1 Corin 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35.
Darkness has fallen on the city of Jerusalem. Thirteen men move quickly and quietly through the narrow streets, one of them leading the way. “That’s him”, says a guard. “That’s who”? says another. “Jesus of Nazareth, of course, said the first guard. Jesus and his disciples were going for their last meal together. It was Passover night. Every Jewish family would have had their meal when the past, the freedom from slavery under Moses, seemed strangely alive and contemporary. Even in the Jewish household today, the youngest son of the family asks “Dad, what does it mean?” and is told the same story again, but ever new, of God’s love, God’s faithfulness. The meal is one in which thanksgiving and future hope are brought together in present celebration. Of course, Jesus and his disciples were celebrating the Passover in danger, because Jesus was a wanted man, he had rocked the boat too much, upset the establishment too much to be safe. But it seems to me that the significant thing that Jesus did at that meal was to let his deeds match his words in demonstration that he came to serve.
Let us first think of Jesus’ action in washing the disciples feet, in an incident which only John records. Etiquette said that the guests, whose feet were grimy from their journey along dusty roads should have them washed by a slave. A particularly humble and menial task. They are about to begin the meal with unwashed feet, because none of the disciples were prepared to do it, Jesus rose, put the towel around himself and washed the disciples feet. It was an action of service, an action of loving humility.
You may have heard the story of the young man who decided to be positive about Lent. Instead of giving something up, he decided to do something instead, and he took up humility for Lent. At the end of Lent he gave himself 10 out of 10 for humility. We all know humility is not like that. The more you strive for it the less likely you are to achieve it, indeed you probably end up with the opposite. You are never so proud as when you think you are humble.
Jesus took the servant role and washed the disciples feet. Not that Jesus had abdicated his Lordship, John says “Jesus had come from God and was returning to God” 13:3. He was Lord, but Lord of humility, Lord of love, Lord of service. Perhaps the test of our humility is being able to receive another person’s service. That is what Peter found so difficult. “No said Peter, you shall never wash my feet.”. Jesus said “unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (13:8). We always need the cleansing and forgiving power of the Lord Jesus, we never get beyond it. As long as we think we can get by without Christ cleansing us from our sin we cannot be saved. It’s as simple as that. Pride must die. We come to Christ and allow him to wash us.
Jesus came to serve. He washes us so that we may be clean before God. For Jesus, his deeds matched his words, he didn’t just say he came as one who serves, he actually performed the most menial of tasks, he served, he washed the disciples feet.
And then second, we think of the Breaking of Bread. Matthew, Mark, Luke and St Paul tell us that in the middle of the Passover Meal, Jesus took bread and broke it, took a cup and poured out the wine. Simple actions which have shaped Christian worship ever since, as Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me” Symbolic action in which Jesus gives himself to his disciples as food and drink, and actions which point forward to the cross, when his blood was shed and his body broken. Here was his ultimate service, a total self giving of himself.
The cross is God’s blood transfusion for a sick humanity. We picture the cross, with Jesus hanging there, his body broken, his blood poured out, but feeding us, giving us strength, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Every pair of hands that receive the bread and the wine are different. Some perhaps are hard hands engrained from years of manual work. Some soft hands, perhaps those of a midwife helping new life into our world. Some are young hands, some are old hands. Perhaps some are broken hands, malformed or injured. Perhaps some are hands that are unable to work. But hands which respond to Jesus command “Do this in remembrance of me”
Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me”. Do what? Take bread, take wine. It can be a meaningless ritual, or a poignant reminder of Jesus dying on the cross, his body broken, his blood shed for us, giving us that blood transfusion that gives us life, that we too can serve as he served.
How do his body and blood give life? They give life because they feed us. John’s Gospel is different in not giving Jesus words over the bread and wine, but Christians throughout the ages have seen Eucharistic material in John’s Gospel. John 6 for example, Jesus said “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” v35. “My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink” v55.
In the Eucharist, the ‘Invitation to Communion Prayer’ beginning, ‘Draw near with faith…’ ends ‘feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving’. Our spiritual lives are being nourished.
We are fed so that we can serve. We take in so that we can give out. Jesus gave his life, body broken blood shed, so that we could be reconciled with God and with each other. He sends us out, ordinary weak people that we are – to serve.
In a French village there is a statue of Christ. In the air-raids during the WW2 the hands of the figure of Christ were broken off. After the war they did not replace the hands, instead they put an inscription under the statue, with the words of St Teresa of Avila: “He has no hands but yours”. Jesus came to serve, with his own hands he washed the disciples feet. Then at the Passover meal he said ‘do this in remembrance of me’. He now sends us out to serve. As the President says at the Dismissal in the Eucharist ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’ and we respond ‘In the name of Christ. Amen’
Of course, with our Church closed due to the coronavirus Maundy Thursday will be different for us this year. We will not be able to re-enact the Washing of Feet, nor receive the broken bread and wine outpoured. But we can still serve the Lord and others, through our prayers, through contacting people via phone calls, etc, and some can help others in very practical ways.
Colin Wood ——————————-
Prayer of St Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours: yours are the eyes through which he is to look with compassion on the world; yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good; and yours the hands with which he is to bless us now.
Collect for Maundy Thursday:
God our Father, you have invited us to share in the supper which your Son gave to his Church to proclaim his death until he comes: may he nourish us by his presence, and unite us in his love; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.