Jesus institutes the blessed sacrament, but the Gospel reading is from earlier in the evening. Only recorded in John’s Gospel – Jesus gets up, takes off his outer garments, and begins washing their feet. Later, his garments will be taken from him. But, just as we see in our Gospel reading, that is Jesus, willingly laying them aside, in order to serve. Here he takes the task of the lowliest servant on himself. And yet, this is an exalted position compared to the one he is about to take. The servant’s place is still preferable to the place of the blood sacrifice. Jesus loved his own to the end. It was that love that drove him to the cross, that brought about the cry, “It is finished.”
Here, as symbol of that love, Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. Jesus gets to Peter, and Peter is scandalized by this. Jesus will never be killed. Neither will he ever wash Peter’s feet. Pre-resurrection, Peter tends to assume that he gets to tell God what he will and will not do. Peter thinks he is being supportive, that he is offering help. But he does not yet understand the things of God. Jesus must wash him if he is to be cleansed. Just as Jesus must die if anyone will be saved. Jesus even washes the feet of the one who will betray him. The offer of salvation is for all. It is the fault of the sinner who refuses to repent if he rejects the gift Christ offers. Judas heard, he knew. But he refused to listen, to hear, to believe. He hardened his own heart, and so received the due reward for his deeds.
The other disciples however, were cleansed. Jesus made them clean. Not only their feet. But he cleansed them of their sin. He cleansed their conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
The Word Maundy (not “Monday Thursday” but “Maundy Thursday”) it comes from the Latin “Mandatus” Mandate. It is because we hear the new command given by our Lord. We are to love one another, as he has loved us.
Love is the fulfillment of the law. It is not romantic. It does not seek it’s own advantage. Love is seen most clearly in Jesus – who went to death for his enemies, in order that they might be saved. He reconciled himself to you through that sacrifice. That is what true Love is. Not just dying to save a loved one. Dying even to save an enemy. The disciples are the friends of Jesus, and Jesus lays down his life for them, because of his love, not theirs. They are, by nature sinful and unclean. They are enemies of God. Jesus even washes Judas’ feet. Jesus even dies for Judas’ sin. It is Judas who rejects the sacrifice of Jesus, who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit. Who earned his own condemnation.
Peter on the other hand, hears the word, and believes. He receives the forgiveness of Jesus. And he will need it. He will deny Jesus three times. But Jesus died, even for that sin, even for that blaspheme. That is true love. And that is what we are commanded this night to be a part of. To love as Christ loved us. To be willing to lay down our lives, not just for friends, or for duty or honor. But for enemies. To be willing to be reviled and rejected by the very people we would save. That is Christ-like love.
And thanks be to God it is. Otherwise we would be eternally condemned. Our salvation is only and ever because of what he has done for us. And tonight, on this most holy of nights, when our Lord is betrayed, he not only shows us what true servanthood is. He shows us the end and the goal of his death. The body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.
Normally, after receiving the sacrament, we sing. The confession of Simeon, who touched the Lord God, who held him in his hands as God had promised, and now praises God that he can depart this world in peace. And then we pray. Tonight we don’t do those things. We do them again on Sunday. Tonight we move immediately to the betrayal. To the suffering and death of Jesus. The altar is laid bare. The finery of the church removed. Just as Jesus is stripped of his garments, so the altar is stripped of her adornments.
And we wait to hear that word of benediction, of blessing, until after we have heard the angels announce the joyous news. Tonight we wait for that. The service, as it were, does not end, but continues straight through until Easter. These are holy days, when we keep vigil. When we are in the Word and Prayer. When we hear again of the death of Christ.
But tonight, we hear some of Jesus final words – final instructions. And they match up almost exactly with what we pray when we receive the blessed sacrament. When we taste the most holy body and blood of our Lord.
We give thanks for the pardon and peace of the sacrament. The forgiveness of sins, life and salvation given when the body of Christ touches our sin-parched lips. The new life we are given when we take the lifeblood of Jesus into ourselves. His life is now our life. And the forgiveness he won in his death is now given to you, so that no accusation of sin may be brought against God’s elect.
We pray that we would not be forsaken. That God would keep us – as he has promised to do. And that we would be strengthened so that we do not abandon him, that we do not betray him by our unholy living. Rather, we pray that we would be given the Holy Spirit, so that we may be enabled constantly to serve him.
We have just heard how he serves us. We are about to be served again by him in the supper. It would seem as if God does all the serving here. How can we serve or offer anything to God? Anything we offer he gave us first. Like the toddler who wants to share a soggy bit of cereal with his parent. Any gift we give to God can be nothing more than that. He does not need our praise. He is already glorious, and surrounded by the angels. He does not need our songs or our prayers – although he commands we offer them anyway. Even our most dear and richest possessions were gift. Our life we could offer as forfeit, but that would be giving him a portion of something he gave to us.
And so, how do we serve God? We praise him, and hear his word. Believe that promise of forgiveness for Jesus sake. And then show love to our neighbor. That word “neighbor” is an important one. As the Lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” It is all those God places in our life, all those whom we meet according to our various callings. Siblings, classmates, co-workers, spouses, children, our family, employers, there are so many people in a lifetime, it’s hard to name them all. But the goal is always to serve them, as Christ served us. To show them the love that he showed to you. Of course, that doesn’t mean finding a cross and nailing yourself to it. Rather, using whatever you have to show love to others. To bring to them the love of Christ which you yourselves have received. Whether it be through physical help – as Jesus does in our Gospel reading with the disciples feet – or through the Word of God spoken to them, so that they might also hear and receive the gift of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. That is the example Christ sets before us. That we would look first and foremost to him, and receive through him the gift of salvation, that we would be made children of our Heavenly Father, that we would fear love and trust in him above all things, and respond to him with our prayers and praises. And that we would love our neighbor as ourselves. That we would not seek our own gain, but would seek the good of our neighbor, for Jesus sake.
On this night, when our Lord was betrayed, and later denied, when Judas was lost, and later Peter restored, we confess our sins, come humbly before the throne of grace to receive the forgiveness Jesus offers at his holy table. And we pray that we would be found faithful, that we would not turn away from the Lord at our last hour, but that we would endure all things in this world, and even death to this world, trusting and resting in the wounds of our Savior. The wounds from which his blood flowed. The same blood offered here for you, for the forgiveness of your sins.