Maundy Thursday homily – April 9, 2020                  A New Kind of Love[1]

1 Corinthians 11:23-26 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

 (John 13:1-17, 31b-35)  Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, 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. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

31b Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. 32 If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once. 33 Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ 34 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. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (ESV)

 These two passages of Scripture are the traditional Scriptures that we read in the church every Maundy Thursday.  The first one describes the moment when Jesus instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion on the eve of his crucifixion, as he shared his last meal with his disciples.  Tonight we commemorate that Last Supper.

The second reading contains the very words that give us the name for Maundy Thursday.  And that might lead us to ask, what is Maundy Thursday anyway?  We know at least that Maundy Thursday is the Thursday of Holy Week and the day before Good Friday.  So we can say when it is, but we may not be able to say why it is called Maundy Thursday.  What does Maundy mean anyway?  The Latin word “Maundy” is a form of the word ‘mandate’ or ‘commandment.’ We call this day Maundy Thursday because John’s Gospel tells us that on Jesus’ last night with his closest followers, he left them with a new commandment: that they love one another.

If we stop and think about that for a moment, it might make us wonder how the mandate to love one another is new.  After all, the biblical command to love your neighbor, which is pretty much the same thing as to love one another, was not new; it went back thousands of years before the time of Christ.  What, then, did Jesus mean when he said, “a newcommandment I give you, that you love one another?”  We have to read just a little bit further to find out.   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. So Jesus tells his followers that they are to love one another just as he loved them.  That’s the new twist to the old commandment.

In other words, Jesus tell his disciples, you are to love one another in the same way you have seen me demonstrate love to you.  Notice Jesus does not say, love as I tell you to love, but rather, love as I have shown you to love.  As I think about this, it occurs to me that there are three levels of loving others that we might demonstrate.

The first is a selfish kind of love.  In this kind of love we may do loving things for another, we may have fond feelings for another, but it is with an expectation of getting something out of it.  We expect that the loved one will do something for us; that we will receive some kind of benefit for expressing our love.    I think even our love for God often fits in this category.  We hope that in loving God there will be a reward.

The next level of love is what we might call an altruistic love.  That word altruistic means to have completely selfless motives; to be concerned only for the well-being of others.  I oftentimes suspect I do not have an altruistic bone in my body.  Altruistic love is certainly a much higher level of love than a selfish love, but there is an even higher level.

The highest level of love is a sacrificial love.  This is when we love others to our own harm, when love involves personal sacrifice, when it causes us to suffer.  This is the kind of love that Jesus demonstrated, a sacrificial love that caused him to suffer greatly.

And here’s the really incredible thing: Jesus’ suffering wasn’t just an incidental side-effect of loving; he loved the very ones who caused him to suffer.  Jesus knew that Judas, his betrayer was one whose feet he would wash.  Jesus also knew that the rest of his followers around that table would fail him as well in his coming time of trial.  James and John would fail to keep watch and pray with him, Peter would deny him; and the others would abandon him in his darkest hour.  Jesus knew all these things in advance, but that knowledge did not keep Jesus from regarding those followers as his own and loving them to the end.

We share this passage together on this Maundy Thursday evening because it perfectly demonstrates the kind of love Jesus commands his followers to have for one another.  The disciples almost certainly did not get it that night.  In fact Jesus tells them in verse 7, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”  The disciples may have understood that Jesus was providing a model of humility and servanthood for all who would follow him.  But the disciples did not know at this point that Jesus was demonstrating love for one’s enemies.  The disciples knew only that Jesus had washed the feet of his companions, his dinner guests, his friends.

It was only afterward that the disciples would have realized that Jesus knew full well he was washing the feet of those who would soon betray and deny and forsake him.  And he said, this is the kind of love you are to have for one another.

Friends, if you are like me, this command of Jesus can leave you feeling ashamed.  If you are like me, you know you have failed many times to commit the acts of humble service that have presented themselves to you, and you wonder if you have ever even once loved others sacrificially.  Such self-knowledge can be discouraging even to the point of doubting that Jesus could love people who are as selfish as we are.  Yet there is encouragement in this passage as well.  John tells us and Jesus shows us that Jesus loves his own even to the end.  He loves us to the end … of our selfishness and our cowardice and even our betrayal and denial of him.

John’s Gospel is the only one that does not describe and institute the Lord’s Supper, but we know from the other three Gospels that after washing his disciples’ feet that night, Jesus told them that the Passover bread was his body, and the wine was his blood that he would give on their behalf.  It is good for us to remember the ones who were there to hear Jesus say those words that night.  Jesus gave his body and blood for those who would deny, forsake and betray him.

In our words of confession and pardon, we often say, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  Jesus gave his life for us not because we are worthy, selfless, faithful, humble or good, but because we are his own, and because he loves us to the end.

On this night we remember the new kind of love that Jesus demonstrated toward us.  Jesus gave his body to free us from slavery to sin and death.  He sealed the new covenant with his blood such that it can never be broken by our sin and our shame.  We belong to the Lord, who died for us so that we might live.  We are his own, and he loves us to the end.  May we show ourselves to be his disciples by the way we love one another in his name.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] Some insights for this message were derived from Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.  274-279.