First Reading Exodus 12:1-4 [5-10] 11-14
God commands Israel to celebrate the Passover supper, in remembrance of his saving power and to identify them as his people.
Second Reading 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Paul records how Jesus commanded his followers to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, in remembrance of his saving death.
Gospel John 13:1-17. 31b-35
At the Last Supper Jesus also commanded his followers to serve one another lovingly, as he had loved them, to identify themselves as his disciples.
HOMILY “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
For us Christians, these few days from Maundy Thursday to Easter Day are the absolute core of Christian faith, worship and life! The priority to love is placed right at the heart of our Christian call to discipleship as we follow the way of Jesus Christ, the way of the cross. There is nothing more important for us today than demonstrating our discipleship in loving service, in this community of Thorpe in which we are planted, our Diocese of Guildford where we serve, and in the wider world well beyond. It is in this context of service that we read today’s Gospel, set at the Last Supper, which our beautifully embroidered altar hanging reminds us of: the Twelve gathered with Jesus to break bread and learn from the Lord of love. While all the other Gospels record the origins of the Eucharist, John chooses to focus on an aspect of the gathering that would transform the meaning of service as Jesus teaches his disciples, and that is us today, about the greatest commandment of all: love. And for them to truly understand how important love really is, Jesus demonstrates it in action.
The usual interpretation of this foot-washing scene is that it promotes service of others, in imitation of Jesus and indeed it does, in a practical example of the “new commandment” that Jesus gives afterwards: to love one another as he loves us. But the emphasis here on love is even more than action, for it is the whole meaning of his life, ministry and death. The servant-King not only kneels to wash feet – meekness and majesty all at once – but he then humbles himself and accepts the humiliation of the cross, while all the time opening wide his arms in embrace of us. God with us, among us, loving us, even to death – love in action.
It is no accident that Jesus chooses to use water – cleansing – to illustrate his point. The washing of tired, dirty feet is symbolic of more than just hard work and relaxation. The cleaning mirrors that of baptism, the washing away of sins, and our need for purity. And Jesus had a gift for choosing the most telling way to demonstrate and teach. Note his telling conversation with Peter in which our Lord draws a comparison between a complete bath and the washing of dusty feet: “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” (John 13: 10) Whatever Peter’s reasons for objecting (whether shocked by Jesus humbling himself, or merely offended that Jesus should think his feet are dirty!), his Lord and Teacher seizes on the teaching opportunity. But it is all about something much more important: the commandment to love. “After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?”’ (John 13:12) We too may wonder – what has Jesus done and why? But we only need to reflect upon his whole ministry to understand, starting with his baptism by John in the river Jordan.
Through baptism, totally immersed or symbolically splashed as we do it here at St Mary’s, we believe that Christ cleanses us of our sin. The going down into the water three times is symbolic of Jesus who will go down into the tomb on Good Friday. But then, in baptism we rise again with him, cleansed by the power of his death and resurrection that together triumph over sin. Yet we all know that our daily lives are not totally free of sin. As we walk through the world, our feet pick up the dirt of doubt, anger, selfishness, jealousy and so much more. Our most damaging sin as disciples is an inability to love others and allow people to love us for who we are and who God has made us to be.
Tonight is our opportunity to be cleansed of all that holds us back. All we need to do is allow Jesus to wash away these impurities, in penitence and prayer. We don’t need to be baptised again, for we have already been spiritually buried, cleansed in baptism. No, we need to recall the priority of our faith and renew our commitment to discipleship, to service. And we start with love.
Every day we meet people as we journey through life. Many will be little more than acquaintances. Some will become friends. Some are family. Some are neighbours. Most of those people won’t know that we attend church for worship. Those people we meet can’t see that we’ve been baptised, and if they’re not in church they can’t see us sharing Holy Communion either. So, what then really identifies us as Christians to the outside world? Simply, it is the practical outworking of our faith, loving others as God loved us in Jesus. It is discipleship and it is what our Lord means when he says: “Whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” (John 13: 20).
So, the question we should ask this Holy Week is simple: Following the example of our servant-King Jesus, how can we show that same love for others that Jesus showed us? Do we demonstrate through loving service that we are his disciples? We start from where we are – as members of the Church. All that we should be about can be summed up in the greatest commandment, to love. And we put that love into action through loving service. To identify ourselves as our Lord’s disciples takes more than baptism and Holy Communion, although regular attendance at worship and supporting the church family is a good start. To be a disciple today requires a readiness to listen to others and to celebrate difference, loving unconditionally, as Jesus taught, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) Friends, it takes genuine humility to allow our feet to be washed by someone else. Yet that is nothing, compared with the call by Jesus to truly love others in action! Jesus washed the feet of all the disciples: the beloved disciple and the headstrong Peter – even Judas – yes, even the one who was to betray him. All are welcome around his table and we need to go from here to demonstrate that loving service in our lives and everything that we say and do. Meekness and majesty. Love in action. Amen.