Washed and Fed to Love
John 13:1-15, 34-35
A new commandment I give to you, Jesus said, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. (Jn. 13:34). That’s were we get one name for today—“Maundy Thursday”—from mandatum, meaning “command.” We also call it “Holy Thursday” because this is Thursday of “Holy Week.” Whatever the name, the theme is the same: Love.
But how was Jesus’ bickering band of disciples supposed to love each other? How are we? This group of men who argued over the seats of honor in Jesus’ kingdom—how were they supposed to love one another? How are we? Didn’t the Law already command us to love our neighbor as ourselves? So what’s new about this “new commandment”?
Jesus ties His mandate to love one another with the Supper He gives us. Jesus’ words to love one another also go hand in hand with His servant act of washing His disciples’ feet. And it all happened in the Upper Room: foot washing, Lord’s Supper, and Jesus’ new command. It all happened on the night when He was betrayed into death. So it goes for our love for one another. As Jesus’ holy people, we can only love one another as we are connected to Jesus—to His Body and Blood, by His Cross and in His Supper.
John’s Gospel doesn’t give us the Institution of the Lord’s Supper. For that we look to Matthew, Mark, Luke and St. Paul. But St. John is still catechizing us. The Lord’s Supper is woven into the background. Since we know and have the Lord’s Supper, St. John is expanding our horizons on what it means to cling to Jesus’ love and actually to love one another.
The Lord’s Supper is in the background when Jesus turns Old Testament washing water into New Testament wine at the wedding of Cana. The Lord’s Supper is in the background when Jesus feeds the five thousand and proclaims Himself the very Bread of life. “For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink,” He said. “Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood abides in me, and I in him.” (Jn. 6:55-56) The Lord’s Supper is in the background of the whole sermon Jesus preaches in the Upper Room on this night of His betrayal. “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.” (Jn. 15:5)
Baptism and Lord’s Supper go hand in hand in John. They are just as close as the foot washing and the Supper in the Upper Room the night before He was crucified. They are bound together just as the water and the blood that flowed from Jesus’ pierced side at His crucifixion.
Jesus knew what lay ahead of Him that night. He knew one of His own disciples would betray Him. He knew that all things were given to Him by His Father, that He had come from God, that He was going to God. He knew that the time of His Passover was near—the time when His blood would paint the wood of the cross so that death might pass over.
So, knowing all this, Jesus rose from the table, laid aside His outer garments, tied a towel around His waist and poured a basin full of water. He knelt down. He began to wash His disciples' feet. Then He dried them with the towel He was wearing. Jesus did what no Hebrew slave was ever asked to do—wash feet.
Now foot washing was a crucial part of social etiquette in Jesus’ culture. It was something like our moms saying, “Don’t forget to wash your hands before supper.” They did that, but they also washed their feet. Remember, Jesus and His disciples reclined on pillows at a low table, instead of sitting in chairs as we do. That put your neighbor’s feet very close to your face, and vice versa. Thus, foot washing!
And yet foot washing was one of the lowest and most menial tasks. Only the lowest rank of slave would do it. But here in the Upper Room, the Lord of heaven and earth, the Incarnate Word through whom all things where made, sets aside His own garments and wears the lowly towel of the humblest slave. What extreme humility! The One called Teacher and Lord washes the feet of His disciples!
But Peter objected. “You shall never wash my feet!” Peter is too proud to have Jesus bend down and wash his feet. That same sort of pride keeps us from Baptism, Absolution, Lord’s Supper, and the Gospel preached. It also keeps us from bending down to wash the feet of brothers and sisters in our midst. Surely Jesus is more glorious than a bath, a spoken word of forgiveness, and a bit of bread and wine! Surely washing feet is not a proper use of our great spiritual gifts! Isn’t the real Jesus more glorious, more “spiritual,” than some crucified foot-washer? But that’s not faith; that’s unbelief. “If I do not wash you,” Jesus says, “you have no share with Me.”
So we too must be washed by Jesus, bathed as little children, baptized into His death and resurrection. We cannot wash ourselves. We wouldn’t even if we could. Like little children who play in the mud, we rather enjoy the filth of our sin. We’ve grown accustomed to it. But we cannot come to the table with dirty feet. So Jesus bends down to us in His humbled, crucified humanity to wash us. He reaches down to the dirtiest and most deeply soiled places in our lives, down to the soles of our feet, where we touch the earth from which were made, the dirt to which we return in death. He reaches down to the place where the dirt of our earthly life is ground in and stubborn. And washed by Jesus, baptized into His death, we are cleansed from head to toe.
Jesus’ washing drowns our stubborn pride—the ego of our old Adam. It frees us from the bondage of our pride to serve others in the humility of Christ. “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” Jesus shows us the posture of the disciple before the world: stooped down as a servant with towel and basin, washing filthy feet. To be a disciple of the Lord Jesus means having your feet washed by Jesus so that you may, in turn, wash the feet of others. It means being loved by a humbled and crucified Christ so that you may be humbled and crucified to love one another, in Him.
And washed by Jesus, you are clean, ready for Supper. You can recline and relax at His table. You can let your defenses down. At His Table, Jesus is host and servant and main course, all at the same time. He gives His precious Body to eat and His Passover Blood to drink. And as fruitful branches are to the vine, so you are to Jesus at His Table. He is the true Vine; you are the branches. You are grafted into Jesus through faith; you receive His life into you. Apart from Him you can do nothing. “Take eat. Drink of it all of you.” His life flows from the cross to the chalice and into your mouths. And His life in you bears fruit. His love for you overflows to your neighbor.
It’s in this context that Jesus gives His “new mandate.” He says, “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.” What’s “new” with this commandment? It’s not the love. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is the old commandment from Moses. What’s new is Jesus’ washing and feeding—His Baptism and His Supper of Body and Blood. These are Jesus’ “mandates” for you. This is how you learn to love one another.
Jesus’ new mandate to His disciples is to receive His love in all the ways He wants to give it. Jesus’ new mandate means being loved by Him so that His love flows through you to one another. His love is poured out for you in His death and poured into you in His Baptism and His Supper. His love bears fruit as it has its way with you. It leads you to bend down, wash each other’s feet, serve each other, and live for each other’s benefit.
As we learn to be filled with Jesus’ self-giving love, His love flows through us to each other. As we sang earlier:
“Jesus gave to His disciples
A commandment that was new:
‘Show My love to one another,
Do as I have done for you;
All the world will know you love Me
As you love each other too.” (LSB, 446:5)