Today is Maundy Thursday. So-called because of the new “mandate” that Jesus gives his disciples just hours before his death, at the Last Supper. Surely you remember the scene. Dinner is served, and when it is finished, Jesus, as John says, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love” (v1), and then does the unthinkable – he pours water into a basin, gets down on his hands and knees, and starts washing feet.
The act of washing feet of course was something that only folks on the lowest end of the social totem-pole did for those at the highest end… so much was this the case in Jewish culture that it is said that not even Jewish slaves washed the feet of other Jews. Simply too degrading.
And so Jesus, as only Jesus can do, flips the whole system on its head and says, “This is what my love is like. This is the perfect symbolic embodiment of what my love characteristically does. It does not insist on its social standing. Instead, it lowers itself to cleanse and lift and save.” This trajectory of Divine Love of course culminates on the Cross… where all the filth of humanity is piled on Jesus and he dies in our place, to cleanse and lift and save. There is no depth to which his love will not stoop to help us.
And that is just where things get interesting for us as his followers, for Jesus at this last meal does indeed draw out a “moral” for his disciples. John writes:
12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
The disciples are to mirror this ethos of “there is no depth to which I will not stoop for you” in their dealings with each other. And this will be a testimony to the world of who their Lord:
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
The world will know Whose we are when it sees us as living embodiments of the Love that cleansed and saved us… and that is just where things get really interesting. For Jesus does indeed in his teaching affirm the sort of morality in our dealings with others that we all probably believe is good advice anyhow – “Love your neighbor as yourself”, the so-called “Golden Rule.” And in perfect fairness, in his summary of the Law and the Prophets, he makes this the “second law” which is “like unto” the first: Love the Lord your God… and Love your neighbor as yourself. “All the Law and the Prophets” he says, “hang on these two commandments” (Mt 22:40).
But here he goes beyond it, and methinks there is deep wisdom here. For as many in our culture have noted, for “love your neighbor as yourself” as an ethical principle to work, one has to have a sort of healthy respect for their own “selves”. The problem of course is that most of us have at the very least an ambivalent relationship with those “selves.” To put it simply, I don’t want to be loved “as” most people love “themselves”, for most people’s “self-love” is shoddy. They let people run all over them, don’t take care of their minds and bodies, have no concept of living in interdependence with other people since they never speak up for themselves or ask for what they need, and then constantly disrespect themselves and their gifts by not living in full adoration of their Creator, without whom, as Pope Paul VI said, “the creature itself grows unintelligible.” Loved “as” those folks love themselves? Thanks, but no thanks.
And so Jesus takes us far beyond the Golden Rule, to a New Mandate… a New Command… one not based in our own self-hood (which as it is is fairly corrupt), but in his eternal, self-giving Life and Love. We are called OUT of the way we have known and understood ourselves and invited into a new way of life in which He lives his Life and Love through us. As Paul said famously:
I have been crucified with the Messiah, and I no longer live, but the Messiah lives in me. And the life I live in the body I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me… (Gal 2:20)
The Messiah living his life through us. What an image. The one who stooped down to wash feet (even the feet of Judas, the betrayer!) and then culminated his self-giving love on the Cross, living through us. Not merely calling us to be nice to each other AS we are nice to ourselves… but LOVING each other AS he loves us. That is by far a brighter hope for our world than the Golden Rule.
It strikes me also that the hope for Jesus’ Church is in this. Maybe the reason we suck at unity is because we’ve stopped at the Golden Rule, and haven’t journeyed further into dying and rising with the Messiah who longs to live his love for his disciples THROUGH us. For Christ’s body may be broken, but it is not Divided. Would to God that we would see this.
Oddly enough, insisting on this may bring trouble to us. Unity is a dangerous idea. That what unites us (Christ and his love) is greater than what divides us. But that I suppose is what we should expect, as CWF Smith said, “No one would crucify a teacher who told pleasant stories to enforce prudential morality.” Love other people as we love ourselves. Fine. We can get away with loving only our friends that way. But love as HE has loved (and does love still)? That could put us in all kinds of associations we never would have expected… and may, like Him, get us in trouble.
Grace to you this Maundy Thursday, and may you find power to live the “new mandate” among Jesus’ people, and the world that Jesus so desperately loves.