Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2023
Preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields
Matthew, Mark and Luke describe the meal that Jesus shared on that night and words that he said concerning the bread and wine. For example, from tonight’s reading from Luke’s Gospel, ‘Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’’ (17:19-20)
John, on the other hand, tells us nothing about the content of the meal, or the words that Jesus shared concerning the bread and wine. Yet John gives a lot of space to something that Matthew, Mark and Luke all omit: ‘Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then 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.’ (13:3-5) Isn’t that peculiar?
Some churches, following on from John’s Gospel, make a big thing about foot washing at their Maundy Thursday services. As far as I am aware, though, this is not one of those churches. Those churches that do have this practice will probably not only point to this passage from John’s Gospel in general but particularly to John thirteen, verses 14-15: ‘So 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.’
Now there are good reasons why we are not required to wash the feet of other church members, either on Maundy Thursday or at other times of the year either. Whilst eating and drinking is as much part of our culture as it was of first century Palestine (how could it not be), foot washing is not. Our landscape is less dry and dusty, our feet tend to be well covered with shoes or boots, not sandals. So the everyday ancient world practice of having a servant wash the feet of visitors to your household is absent in twenty-first century North Shields.
But before we all breath a sigh of relief because we do not have to do for others tonight what Jesus did for the disciples that evening, we ought to give that occasion some thought. Having risen from the table, washed his disciples’ feet, and wiped them dry, and then returned to the table, Jesus then posed a question: ‘Do you know what I have done to you?’ (13:12)
He points out that he has turned the expectations of the world upside down. This teacher and Lord (13:13) has washed the feet of his followers, not vice versa. And what the Lord and teacher has done for them, they then should do for each other: ‘For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’ (13:15) Jesus points his disciples, then and now, to the need to follow his example of serving others, and it’s up to us to find ways of doing so that are appropriate to social and cultural situation where we live now.
But Jesus’s servant-like action at the meal also points forward to that great act of service that he will undertake for the sake of all of us, one that we most definitely are not required to emulate. The meal in the upstairs room in Jerusalem is followed by Jesus putting himself into the hands of others for the sake of everyone. The Apostle Paul describes it thus: ‘though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.’ (Philippians 2:6-8)
Contemplating our Lord’s act of service – this giving of himself on the cross – we stand in awe of a teacher and lord who ‘came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:45) And we are challenged, in our own lives, and in our own setting, to own Christ’s example of service for ourselves. As Jesus said, ‘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.’ (13:34, 35)
O God, we thank you that in Jesus you gave yourself in service to and for each one of us; you did so through his life, his teaching, and then upon the cross. Enable and encourage us, we pray, to respond to Jesus’s example through loving and serving others. We ask this in his name. Amen.