What Wondrous Love Is This? Maundy Thursday

What Wondrous Love Is This? Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday: April 1, 2021

Year B: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:1, 10:-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b:-35

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“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully,” or, as we’re used to hearing, “he loved them to the end.” Though this verse isn’t quoted as often as John 3:16, it conveys the heart of the Gospel—the Good News of God’s unconditional love for humankind.

This night begins the three high holy days of the Christian year, the Triduum. We mark this night with a variety of rituals that help us enter the great Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

This year, as we are in our second Covid-affected Lent, many communities will not physically share communion, much less wash feet, due to the proximity necessarily involved. But as I celebrate spiritual communion from home this evening, I will maintain these Maundy Thursday traditions. I will symbolically wash my feet as I would wash the feet of folks who attend the Maundy Thursday service. I will strip the altar that is here in my home, leaving the table bare and empty.

I do that tonight because it reminds me of the overwhelming gift of love Jesus offers his disciples in the Gospel we hear

The foot-washing ritual, perhaps more than any other ritual, evokes strong feelings in many. It makes some people very uncomfortable. Rest assured, this discomfort is not only a contemporary phenomenon: you can hear that discomfort in tonight’s Gospel reading. But the reasons for the discomfort are somewhat different.

In Jesus’ time, foot washing was an act of hospitality in dusty Palestine, where everyone wore sandals. You’d enter someone’s home, be greeted with a bow, maybe a kiss, and then have a lowly servant bring water to wash your feet. In the Gospel, what Peter and the others are uncomfortable with isn’t the gesture of foot-washing—that was standard practice – but who was washing their feet. Jesus, the Holy One of God, the Lamb of God, the I AM—harkening back to God’s name revealed in the Burning Bush—who is the light of the world, bread of life, the true vine, the good shepherd, the way, the truth, the resurrection and the life. So, it was very disorienting for the disciples to have Jesus, the Son of God, strip down, don a towel, and kneel to wash their feet.

But Jesus is showing his disciples–all of them, including the denier Peter and the betrayer Judas – what it is to love them to the end, to love fully. What wondrous love is this?

We are taken aback by foot-washing for all kinds of reasons. We might not be used to people washing our feet. We might be ashamed of our feet for any number of reasons and not want them to be washed, especially by someone as important as Jesus or as close to us as a close friend.

But understanding that fear is a central task in our Christian pilgrimage to love God, love our neighbor, and love ourselves.

Because Maundy Thursday is quite truly a love story. A story of God’s love for God’s people. There is no better night in all of our church year to experience God’s desire to heal our human shame than Maundy Thursday.

On Maundy Thursday, we meet Jesus who invites us to his table, who takes the form of a servant, who washes our feet. We look down upon him awkwardly from our chairs, worrying if he smells our feet, or is grossed-out by the calluses. He isn’t. He takes our feet gently, sees them for what they are, and washes them clean.

We meet Jesus who breaks bread with us, shares wine with us, and assures us that we are always welcome as we are: frail, vulnerable, sinners.

We meet Jesus who shows us what it is to be blessed, to get down on our knees before others who bear their own shame, who are imperfect, who are embarrassed, who feel unworthy, and wash their feet with the same gentle acceptance and clear-eyed love.

We meet Jesus who washes even Judas’ feet, who shares bread and wine even with Judas.

Jesus emptied himself and acted out of love to heal. This way of responding to people, this loving those who hated him upset the status quo so much that the Roman officials decided their only choice was to kill him.

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”[1] We, friends, are among “his own.” He loves each one of us “to the end” and bids us love another.

In the end, I am reminded that there are no great theological treatises that we must engage in tonight. What we have to do is marvel at Jesus’ love for us.

What wondrous love is this?

As we share with one another the love of this Maundy Thursday service, I can’t help but be reminded of the words of actor Martin Sheen who is well known for his faith. He was interviewed by Krista Tippett in her “On Being” program, which is on NPR on Sunday mornings. He said, “How can we understand these great mysteries of the church? – I don’t have a clue. I just stand in line and say, Here I am, I’m with them, the community of faith. This explains the mystery, all the love. Sometimes I’m just overwhelmed, just watching people in line. It’s the most profound thing. You just surrender yourself to it.”

Surrender yourself to it. Tonight, and every night, surrender yourself to the mystery, to the love of Jesus Christ.

[1] John 13:1, New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”)