You Are Blessed If You Do Them (Maundy Thursday)
If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
The exodus of Israel was so pivotal in the life of God’s people it was marked as a new beginning. Israel had been living by an Egyptian lunar calendar. The exodus event triggers a new calendar for Israel. The month in which this event of freedom from slavery took place was now to be the first month of the year in Israel’s new calendar. The festival of the Passover was to be celebrated on the 10th day of that month. Henceforth, when Israel would turn the page on each new year it would be highlighted by remembering the story of God’s gift of being freed from slavery. They lived by God’s redemptive time.
It is not a mistake in God’s redemptive time that it was at this festival—a festival that marked freedom from slavery and new beginning—that God’s incursion into the world to do something new would take place. “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.” The hour that Jesus knows is upon him is the hour when he will secure for us freedom from the sin the binds and blinds; it is the hour for establishment of the new covenant in his blood.
1. You can picture that the festival of the Passover is an exciting event as Jesus and his disciples gather for this meal. Like a family gathering for Christmas or Thanksgiving or Easter meal there is the excitement of the occasion; the busyness of preparations, the noise of conversations, the goodness of being together all contribute to the occasion’s festive nature. And, as in the case of the disciples, there can be occasional quarrels; the disciples had argued about who would occupy the chief posts in Jesus’ new kingdom.
With all this swirling around we are told that “Jesus knew that his hour had come”. What was this like for Jesus? All of us have those things that are our unique responsibilities; responsibilities that no one else can take for us. Clearly the disciples had no idea of what Jesus was conscious of; he had tried to tell them that at Jerusalem he would be opposed and die. For them they could not entertain such an absurd outcome for their Messiah. So Jesus must bear this in his heart alone. I know that when the load of those things that are mine alone to bear feels heavy I am easily distracted. The cares that swirl in my consciousness make it hard to express care of others around me. With all that our Lord is conscious of I marvel at our Lord’s total focus on the wellbeing of his disciples.
His love from them—and us—is staggering. At this last meal with them—he knows it to be the last supper—he spends his time teaching the disciples about the coming kingdom. He wants them to know where true joy is to be found; he instructs them in their profoundest human need of relationship with him. He shows them how to live in relationship with each other. To all this he said, “You are blessed if you do them.” When our Lord speaks of being blessed he means blessed in every way with all the goodness God has in mind for you; the goodness that was spoken of in Genesis when God saw all that he had made and indeed it was very good.
Here is Jesus who knows the full import of this hour that is unfolding for him and his undivided attention is on the blessedness of his disciples—on my blessedness. His love for us is simply staggering. His disciples—in the room on that Passover occasion and this day in other rooms gathered for worship around the world—are riddled with sin. His love for them isn’t because they were a loveable group of people but because he loves people.
The highest love is ever quick to deflect the failures and inconsistencies of the beloved. It is one thing for a parent to point out the places where their children might make behavioural improvements; but the same parent is not willing for others to point out their child’s inconsistencies. Observe the intensity of Jesus’ love for his own. His love isn’t content with anything but the best for his beloved because the best is the most blessed; his love longs for the objects of his love the most blessed life for ever.” If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
When you ponder this scene at the last supper, it is remarkable how Jesus’ love illuminates every corner of the room. We can’t help be struck by the care and love Jesus had for his friends as they bluster and blunder around, making grand promises they can’t keep while failing to understand the great promises Jesus is making. Just like us, really. If we could only see the greatness of what is promised in our Lord’s words—you are blessed if you do them. But we too are well meaning but misguided; ready to follow one minute but deny the next. I have no words that can adequately describe our Lord’s love for us; I can only point to him and ask you to look and see.
2. There is no doubt a teaching element in Jesus washing of the disciples’ feet; here we see the regard we are to have for one another. There is also a theological aspect as well in that in this act by Jesus we see an instance of the greater sacrifice to come; we need Jesus to cleanse our hearts in his blood shed on the cross. It is an instance of what we call the incarnation; that God becomes one of us that we might be one with him. The incarnation that is so wonderfully described in Paul’s Philippian letter: “Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross”. (Philippians 2:5-8)
Picture, now, as Jesus rises from his place at the table to wash the disciples feet; hold the scene in your mind’s eye as you see him set aside the outer robe and ties the towel around himself; watch as he pours water into the basin now moving from disciple to disciple washing their feet. The British preacher F. B. Meyer describes this event as an instance illustrating the incarnation; Jesus condescension to us.
Myer writes: “He rose from his Throne; laid aside the garments of light which he had worn as his vesture; tool up the poor towel of humanity, and wrapped it around his glorious Person; poured his own blood into the basin of the cross; and set Himself to wash away the foul stains of human depravity and guilt.” (F.B. Meyer, Gospel of John, London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1952, p. 199)
Karl Barth was invited to deliver one of the distinguished lectureships at a theological seminary in the Unites States, and while he was there a group of ministers and theologians and dignitaries of one kind or another sat down with him in a kind of question-and-answer period. Someone asked the question, "What is the most profound thought that you know, Dr. Barth?" This is what he said: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."
3. When I reflect on Jesus self-consciousness of his hour; the hour when the enemy will be dealt with; the moment when the devil will hurl everything he has at Jesus; the time when God will set in motion putting all things to right—we might expect a great sovereign display of powerful omnipotence. That is how humans write these sorts of stories. Instead we see an amazing act of self-humiliation typified in foot washing.
It is in this hour the kingdom of God will come; when the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of his Christ. We note that God doesn’t send in the tanks or call for airstrikes. He does this by calling servants. “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
I invite you to underline the word “know” for a moment—“if you know these things”, said our Lord. The force of the word know in the bible is experiential; it is not merely to know about as if Jesus were saying if you have been informed of this. It is the person who knows their profound need of forgiveness of sin and has experience the forgiving love of the Saviour—those who have had their feet washed by him—who are able to wash the feet of one another. We are called not just to wash the feet of those we like. We too must be willing to wash the feet of those we judge (rightly) to have sinned atrociously. And who is able to do this? Who is able to wash his brother's feet? Only those who cannot deny that they have had to have their feet washed by the master himself.
4. The act of foot-washing was a common action; so common that in first century life it was the task assigned the lowest of slaves. Most of what we offer one another is of this common variety or what we might categorise as common.
Martin Luther maintained that the first level of Christian community, the first stage of our life together, is putting our time, talent and treasure at the disposal of everyone else in the congregation. One person fixes things, another bakes shortbread, another sings. There’s nothing extraordinary about this, because what each contributes they can do with their eyes shut. Furthermore, what any of us can do to help, we do without expecting extraordinary recognition for it. All of us bring forward our natural gifts and abilities, as well as our money and our time, wanting only to be helpful in any way we can. This "physical service," as Luther called the first stage of Christian community, we offer readily and gladly.
It sounds so very ordinary, doesn't it. In fact it is ordinary. But 95% of life is ordinary; and therefore the ordinariness that we offer up on behalf of the community of Christ's people is always vastly more important than many think. There are people we think of as “talented” because they do something extraordinarily well—we are grateful for these gifts as well. But note how Jesus esteemed the ordinary; foot washing. These have profound impact beyond our imagining in Christ’s kingdom.
5. It was at this Passover meal that Jesus established the meal that we celebrate for the remembrance of him. The last supper becomes the first of the new kingdom. John’s gospel does not recount this part of the meal. I think this is because John assumes you know about that aspect of the last supper already; his gospel is written after the publication of the other three gospels.
Whenever you come to receive communion it is good to keep in mind that this is a sign of God’s covenant and the means of his kingdom. Covenant and kingdom are important words in the gospel. Kingdom we have already spoke about; instead of tanks Jesus called servants. Here we are sustained as his servants.
Covenant speaks of God’s commitment. God has committed himself to his people and his world through Jesus, like a bridegroom committing himself for ever to his bride. The communion service is like a wedding reception celebrating the fact of God’s commitment to us.
The French Revolution was not just another political revolution. It was at its heart a secular revolution, an attempt to eliminate Christianity and replace it with a secular Religion of Reason as the foundation of society. If Christianity were to be destroyed, its hold on time had to be broken. The incarnation of God coming among us in Jesus could not be the center of time by which all years were named, and holy days must be erased or replaced by secular holidays.
And so the revolutionaries of the new French Republic decided that the center of time should be the declared originating date of the Republic itself, 1792. They decided that year was to be the center of time: Year 1 of the Republic, the most important year of all human history. They were unable to dislodge the new beginning announced in God’s incursion into the world in Christ Jesus.
Astonishingly, the new beginning announced in Jesus is repeated in the new beginning each believer experiences at the hand of Jesus incursion into our own lives. Such is our motivation to serve: If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.