Sermon delivered on Maundy Thursday C, April 14, 2022 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Lectionary texts: Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 116.1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; St. John 13.1-17, 31b-35.
The gospel reading we just heard tells a familiar story. If you have been a part of the Church for a while, you know the events that took place on this night long ago, this Thursday night of Holy Week that we have come to know as Maundy Thursday. You know how Jesus washed His disciples’ feet, how He celebrated the first Eucharist with them, how He prayed earnestly in the Garden of Gethsemane and sweat drops of blood, how He was betrayed into the hands of His enemies who would torture Him, mock Him, and kill Him.
This is an account with which many of us are well acquainted, one that we heard read in its entirety on Palm/Passion Sunday. But tonight, as we focus on John’s record of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, let’s try to move past the familiarity and look at these events through the eyes of Jesus’ disciples so that we can see the shock and the scandal of what took place in the Upper Room that night.
Later this evening, if you come forward for one of our priests to wash your feet, it will probably feel foreign to you, something you do not experience often. But in Jesus’ day, foot washing was quite common. Because people wore sandals as they walked around dirt roads and filthy city streets, foot washing was a necessary part of personal hygiene. When you went indoors, you washed your feet. People would often have a basin of water at their front door for guests to wash their feet, and “in the home of prominent Jews, a slave was posted at the entrance of the house ready to loosen the sandal straps of those who entered and to wash their feet” (EBD, 390). Foot washing was considered such a menial, demeaning task that it “could not be required of a [Jewish] slave” (HIBD, 592).
This is where the scandal comes into play in our text. In v. 4, Jesus “got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.” This is the garb of a slave. Jesus takes on the form of servant, and He washes His disciples’ feet (v. 5). We can understand Peter’s objection. We can hear the incredulity in his voice when he asks, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” (v. 6). Jesus was taking the social roles and cultural expectations of his day and turning them completely upside down. He was Rabbi, and these were His disciples, yet He was washing their feet. Remember, John the Baptist had said, “The one who is coming after me, I am not worthy to untie the thong of His sandal” (John 1:27), and yet here was Jesus, lowering Himself to loosen the sandals of other sand to wash their feet.
How could this be? Why would Jesus do this? We’re not left to guess because Jesus tells us. He humbled Himself to set an example, to illustrate the kind of self-sacrificial love to which He calls His people. In vv. 14-15, Jesus says, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Similarly in vv. 34-35, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This is where we get the name “Maundy Thursday”: from the Latin word mandantum, which means “commandment,” for the new commandment Jesus gave to us on that night.
But there is more going on here than serving as a model. Notice that his passage begins with a long preface in vv. 1-3: Jesus knew His hour had come, He knew He was about to depart the world, He knew He about to go to the Father. And so, He got up from the table, took of his robe, tied a towel around His waist, and wash His disciples’ feet. This was a highly symbolic act, an image that would one day help His disciples understand and interpret what was about to happen. In v. 7, Jesus says, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” It would only be later—after Jesus’ death and resurrection—that the disciples would understand the full significance of the foot washing.
We could say Maundy Thursday occurred to help us understand Good Friday. The events of the Upper Room help us comprehend His work on the cross. Like the foot washing episode, Jesus’ crucifixion was a completely unexpected, paradigm-shattering event. At the beginning of Holy Week, Messianic expectations about Jesus had reached a fever pitch. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He was heralded as a conquering King, the Promised One who would rescue Israel from its enemies. No one would have expected that by that Friday, Jesus would be hanging on a cross, condemned to die between to common criminals.
And yet this was exactly why Jesus came. Philippians 2:6-8 tells us that because of Jesus’ great love for us, He left the glory of heaven to clothe Himself in human flesh and to take on “the form of a slave . . . He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8). And it was precisely through His death that Jesus achieved victory for His people over their enemies—not the Romans, but the greatest enemies humanity has ever faced: sin, death, and the devil. Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet helps us to understand how this victory was possible.
The foot washing account points to how Jesus died to set us free from sin. When Peter refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet, Jesus replies, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (v. 8). Jesus’ words point to the sin-sickness of humanity. The curse of sin infects every aspect of the human condition—our actions, our thoughts, and our motives. It distorts the way that we relate to God, to each other, and to creation. Try as we might to live rightly, in our own power, we cannot escape sins clutches. We are in bondage to it.
But Christ came to set us free. Our Old Testament lesson (Exodus 12:1-14) points us to the first Passover. God instructed His people to slaughter a lamb a smear its blood on their doorposts so that their households would be spared from God’s righteous judgment, the plague He sent on all of Egypt, the death of the firstborn son. The lamb acted as a substitute, it died instead of the children of Israel.
It is no coincidence that Jesus’ death took place during the Jewish celebration of Passover; Jesus, God in human flesh, was the spotless “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus died in the place of sinners, paying the penalty we deserve for our sins so that we might be cleansed of our sin by His blood (1 John 1:7) and set free from our bondage to it. As Paul says in Romans 6:6-7, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin.”
But sin is not the only enemy Jesus vanquishes on the cross. Through His death and His resurrection, Jesus put death to death. In our epistle lesson, Paul reminds of what took place after the foot washing. As Jesus & His disciples celebrated the Passover, He gave new significance to the elements of the meal, instituting the Lord’s Supper. Jesus said the bread was His body and the wine was “the new covenant in [His] blood” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25). Like the foot washing, the Last Supper pointed to Jesus’ impending death on the cross, that his body would be broke and His blood would be shed.
How shocking it would have been for the promised Warrior-King to undergo what appeared to be such a humiliating defeat? How backward and ridiculous it seems that God Himself, the Creator of all and Giver of Life, should die. But what seems foolish to humankind is the wisdom and power of God. Christ succumbed to death that he might overcome death. As the author of Hebrews put it, “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, [Jesus] Himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14-15).
This brings us to the final enemy that Jesus came to defeat: the devil. At the beginning of the foot washing account, John pulls back the curtain to reveal that there are sinister, cosmic forces at work in the world behind the scenes. It is the devil who has “put it into the heart of Judas” to betray Jesus. Scripture affirms that Satan and His forces have been at work from the beginning to wreak havoc on God’s good world. It was Satan who tempted Adam and Eve to sin, and from then on he has sought only “to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10); he “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
But Jesus came to rescue humanity from demonic oppression, as John affirms in his first epistle: “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8b). While Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion were the result of a Satanic plot, they were ultimately the means Christ used to render Satan powerless. Through Christ’s death, we are cleansed of our sin, which away Satan’s chief weapons against us: His accusations of guilt. In this way, Colossians 2:15 tells us that through the cross, Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”
So tonight, as we recount the events of Maundy Thursday, may they point us to the cross of Christ. As our priests wash our feet, may you remember that Christ humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. As we come to the table, may we remember Christ’s body was broken for us and His blood was shed for us that we might be cleansed of our sins. As we see the altar stripped and meditate on our Lord being betrayed into the hands of sinners, may we remember that He willingly endured the devil’s schemes “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8b). Tonight, may we behold the love of Christ, the humility of Christ, and the victory of Christ.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.