The Exodus passage provides an odd list of instructions on how to have the Passover meal, and the John passage gives us a familiar story of hospitality neglected and taken up. Then, we also need to explain where the Maundy in Maundy Thursday comes from. After the foot washing incident, we have Jesus trying to put words onto his actions and talk about loving one another as he has loved his disciples. All this is somehow reflective of his glory. When we love one another, we are glorifying Christ. No wonder this is April Fools’ Day. And yet, for us, it all makes some kind of mysterious sense.
While it might not be useful to focus on what is strange about the instructions for the Passover meal, it could provide some insight to examine a couple of the instructions for deeper meaning. First, this is both a family exercise and a whole community event. Sharing is built into the model. There is also a sense of moving on inherent in this meal. “Eat it hurriedly,” say the instructions. As much as we like to dwell on the moment, particularly family moments of eating and drinking, we are preparing for something else, something bigger.
Then if we turn to the Gospel text, we find a story that might be too familiar to really hear. So, listen deeper. Place yourself and your congregation in the room and consider what might be happening on the night.
It might seem useless to try and ascribe inner thoughts to the actors in the Gospel drama, but you can’t help but wonder what was going through Jesus’ mind when he got up and grabbed the towel and the basin. Did he sigh at how such an important cultural greeting was missed by those who were charged to prepare the meal? Did he have a light bulb moment where he thought, “Maybe if I show them what I mean, they’ll finally get it?” Was it yet another opportunity to present his incarnated message, to be the words that he spoke? Or was it just a matter of course - he saw a need and decided to fill it, not thinking for a moment about how the disciples would respond to such an act?
In the minds of the disciples, there was something demeaning about Jesus kneeling to serve in such a humbling way. That’s why they all managed to overlook the opportunity. But for Jesus, it wasn’t demeaning; it was an opportunity to serve. More than that, it was an opportunity to be who he came to be, to fulfill his purpose. After all, he said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:28).
All the teaching about the action came after, and the disciples were confused. “Do you know what I have done for you?” Nope, he could read it in their eyes: they didn’t get it. They were still looking for the best seats; they were still looking for their rewards in heaven— or on earth. They didn’t know what he had done, which means they didn’t know him. At all. We sometimes envy the disciples because they got to spend time with Jesus. They got to hear his voice and see his eyes. They watched his hands. They were right there. And they didn’t get it. They didn’t have any advantage.
Later, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment” (13:34). That’s where the word Maundy comes from. The Latin mandatum or command. The new commandment, he says later is, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Except the new commandment wasn’t new, not really. Jesus had already acted it out in front of them. “As I have loved you.” By serving, by getting on his knees, by bending to a task that even fishermen thought was beneath them, Jesus acted out that commandment. “Love like I loved,” says Jesus.
It wasn’t supposed to be a once a year command. The church turned Maundy Thursday into quite a ritual over the years. The Pope would find some beggars—or his people would find some beggars—and then very publicly would wash their feet. The monarch of England would do the same, until it got too uncomfortable. Now, they hand out some money. Maundy Money, it’s called. Once a year.
But it was never supposed to be a ritual. It was supposed to be a way of life. Oh, footwashing isn’t a part of our culture; that isn’t necessarily what is supposed to be carried on. It is the willingness to serve that is the command. The Maundy. On Thursday, or Monday. Or any day. Sometimes, it’s a good day, all you hoped it to be. Other times, it seems cruel; it is not what you expected. That’s a part of the risk of service. Sometimes it doesn’t turn out like you hoped; sometimes service isn’t received as we intended. Our inclination is to stop rather than to risk doing it wrong.
This Maundy Thursday, we remember what Jesus did; we go back to that moment. But if we stayed in that past, if we didn’t see that this command was, as Exodus states, “a perpetual ordinance” to be observed, to be enacted with our whole lives, then we’ve missed something significant about this moment.
There is indeed a lamb for each household, there is service to be performed by each person, each family in the body. Not just then, but now. Not just once, but always.