Washed (Maundy Thursday)

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day on which we remember Jesus’ washing of his disciples feet and their last meal together. I don’t suppose there’s any significance to the fact that it also happens to be April Fools’ Day?

The origin of the latter is obscure; nobody knows for certain how April 1st became an occasion for practical jokes. But if the day had existed back in New Testament times, I would imagine that some of the disciples might have wondered if Jesus, kneeling before them with basin and towel in hand, was pulling a prank.

At least, that probably would have made as much sense as anything else they were thinking.

. . .

In previous posts, we’ve seen how the four gospels differ somewhat in their accounts of the events leading up to Easter. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke narrate the story of the cleansing of the temple as happening just days before the crucifixion, John locates the story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. But John then tells a story not found in the other gospels, the story of a different kind of cleansing. During his last night with his disciples, Jesus got up from the supper table, took the position of a lowly slave, and washed the disciples’ dirty feet.

John doesn’t tell us how any of the disciples responded to this unexpected role reversal — except, of course, for Peter. One can only imagine what Judas must have been thinking. The room was blanketed by a stunned silence, even though these were men who had a habit of bickering loudly amongst themselves. No one spoke as Jesus made his way around the table, taking yet another pair of dusty, calloused feet in his hands. The only sound was that of water gently splashing in the basin.

Until Jesus knelt before Peter.

I imagine Peter pulling his feet back in horror as he blurted out, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” (John 13:6). Peter, after all, had once taken Jesus aside and scolded him for teaching that he had to suffer and die (Mark 8:32). And now, this. Such a concrete act of abject humility by the one he knew as Lord and Messiah was too much for poor Peter.

Once Jesus patiently explained to Peter that he had to allow this, or else no longer have a place with him, Peter was all in; he flipped dramatically from No stinkin’ way! to Wash everything! All he knew was that he would do anything to stay with Jesus, even die if necessary. But he would not understand until later what Jesus was doing.

. . .

What is Maundy Thursday about? The word “maundy” comes from the same Latin root that gives us the words “mandate” and “command.” When Jesus returned to the table, he explained that he had washed their feet to set an example for them: “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also out to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14, NRSV). But the mandate isn’t about ritual foot-washing, as Jesus soon made clear: “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” (vss. 34-35).

Jesus had demonstrated his humble, sacrificial love by washing his disciples’ feet. He would demonstrate it again, to the nth degree, on the cross. And it is this same love, to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, that would mark those who belonged to him.

As N. T. Wright has suggested, John’s account of the cleansing of the Jerusalem temple was meant to highlight Jesus’ insistence that he himself was the true temple, the place where one could meet the presence of God. Later, Jesus would wash his disciples’ feet, to symbolize their even greater cleansing through the cross.

We’ve been cleansed, too, if we believe in and follow Jesus. But it’s not simply for our own benefit, as if all that mattered was getting us into heaven. Paul says it this way: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20).

In context, Paul is trying to tell the Corinthians to stop engaging in sexual sin. But think about the larger implications of what Paul is saying. The temple was where the Israelites expected to meet God, where the psalmists longed to dwell. Jesus declared that his body was the true temple. And Paul declares that because of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in us, our bodies are temples as well.

So where might people go to meet the presence of God?

Among those who obey the commandment to love one another as Jesus loved.