By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
May 19, 2019
John 13:31–35 (ESV)
A New Commandment
31 When he had gone out, 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.”
Living the Christian life is one of the most difficult simple things to do. Yes, that sounded like terrible grammar because it probably is. The basics of Christianity are simple: Love God, Love your Neighbor as yourself. Three things, that is it. Love God. Love Yourself. Love your neighbor. Three very basic things that should not be that difficult, but have you tried it? We might get one or two pretty good, but all three is very difficult to get all the time.
Today we meet with Jesus and his disciples in the upper room, on the Thursday evening before his arrest. This day in the history of the church is called Maundy Thursday. Maundy is one of those wonderful words that very few of us know the meaning of anymore. Since most of us only see it in relation to Holy week services, if at all, we assume it might mean something like mourning. It really means feast, so the day is feast day, or the day we remember the celebration of the last feast Jesus shared with his disciples. There are many important events occurred during this feast. And some of them have been made into ritualistic sacraments that many celebrate during their meetings for worship, but it is important to remember the meaning behind those rituals.
The first event that occurred this day was Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. This is one of the most profound of the events because of its oddity. In ancient cultures to touch a person’s foot was not something that you would want to do. They did not have wonderfully constructed footwear as we have today with memory foam insoles and arch support. In ancient times you would be lucky to have something covering the sole of your foot at all, and if you did have something on your feet it would likely be in an open sandal form. They are walking around with next to nothing on their feet and they did not have the extent of pavement that we enjoy today, so they often walked through dirt. If you happened to live in an area that had stone walkways you were lucky to an extent. I say to an extent because there was always the chance that some beast of burden had passed by before you, leaving evidence behind. There is also a good chance that there was raw sewage running along the roadway as well, because not all areas had the hygienic improvements of roman civil engineering. Those that traveled these ancient pathways had dirty, disgusting feet. Imagine walking into a house or place of business with your feet caked in this mix of mud and other refuse. People often get upset if you walk with your shoes on their carpets today, but we can remove our shoes, your feet need to stay attached. The remedy to this problem was to provide a servant to wash the feet of the family and guests.
The servant that washed the feet was considered the lowest of all the servants in the household. They were dirty lowly servants. Jesus took on that role. This act is something that most of us cannot even fathom let alone participate in. If I were to bring out a bowl to wash feet most if not all of us would hesitate. We hesitate because we are self-conscience of ourselves and we do not want to reveal our feet to people around us. This hesitation is not felt by others of the Christian faith, in many churches the priest or pastor will wash the feet of their congregations during the Holy week service of Maundy Thursday, and in many Anabaptist traditions they regularly included this ceremony with the next sacrament we will briefly discuss.
The washing of the disciples’ feet gave them something important to consider. Their teacher is washing their feet. The highest, most prominent member of their small social group took on the role of the lowest. This act is one of service and submission, it is physically showing those around that I am lower than the one whose feet I am touching. The disciples like many of us hesitated and refused, but Jesus told them that they either let him serve them or they would have nothing to do with him. Peter then boldly said, “Not just my feet but my head and hands as well.” Jesus responded to Peter’s outburst by says his body is clean and just the feet need washed. So, this act of washing feet, has been associated with the cleansing of daily transgressions and is often used as a symbolic act of repentance and reconciliation. It is a beautiful and humbling ceremony.
After Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, he asked them to explain what he had done for them. They must have stared blankly at him in shock, because John does not record a response. Jesus then answers his own question by explaining to them that they call him teacher and lord, but he washed their feet as their servant. He is master and servant. He then says a servant is not greater than the master, and we should do as he has done. The point is that we are to serve those around us. Get down in the dirt, getting our hands dirty with everyone else. In the business world this servant leadership is so important that you can get a master’s degree learning the techniques. I will give you the education today for free. A leader should be willing to do anything and everything they ask those they lead to do. No job is above or beneath anyone. A CEO should be willing to scrub the toilets and the janitor should be willing to step up and help wherever they are needed. This is the way Jesus encourages us to live.
After this profound teaching, they begin their meal. It is important to remember that this is an actual feast. It is the Jewish celebration of Passover, so there are very important symbolic foods around. We focus mainly on the bread and wine because that is what is mentioned but there is also lamb, apples, bitter herbs, vegetables, and a hard-boiled egg. Each of these foods have a meaning and how they are eaten has meaning as well. Jesus takes the bread; they would have at least three pieces of bread on the table because they have three bread rituals. The first is just eating the bread, then they eat the bread dipped in the bitter herbs, then they eat bread making a sandwich with the bitter herbs and the other foods. I have only read about the meal I personally have not had the pleasure of participating in one myself, but I find it interesting that the dipping of bread is mentioned in John’s gospel account. The rituals around the eating of the bread tell the history of Israel, and Jesus says this is my body broken for you. He is saying that he is the bread, he is the fulfillment of Israel, that he is taking all that history and future on himself. All that brokenness and sorrow, all the bitter experiences, all the pains, as well as the hope and pleasure. This seeming simple staple of life is him.
John’s account of the feast does not mention the wine, but in the Passover meal they drink four cups of wine. There are several understandings as to why they have four cups dealing with the sorrows placed on Israel during their captivity or the exiles that the Israelite people have faced. In the other gospel accounts Jesus says that the wine is his blood spilled for you. While they drink these cups of wine, they recount their history and at certain points in the story they spill some of the wine, because they do not want to ingest the words. Again, I have only read about the meal I have not participated so I cannot say this for certainty, but I find it interesting. Jesus is taking on those things we spill it and he is the spillage. That which they cannot ingest he takes for them.
The bread and the wine have become a ritual to many, but the meaning is much deeper. The staples of life have meaning, and we need to remember and share the meaning, both the hope and the sorrows. From the moment after Jesus washes the disciples’ feet until the time, he goes to the garden to pray, every word spoken could be attached to some aspect of the Passover feast. Jesus is attaching his story to that meal. He is taking all the history of Israel on himself and telling his disciples that he is their history and their future. This is the mindset of those at the table when Jesus speaks the words of today’s passage.
He had just washed their feet; their master became their servant. He had begun the Passover feast, uttering the words required and expending on the story with his fresh teaching. And that teaching is what we begin with today. “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. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
A new commandment I give to you, love one another. We look at the word new and we think that it means something different, something that will replace the old. If we were to look up this word, we would find that it can mean many things, but unseen is one of those meanings. Unseen in the since that it was not often practiced. Jesus did not give one single command that was not already present in the scripture, when he says new, he is simply emphasizing it in a way the established religion failed to recognize. Its new, like new math its still math just looking at it differently and often hard to understand if we are used to doing things the old ways.
After siting with new for a moment I looked up commandment. When we hear the word commandment we often think of law. Which it is, but it is so much more than just law. We live in a nation where we have the rule of law. Which means that our civil society is structured in such a way that we can know what is acceptable or not. We call that rule of law the constitution. If we want to simplify constitutional law to the very basics, the constitution is what our government cannot do, or the commandments. Included in our constitution is something we call the “bill of rights”. These are the things that our government really cannot do. Torah in many ways is the basic framework of Israel’s civil society. It is telling them the boundaries of what they can and cannot do, as a nation and as individuals. There is something about these documents that we often fail to consider, they do not hold us back but instead they should encourage and direct us. If governments can’t do these things, that gives us the freedom to fulfill the needs ourselves. They are our rights. And that is how commandment can be seen, not just rules but rights, not just orders but also commission, not just commanded order but disciplined instruction. Jesus is saying we have the right to love one another. We have the commission to love one another. We have the instruction to love one another, and we do this by practicing the life that he lived with us.
He said, “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” Have we really considered what those words might mean put into practice? It is something that is truly new, or unseen because so much of our world operates in a realm somewhere other than love. We do not even really know what love is. We are told so many things about love but so much of those definitions have less to do with love and more to do with infatuation or lust. Our world and each of us need to learn what love really is. We have hope because Jesus showed us what love is. “Just as I have loved you,” he says.
This is why I spent so much time explaining the events that happened on this day. Jesus washed their feet. Jesus feed them a feast and explained what that feast means. Jesus then pointed to the greatest hope; he would suffer so we can be free. He would suffer so we could be glorified with him. Jesus loved so we can love. He loved by doing. Love is an active verb. It is serving those around you. It is rolling up your sleeves and breaking a sweat with those around you. It is setting aside some of your desires to make sure those around you have the things they need to survive. It is willingly getting your hands dirty so that the entire community can benefit. To love your spouse, you need to serve your spouse. No longer thinking I want, but they need.
Being a Christian is the most difficult simple thing to do. To live our lives serving others all the time leaves us vulnerable. What happens to me? If I spend all my time looking out for others how can I enjoy my own life, and the fruit of my labor? If I focus on serving, who will serve me? What if those I serve do not appreciate or acknowledge my service? I know that these questions cross our minds, because pretty much every one of them crossed mine in the past few days. It is difficult to be a Christian because so many people aren’t. Those that do not live a life loving others as Jesus loved them, often try to exploit our service and we become bitter. This is where the discipline comes in, this is where the community comes in. We are here to serve one another to share the burdens, joys and sorrows. This is where we meet Jesus. He loves us, he serves us, just as we serve him. This does not mean we control or can exploit God, but he is with us in the dirt. When we are wronged, we take those emotions and we spill them out on Jesus and he takes that on himself, and his blood covers us, and his body feeds us. He takes the bitterness from us and points us again toward hope.
Do you understand what Jesus has done for you? He washed our feet because our daily walk has caused them to get dirty. Let him wash them so that we can go back out fresh and new doing it all again. Do you understand what Jesus has done for you? He took on the cross, our sin and our shame, though he was without sin, so that we could release our bitterness and pain and be made new. Do you understand what Jesus has done? He loved you. He being God came down to live among us and with us in the dirt. And all he asks in return is that we love like he loved. Simple right?
As we enter this time of open worship and Holy expectancy let us embrace the love of Christ. Let us focus on what he did for us and then let us consider how we can reflect that to those around us. Let us imitate his life so that we can participate in his glory.