent Father Brown. And all the clues are there so that you can work out along with the detective who actually committed the murder. The thing is, unless you’re very good at spotting the clues, you usually end up as baffled as the not very bright policeman and have to have it all explained by the famous detective at the end.

Our reading tonight is rather like that. For most of its existence centuries the church has been remembering the events of the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, and every year we hear this reading from John’s Gospel. When you’ve read it, you have all the information you need to know precisely how Jesus wants you live and behave as Christians. Not so much a ‘whodunnit’ but a ‘how-you-do-it’ with clues to guide you to the right answer.

This is probably the key passage about discipleship and what true discipleship entails. The whole reading is full of clues put there by John – clues you can’t miss – so that those who read this passage will know exactly how you need to live to be a true disciple of Jesus. And yet, despite that, we still have to have it explained because we don’t seem to be able to quite ‘get it.’

There’s a very big clue right at the beginning of our reading – John tells us that: Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

This is about love – love that holds out even when those who are loved don’t understand or even reject it. And this clue is so important. Bear in mind that later Jesus will give the new commandment. And also bear in mind that he loved all his disciples to the end – even Judas. Jesus knew his disciples would, on the whole, desert him. And he loved them to the end. Love has to be unconditional. And to show this on the night before he died, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. This was a supreme act of love, for reasons which we shall see. Afterwards he asked them whether they understood what he had done for them. He wants to know if they’ve ‘got it!’ knowing that they probably haven’t. Peter certainly didn’t get it. He knew, by now, that the disciples were pretty slow on the uptake! And he realised that they had probably missed the clue he was giving them about how to behave towards one another. So he spells it out. “You call me Master and Lord and rightly; so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another’s feet.” He concluded: “I have given you an example; you are to do as I have done for you.”

And so, tonight, we do exactly that. We wash feet – and we do so because Jesus has commanded it. Doing what he commanded his disciples when he said: “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought also to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you should also do as I have done to you”. Centuries ago, in the Middle Ages, the English monarch would wash the feet of twelve beggars. Today the monarch doesn’t do that any more but just gives out small bags of coins, which rather misses the point that Jesus was trying to get across. In the Church it has become, for us, a familiar Holy Week ritual – and here and in churches up and down the country some will join in  while others will sit and watch, and some will stay away because they think they have more important things to do or that it doesn’t really matter. And its familiarity means that its impact is, perhaps, lost. But just cast your minds back to that upper room two thousand years ago. Imagine you are one of the disciples. How do you think they felt, when Jesus washed their feet?

In fact, we do not realise what a staggering thing this must have been for the disciples. Jesus did something unheard of. A servant would pour water over someone’s feet to clean of the dirt and grime – but actually wash them – never. Not even a slave was expected to do this. It’s no wonder that he has to ask them if they understand what he has done for them! For what Jesus did was revolutionary, shocking, and no way for any civilised person to behave – and he asks us to do the same. Often, as Christians, we are called upon to give – of ourselves, of our service, of our possessions. But faced with the challenging of this level of deeply loving and deeply sacrificial service that requires us to reach out to those who may not love in return we start to struggle.

At the Last Supper, Jesus was not merely giving the disciples a lesson in practical humility and mutual service, but was revealing to them the true nature of what it meant to be their Master and Lord. Revealing to them the depth of his love, and therefore the depth to which their love – and our love – for one another must go. For this is all about love! Remember: Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

And so Jesus washed the feet of Peter, and of James and John and of all the others. Just as he knows he wants to wash your feet – to give you an example of how to live. To show you how to live out the new commandment of love. For the love that Jesus showed his disciples, the love that he shows to us, the love that he commands us to show to one another, is a love that will go far beyond the kind of love the world shows. The love that we are to show to one another is not the kind of love that is simply being nice and polite to one another, or doing the odd good turn. It is a sacrificial love that leads you to get down upon your knees at the feet of the person next to you – even when they haven’t asked and even when, like Peter, they say no, and even when you really don’t like them that much, or they don’t really like you. Because that is true love – the kind of love demonstrated by Jesus.

And just in case you’re thinking that surely not everyone needs to go quite that far, John provides us with another glaryingly obvious clue to what Jesus is saying about true discipleship. Jesus says, just to make sure that his disciples have got the message: “Servants are not greater than their master.” Just in case, Jesus is saying, you haven’t quite got your mind round all this yet – I have just got down on my hands and knees and washed your feet, a task no servant would ever be expected to perform. I’ve done that as an example to you of how I expect you to show your love to one another – don’t ever think for a minute that you can expect anything easier.

And this brings us to our third clue – Jesus says: “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.”

Have you ever wondered what that was about? Because at one level loving one another wasn’t really new at all. Love was at the heart of the Jewish Law, after all, even though people often seemed to miss the point. Loving one another wasn’t a new concept for Jews. But John tells us that the love that Jesus is talking about is a new kind of love – he has shown that in the way that he has behaved. For Jesus shows us a different way – one which starts from a shared vulnerability. One which allows God to kneel at our feet and wash them. One which then calls us to live out that life of commitment to one another. One in which love is not an emotion, but lived out in active service of one another.

For this is the new commandment of Jesus. And if we love like that, then people will know that we are disciples of Jesus. And this new kind of love, this radical kind of discipleship that Jesus requires, is where the clues given by John point. Is it easy? Of course not – it’s something we all find difficult and have to work at, but this is the new commandment and not the new suggestion of Jesus.

Three clues in our reading – and there are others if you look for them – that tell us, if we are prepared to take note, what Jesus wants of his disciples. Not what he suggests, but what he wants.

Clue one – Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. He knew most of them would reject him, desert him. As a disciple of Jesus can you love others to end, even when they don’t love you back?

Clue two – A servant is not greater than his master. As a disciple of Jesus, can you accept that ultimately you must be prepared to accept a life of service and humility as he did?

Clue three – Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. As a disciple of Jesus can you demonstrate through humility and service and sacrifice the love that Jesus shows you?

For ultimately the clues that John provides us with present us with only one result – following Jesus means accepting the cost of the love he has shown us and doing what he commands.

Our mass here on Maundy Thursday, with its ceremony of the footwashing and the procession to the altar of repose, which represents the Garden of Gethsemane, looks forward to tomorrow’s commemoration of the cost of the new commandment. We are called to serve one another – to love and be loved as Jesus taught us and showed us. And we are called to accept the cost of that love and service – the cost of taking up our cross and following Jesus on his journey of suffering. Tonight we come to terms with the reality that Jesus wants to wash our feet – and tomorrow we come to terms with the reality that the cost of presenting the world with this new way of love and service meant. Today it is your feet that he wants to wash, tomorrow it is your sin that he will die for, and as he promised the disciples, it is you for whom he will conquer death. And after that? It’s you that he commands to walk in his footsteps.