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From Remembrance to Love

Maundy Thursday

Basin and Jug for footwashing

John 13:1-17; 31b-35-- 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. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table,[a] took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 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. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet,[b] but is entirely clean. And you[c]are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

12 After 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? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants[d] are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

31 Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him,[j] God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little 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.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The ancient rite of the Jewish Passover Seder, which was celebrated this week, is organized around four questions; four inquiries about “why on this night” do we do things differently? Although I hesitate to claim insight into the deep meanings of another faith, I think it is safe to say that at least part of the answer to each of these four questions is the same: “we do this to remember.”

The call to remembrance is the concluding command from God to the people of Israel in tonight’s reading from Exodus:[1] “This day shall be a day of remembrance.” And the command to remember is repeated in the familiar words of our weekly sacrament, read tonight from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:[2] “do this in remembrance of me.”

Remembrance lies at the heart of the most evocative and powerful rituals of our faith, but these calls to remember also require another question:

“What is the purpose of remembering?”

Of course, remembering can fulfill any number of functions in our lives and in our faith.

  • Remembering can transport us back to happy times in the past, precious times when our children were wide-eyed babies, or identity-shaping times when we first experienced the thing that makes our own eyes open wide.

  • Remembering can also help us to do important tasks, practical tasks like passing a licensing exam, or loving tasks like sending a birthday card that will make someone feel special.

  • Remembering, done the right way and with loving support, may help to heal the scars of past pains, or it may at least help us to avoid repeating past mistakes.

We don’t need to be convinced that remembering is powerful, but which power of this time-travelling capacity makes it so central to the practice of our faith? New Testament professor Richard Carlson offers this explanation:

“Remembrance includes both our recollection of God’s past saving work for God’s people, and the realization that we participate in that past saving work of God.”[3]

Remembrance is about the past, certainly, but it’s also about participation. God calls us to remember in order to join our knowing about God’s work in the past with our enactment of it in the present.

We remember to KNOW, and for that knowing to transform what we DO.

This paired knowing and doing offers us an interpretive key for understanding the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet on this night in which he was betrayed. At three important points in this story we hear about what Jesus knew, and we see how this knowing guides his action:

  • First, the scene begins with the explanation that “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father,” but this knowledge did not lead him to withdraw from his followers, but rather to “love them to the end.” (John 13:1)

  • Second, Jesus does this – he loves them – by initiating the process of washing the disciples’ feet “knowing (again) that the Father had given all things into his hands…” (13:3), and that this kind of power leads to service.

  • And finally, of course, we are reminded that Jesus “knew who was going to betray him,” (13:11) and that he included his betrayer in this intimate act of service anyway.

Jesus’s knowing leads him to an act of intimate, loving service. And he challenges his disciples to know and do in the same way. “Do you know what I have done to you?” (13:12) Jesus asks his followers, and then he explains “I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you…. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

Jesus makes it clear: passive knowing isn’t enough – knowing leads us somewhere. Jesus knew that his hour had come – his hour to give himself up for the world – and as the first step in completing that work he set his followers an example. The example of kneeling before them like a servant,

to touch their dirty, smelly feet,

to wash them with status-shattering tenderness,

to tell them that they are clean, but that they need to let down their guard and receive the intimate service of this washing in order to have a share of Jesus.

On the night that we remember tonight, Jesus set his followers the example of rejecting the privilege of his role as Lord and Teacher, and the distance of the rules of polite society, in order to serve the needs of his community.

So, knowing this story of our Teacher who washes his disciples’ feet, what does this lead us to do? Why do we remember this story?

I think we remember it, because knowing about this action helps us to understand Jesus’ new command about what we, his followers, are to do.

This night is known as Maundy Thursday because of the Latin word for command – mandatum – and because in the final part of this story Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment: “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Jesus commands his followers to love, but we humans have a talent for sentimentalizing commands like this.

We can think the command to love is all about how we feel.

We can know that Jesus commands us to have a heart of compassion for other people (which he does); but we can forget that this means their needs have a right to inconvenience us.

We can know that it is wrong for us look down on people who lack our access to social or economic or racial privilege (which it is); but we can forget that it is also wrong to work to protect our privilege.

We can know that our faith calls us to pray for vulnerable people – for homeless children, or incarcerated prisoners, or refugees – (which it does); but we can forget that we are also commanded to do whatever we can to try to give them access to a new life in safety and hope, even if that life might threaten our lifestyle (surely, we think, we don’t need to welcome a potential Judas…)

We can know that love means being a warm and caring community that makes casseroles when someone is sick (which it does); but we can forget that love also looks like the vulnerability of a community where it is safe to talk about depression, or addiction, or family dysfunction, because not every malady is medical and food doesn’t fix every pain.

We can hear Jesus say “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” and NOT hear this as a deeply profound challenge to the way we live our lives, as individuals, and as as community.

But the command to love in this remembrance is profoundly boundary-breaking. As I read in one commentary, “as we obey the commandment to touch someone else, the washing means to care for the fullness of someone’s life.”[4]

And so, rather than just giving us a command that we can soften with sentimentality, Jesus shows us what love looks like by his example.

By wrapping a towel around his waist, and getting down on the ground;

By not being above the most menial, distasteful task;

By not being embarrassed to touch his friends’ callouses, or clean off their sweat and grime.

By kneeling in service right before he was raised on a cross.

Jesus showed us what love looks like, and he commanded us to do the same.

He told us that it’s not enough to remember this story, if we don’t do something about it – if it doesn’t reverse our expectations about who we are to serve, and what it means to love. This commandment pulls the disciples of Jesus, which includes us, into a new covenantal community that knows what love is, and does it, because of what Jesus first did for us.

Because of all that comes after the foot-washing – because of the mystery of these Great Three Days, and the Resurrection of Easter Sunday – we can hear Jesus’ reassurance that “you are clean,” and because of that we can dirty ourselves with the grime on other people’s feet, knowing that our Lord did this first.

On this Maundy Thursday night, we remember so that we can know what to do. We remember it in our story-telling, and we remember it is our ritual enactment, but we must remember it also and always in our obedience to the new commandment our Lord has given us.

“Just as I have loved you, you also you should love one another.”

Tonight, and on Good Friday, and throughout Easter, and for the rest of our lives…let’s remember that.


[1] Exodus 12:1-14

[2] I Corinthians 11:23-26

[3] “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26”; (accessed April 10, 2017).

[4] Claudio Carvalhaes, “Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35” (accessed April 10, 2017).

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