“A New Passover”
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Maundy Thursday 2020
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
10Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (NRSV)
After leading the escape from Egypt, Moses reflected on the harrowing, but transforming, experience he and the Hebrews had just survived. Most of Exodus 15 is Moses’ song of triumph, and it begins this way: “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. 2The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation…3The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name.” (Exodus 15:1-2a, 3)
The memory of the Exodus shaped the working image of God for the ancient Hebrews. They looked at God as a divine warrior who would reach down from “above” to protect God’s chosen people. The mystifying defeat of Pharaoh and his army created Israel’s defining narrative and its foundational expectations of how God’s steadfast love and faithfulness work in the world on behalf of those whom God loves.
For thousands of generations the Jewish community has observed Passover, the ritual remembrance and reenactment of the tenth and decisive plague that finally compelled Pharaoh to release the Hebrews. And when first-century Jews prepared for Passover, they had a new Pharaoh to deal with. His name was Caesar, and Caesar was about to have the opportunity to learn a lesson that he, like Pharaoh, Jezebel, and Nebuchadnezzar before him, would, ultimately, fail to learn.
Leaders of nations—and not infrequently, leaders of religions—tend to fail to learn what God’s prophets have to teach, because God’s language is one of humility and love. God’s ethic is one of peacemaking, justice, and compassionate service. As Paul says, the Christian faith itself is foolishness to the wise and weakness to the strong. It’s little wonder, then, that Jesus’s messianic ministry met an end that the world would consider as humiliating as Pharaoh’s defeat by a bunch of slaves. Who were led by a stuttering murderer no less!
Leaders aren’t the only ones who struggle with the ways of God. Followers have a hard time, as well. When Jesus’s disciples decide that he is indeed the Messiah, what they don’t do is concede their expectations that the Messiah will act according to the age-old image of God established by Moses’ interpretation of the escape from Egypt. From Peter to Judas, all the disciples anticipate from Jesus something he will not deliver. In truth, Jesus does the unimaginable opposite. He, as Messiah, stoops down and washes the disciples’ feet. Aware of their bewilderment, Jesus tries to help ease the shock.
You don’t understand what’s going on right now, and that’s okay. Just receive this blessing from me and know that one day it will all make sense.
Flummoxed to the point of anger, Peter says, “You will never wash my feet.”
The task of foot-washing was relegated to the lowest of slaves. To have said that foot-washing was beneath the dignity of God’s Messiah would have been like saying that Roman occupation of Jerusalem was an inconvenience. Jesus’ act of humble service shattered all the norms. It shifted every paradigm and archetype. And when Peter protested, Jesus said, If I don’t wash your feet, you are choosing to have no part in me.
Do you see what kind of moment Jesus creates for Peter? I mean no disrespect to our Jewish brothers and sisters, but for Christians, when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, he institutes a kind of new Passover. Instead of the blood of sacrificed lambs smeared on the lintels of doors, the mark of inclusion in the community of Jesus is water, applied humbly and lovingly to his followers’ feet by the Lamb of God himself. When we put ourselves in that room with the disciples, we can feel Jesus’ new Passover still challenging us to live differently than we have been taught, even by the Church, which, on the whole, still prefers a warrior god. More than a saintly image, though, Jesus’ example of humble service is the Church’s urgent calling.
One detail in this story can get overlooked: Even Judas receives the gift of foot-washing. Jesus does not abandon the one who will betray him. This act of unmitigated grace announces and embodies the very heart of God and bears witness to the eternal oneness between Jesus of Nazareth and God.
Long before Peter, Judas, Caiaphas, and Pilate, the psalmist sang of the grace that reflects the all-too-wonderful and loving knowledge God has of us:
4Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
5You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
8If I ascend to heaven,
you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol,
you are there.
11If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you. (From Psalm 139)
The juxtaposition of darkness and light is a central theme in John’s gospel, and when laying the ancient psalm against John’s witness to Jesus, we encounter the almost unnerving depth of God’s forgiving love. This irrevocable love awaits us wherever we are. Even in our faithlessness and treachery, God’s Christ washes our feet, claiming us as beloved children of a New Passover of grace, and bestowing on us a message of oneness with God to share with all Creation. Come what may, then, be it faithfulness, denial, or outright betrayal, God is already sharing in our glad celebrations and our grief-stricken regrets, because, as the psalmist says, “even the darkness is not dark to [God],” and as John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
Jesus leaves his disciples with a new commandment: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” For John, this mutual love is not only the light; it is the very source and substance of the belief about which John’s Jesus speaks. To love as we are loved, to feed as we are fed, to house and clothe others as we are housed and clothed, to speak for those who have no voice, all of this is to believe. It would be so much easier if belief were simply our mouths saying Yes to precepts and doctrines, but for Jesus, belief is discipleship, and discipleship is love—expectation-shattering, neighbor-welcoming, earth-treasuring, mystery-embracing, rule-bending, death-defying, and preemptively-forgiving love.
May you experience God’s New Passover in Christ. And may you accept how deeply and perfectly you are loved, so that you may go forth and, to the very best of your ability on any given day, love with the love of Jesus—God’s eternal Word Made Flesh.