Everywhere we turn, we hear about how divided we are as a nation. During the confirmation hearings for judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, we learned how in years past the Senate often supported candidates for the Supreme Court regardless of who nominated them. The late Justice Antonin Scalia—a champion for the conservative side—received a vote of 98-0 in the Senate. His good friend and progressive icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed by a vote of 96-3. Justice-elect Brown was confirmed on a “bipartisan” vote of 53-47. Newscasters describe states as “red,” “blue,” or “purple” depending on our voting records. Racial disparities have become increasingly prominent in the wake of George Floyd’s murder nearly two years ago, as well as the sharp disparity of the impact of Covid-19 among wealthy and poor communities in our nation. Hate crimes have risen in our country recently, and in particular crimes based on ethnic, religious, and sexual identity. Friends, we are divided, and collectively we despise each other.
A Maundy Thursday sermon based on John 13.
Which is a hard reality when we gather on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week. The word “maundy” is taken from the latin phrase “mandautum novum”—translated “new commandment” in English—to remind us that this day is about that command from Jesus at the end of our gospel lesson. “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.” Over the course of a couple of sentences, Jesus says the word love multiple times and implores his followers to love each other just as he had shown them love.
But we all know how easy it is to find people not to love. Those on the other side of the political aisle. The guy on the MassPike weaving in and out of traffic. The teacher who can’t give our kid a break. The co-worker who pushes all our buttons. Those people—the ones we hold in contempt—we do not care for them. We do not even tolerate them. We arrange our lives to avoid them at all costs, and when we do have to interact, the conversations are short and icy. It’s quite clear, we do not love those we despise.
On his last night on earth, Jesus doesn’t just tell the disciples they should love, he shows them what it actually looks like. He takes off his outer clothing, wraps a towel around his waist, and grabs a basin of water. Jesus takes the role of a servant while offering hospitality and welcome to the disciples to the final meal they would share together. He kneels before his friends, inviting them to remove their sandals so he could wash their feet.
And those feet would have been pretty dirty. Imagine walking around on dusty roads in only a pair of sandals all day. By the evening, there would be a tremendous amount of dirt and grime on those feet. Think of a kid playing outside all day in the summer, when dirt appears everywhere. Their feet needed a good washing. And Peter, when he sees Jesus doing this, doesn’t get it at all. He doesn’t want this one he has followed to debase himself in the role of the servant by stripping down to his undergarments and offering to do such a menial task. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet” he asks. Jesus tells Peter that he doesn’t understand just yet, but he will. But Peter’s having nothing to do with it. “You will never wash my feet,” he exclaims. Jesus is trying to show Peter the power of love, but Peter doesn’t understand. It’s only after Jesus tells Peter that unless he allows him to wash his feet he will have no place in his kingdom that Peter relents.
Jesus is teaching Peter and the others the depth of his love, a love he wants them to emulate. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a 1957 sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, said, “We must discover the power of love, … the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make this old world a new world. We will be able to make men better. Love is the only way.” “Everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another.” Self-giving love when you take the role of the servant, that’s the way to show that you follow Jesus.
But it’s not just Peter’s ignorance that we see on display. John mentions that Judas is there at the table with him too. I have a large print in my study of this scene painted by Ford Maddox Brown in 1852. It’s titled, ‘Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet.” Jesus kneels before Peter and is gently drying Peter’s right foot, the left still in the bowl. Peter himself is looking down, clearly very uncomfortable with the whole thing. We can see the other disciples around the table, trying to figure all of this out, some looking confused, others whispering to each other. But there’s one who’s shown right behind Jesus, and he is reaching down, beginning to untie his own sandals. It’s Judas. We know this because Brown placed the money bag on the table in front of him. John tells us that Jesus knows that Judas will betray him, yet he washes his feet too. Theologian Francis J. Moloney writes, “In the midst of ignorance, misunderstanding, and the threat of betrayal, Jesus indicates the depth of his love for his own by washing their feet.” (375)
Jesus knows exactly what Judas is about to do, and he washes his feet anyway. And then he says to them all, “I have set you an example, that you should also do as I have done to you. Servants are not greater than their masters, nor messengers greater than the one who sent them, If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” If you understand all this about embracing self-giving love—even to those who could be viewed as your enemies—then you’ll be blessed when you do it. You’ll be blessed when you enact it. You’ll be blessed when you love others in this same way.
Because no matter how divided we are, we can still choose love. No matter how much we are pitted against one another, we can embody the way of Jesus. That sermon preached by Dr. King was simply titled, “Loving Your Enemies.” When we discover the redemptive power of love that Jesus displayed for us when he took that towel and knelt before his disciples, we will be able to make this old world a new one. We will be able to make each other better. For love is the only way. Let us wholeheartedly embrace that new commandment, because it is only when we do that others will know that we truly follow Jesus the Christ. Amen.