A New Commandment

April 6th 2023 Maundy Thursday homily on John 13:1-17, 31b-35 by Pastor Galen

A New Covenant

I can only imagine the mixture of emotions that Jesus must have felt as he looked around at his disciples, reclining around the table with him, as they ate their last meal together.

At some point during the meal, Jesus held up the bread, and said, “This is my body which is broken for you.” And after supper, he held up the cup wine, and said, “this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you.”

As Jesus looked around at his disciples, he knew that his disciples couldn’t comprehend the sacrifice he was about to make for them. He pondered how he could get through to them, how he could help them understand the significance of what was about to happen.  And that’s when Jesus looked around at his disciples and realized that most of them were sitting there with dirty feet.

Dirty Feet

You see, typically hosts would provide water for people to wash their feet when they came in after walking on the dusty sometimes. Occasionally servants or slaves were assigned to the task of washing guests’ feet. But in this case, the disciples were the hosts, and they didn’t have any servant. And so they reclined at the table, all of them with dirty feet because no one wanted to get up from their comfortable position at the table and go and get the basin of water. 

This is a little bit like what happens at our dinner table. Our family has a pitcher of water that we fill up at the kitchen sink to fill the water glasses at our dinner table, but when the water pitcher is running low, no one wants to get up and go fill the pitcher, so we all just sit there, thirsty, until finally someone breaks and goes and fills up the pitcher for all of us.

But for the disciples, their dirty feet represented more than just their laziness. In many ways, the dirt on their feet was indicative of their pride and self-centeredness. You see, over the previous three years, Jesus’s inner circle of disciples had constantly argued about which of them was the greatest, and who would get to sit next to Jesus when Jesus sat on his throne in Glory.

And so, none of them wanted to get the basin and towel and the water, because doing so would have been an implicit admission that they held a lower status than the other disciples. I’m sure they all had opinions as to who should get up from the table and get the basin of water. Perhaps some of them thought that the youngest disciples should have done it – after all, younger people in that society generally held a lower status than older people. Or, perhaps they thought Peter, or James or John – after all, they had been fishermen, and that wasn’t the highest class job in society. Or, maybe they thought Matthew should have been the one to fill up the basin – after all, he had been a tax collector before Jesus called him to follow him – and everyone knew that tax collectors were sinful people. So if Jesus had forgiven him of being a tax collector and they had all included him in their little band of disciples, then surely he could have at the very least gotten up to get the basin of water and a towel for them to all wash their own feet.

But Jesus wanted his disciples to know that in the Kingdom of Heaven, the greatest are those who serve. He wanted his disciples to know that true greatness is shown not through demanding that others bow down to you, but by extending mercy and compassion to others. And, he didn’t want them to be sitting there covered with dirt. He wanted them to be healed and forgiven and freed from their sin of pride. And so Jesus picked up a basin of water and a towel and he began one by one to wash his disciples’ feet.

A New Commandment

And when he had finished, he told his disciples, “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” (John 13:14-15). And he went on to say, “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” (John 13:34-35).

And friends, this is what Jesus has done for each and every one of us as well. Jesus saw us in our sin, and guilt, and our pride. He knew that we could never clean ourselves up, could never make ourselves right before God, and so he did for us what we could never have done for ourselves – he made a way for us to be healed, and forgiven, and freed, by coming down to this earth, taking on the form of a servant, and ultimately by giving his life for us, and in so doing he exemplified God’s unconditional love for the world, and for each and every one of us. 

And then, he commanded us to do the same. Tonight we’re going to practice serving each other by washing each other’s hands. But any time we stoop down and serve one another, any time we stop being so concerned about our own status, or what others think about us, any time we actively work to break down the dividing walls of race, or class, or status, you can “hear the water splashing.” 

Hear the Water Splashing

When Bill, our Lay Leader to Annual conference, comes early to church on Sunday mornings so he can fold the bulletins, you can hear the water splashing. When Lee (our Children’s Ministry director) and Elizabeth (a Ph.D. student at Johns Hopkins) come and clean the sanctuary on Wednesday mornings, you can hear the water splashing. When Zack, our Food Pantry coordinator, comes in at odd hours of the day to work on the food pantry, and when his wife Crystal comes in after a long day at work to pay the bills and do the accounting – you can hear the water splashing. Tomorrow evening when Rev. Chet stays after the Good Friday service to make sure everything is in place for Sunday morning, you can hear the water splashing. 

This, my friends, is how the world will know that we are Jesus’s disciples. Not because we’re holier than everyone else, because we’re not. Not because we always look good because we don’t.  Or because we’re always happy, or because things are always going our way – because they don’t. Rather Jesus says the world will know that we are his disciples by the way we love and serve one another. 

So let us receive the love Christ has for us. Let us accept his healing, cleansing, and forgiveness. Let us serve others as Christ has served us, and let us love, and Christ has loved us.


Published by Galen Zook

I am an artist, preacher, minister, and aspiring theologian

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