On Tuesday an envelope marked “UK Government” was posted through our door. It’s not every day that we receive a letter from the Prime Minister so I think we might keep ours as a memento of this time. And the message from Boris was loud and clear; in fact, it was more of a command – you must stay at home. So stay at home we must! But as significant as that was, there is a command which holds even more weight for us as Christians – and especially on this day.
We have been journeying through Holy Week and today reach Maundy Thursday, one of the most significant events in the Christian Calendar. And it’s richness hinges upon a command of Jesus.
The word “maundy” finds it’s roots in the Latin word “mandatum” (which is where we get “mandate” from), and it’s literal meaning is, “command”; so Command Thursday, if you like! And the command that Maundy Thursday derives it name from is found in the book of John.
It was the night before the cross, the night before Jesus’ death, and He was with His Twelve Disciples in the Upper Room celebrating the feast of Passover for the very last time.
Jewish people celebrate Passover once a year on the eve of the Israelites escape from slavery. God had previously sent nine plagues on the land of Egypt but Pharaoh had refused to let God’s people go, and so Moses warned of one final plague that would force Pharaoh’s hand – the death of every firstborn son throughout all the nation.
There would only be one way to survive the coming judgment: for each household to kill a lamb and to apply its blood by faith to their doors. The Israelites obeyed God, and when He saw the blood He passed-over them and spared their lives. And to commemorate their Exodus He commanded that His people celebrate the Passover every year.
Now, in Jewish culture, sunset (not midnight) marks the beginning and the end of a day. That’s why the soldiers were in such a rush to take down Jesus’ body from the cross on the afternoon of what we call Good Friday because at sundown the Sabbath would begin. So Jesus and the disciples ate the Passover meal on the evening of the same Jewish day that he was crucified – the Passover!
And that’s why 1 Corinthians 5:7 says,
“For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”
Jesus knew that the symbolism of the Exodus and the centuries of Passover festivals ultimately pointed to Him – The Lamb of God – and to that moment in time, when He would die as a substitute for all those who would believe upon Him, not only in Israel, but all over the world. That was the reason for which Jesus had come:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Even though much sin was involved in nailing Jesus to the cross, and despite Satan so clearly being at work in the hearts of Judas and many others, it was God’s will that Jesus die, at that exact time and place – the Lamb slain before the foundation of the earth. It was His appointed hour, and Jesus knew that His time had come. He understood what was happening and where He was heading. And with that in mind, He sat down to eat the Last Supper with those that He loved and had lived so closely with for the previous three years of His ministry.
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus initiated the New Covenant and what we know to be communion to be a reminder of the sacrifice He would soon make to restore sinners to relationship with God. And then he did something remarkable, to demonstrate that the cross He was about to bear would go far beyond just securing the forgiveness of sins – it would inaugurate a whole new way of living: Jesus washed his disciples feet.
Everyone in that day wore sandals and so foot washing was a common cultural practice. It was normal hospitality to offer a bowl of water for your guests, but unless a Gentile slave was present people would wash their own feet because it was considered too lowly a task even for a Jewish slave. Think of how smelly and awful their feet would have been – they didn’t have proper roads or sewers. And yet Jesus – the Creator of the universe, the disciple’s beloved Master – dropped to His knees, took the place of a slave, and began washing their calloused, dirty feet.
They were so shocked and seemingly embarrassed by this amazing act of humility, so much so that Simon-Peter initially refused to let Him, but Jesus said, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand” (John 13:7).
Jesus was pointing to the death He was about to die – a humiliating and dishonourable execution reserved for the least in society – for slaves and for criminals; He was also performing a parable of the cross – to make clean that which is utterly filthy; and He was setting an example for the disciples (and us) of what it means to truly love one another.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
Maundy Thursday is all about the command of Christ to love one another as He has loved us – a love that knows no bounds, that reaches to the least, to the downtrodden, the undesirable, the guilty, and sacrifices everything in humble and costly service to esteem and to bring dignity. This is the outrageous love that Jesus displayed and called us to when He washed the disciples’ feet and then when He bled and died at Calvary.
The Prime Minister’s instruction to stay at home comes with some loopholes – we can go out for daily exercise, shopping and essential work; but Jesus’ command to love is without exception, for love is the fulfilment of the whole law of God (Romans 13:10). It is all-encompassing. Indeed, He even calls us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44).
How can we ever live up to such standards? But that to which Jesus calls us He also equips us. No matter how hard we try we cannot love like Jesus apart from Jesus. We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19)! Our breathing out is enabled by our breathing in! Peter had to learn this the hard way later on Maundy Thursday. He was so convinced of his own righteousness that he said he would never disown Jesus, and yet within hours he had denied him thrice. It was only after the resurrection that Peter grasped this, when Jesus forgave him and he encountered the grace of God that would transform his life. That’s why Jesus, after washing His disciples feet, said:
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
And so we are pointed to the dual nature of the cross: that Jesus not only paid for our sin and secured our right relationship with God by dying for us; He also enables us to change and to love one another in His resurrection power by living for us! The cross beckons us to die to ourselves that we may live unto God in dependence upon, and worship to, the Risen Foot-Washing King.
In the words of the song:
“Oh the wonderful cross bids me come and die and find that I may truly live.”
Galatians 2:20 says it this way:
I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.
From inside their homes on that very first Passover the Israelites could not see the blood of the lamb on their doors. No, they were busy feasting on the meat – on drawing strength for their journey ahead. As we come to the cross this Easter may we not only remember God’s forgiveness, but may we also come and be empowered – to love as Christ has loved us in washing one another’s dirty feet – whatever that may look like – for this is both the command and the privilege of Maundy Thursday.