Exodus 12.1-4, 11-14 1 Corinthians 11.23-26 John 13.1-17, 31-35
When Christ assembles with his disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, they are following God’s commandments given all those years ago to Moses on the night of the liberation of God’s people, the children of Israel, from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land; they are to celebrate the Feast of the Passover, year by year, in perpetual ordinance, a night which has been observed ever since, right up to the present day and beyond.
The Jewish Passover is far more than just a family meal; it is steeped in the history of centuries, an integral part of the rich tapestry that is God’s story woven together with the story of humankind. There are rituals to follow; a place set for Elijah, the story of that night re-told and prompted by the questioning of the youngest child, which begins, Why is this night different from all other nights? Bread is broken, wine consumed, food eaten – and yet this is no commemorative meal, no feast of celebration for celebration’s sake. When families gather together, they are no longer in the family dining room, no longer in the Upper Room in Jerusalem – they are on the shores of the Red Sea, with the generation of the enslaved – they are indeed people of the Exodus.
And so it is with us as we gather at the start of the great Three Days. We are all there, in the Upper Room, with the disciples, in the presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Our stories are tonight woven into the tapestry as it takes shape. And all the elements of that first Passover night are there as the events unfold – confusion, praise and thanksgiving, bewilderment, apprehension, betrayal, denial, anger, weakness, cowardice, strength, forbearance….a heady mix of thoughts, feelings, reactions and emotions, crammed together in one night as Christ leads us out into the desert of crucifixion, into the land of the unknown.
And so, in the midst of all this remembering, Christ calmly gets up, wraps a towel around his waist, and washes feet. It is an amazing sign of amazing love, and only found in the Gospel of St John. We rely on the headstrong Peter to blurt out what everyone else is thinking, You will never wash my feet! And we can imagine Jesus’ face as he does it, calm, resolute, looking at Peter steadily as he says, You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand. And then the faithful Peter emerges – not just his feet, but his head and hands as well…still of course with no real understanding of what is happening, but trusting in Our Lord implicitly. Stephen Cottrell, in his fine book The Things he Did, speculates on this moment of foot-washing: Jesus’ eyes said, ‘I know you; and I want to do this thing for you because I love you; and I want you to be clean. And I will wash away the heat and burden of the day. I will be with you as one who serves. Come to me, all who are weary and overburdened, and I will give you rest. I will make you clean, I will make you well.’
John’s gospel is all about signs. Rowan Williams describes a sign as something that communicates, that changes the world of meaning that we live in. John tells us that Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. In this last night he prepares us all for what is to follow and washing the disciples’ feet is a powerful indication of what we are to do as his followers, witnesses to his passion and death. So here we wash feet because it is the will of the Father, because Christ in his compete obedience to that will shows us the way, telling us that we all have a part to play on this auspicious night and onwards through the Great Three Days, in the here and now and on into the future, generation upon generation, at one with those who trod the muddy sea-bed, the dusty wilderness, those who were there on the shores of Lake Galilee, in the city streets, along the Via Dolorosa, on the cross at Calvary and beyond. We all march together with the Servant King leading, guiding, urging us on, inspiring. 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.
In the sheer magnificence of John’s account of the last night, as the story unfolds, we are drawn into the drama. Our Lord Jesus Christ leaves his final instructions, and we are given the simple commandment to love one another, the commandment which gives this holy day its name – Maundy Thursday.
Here are more echoes of the Children of Israel, wandering in the desert, fickle, wayward, grumbling, groping about, like the disciples, in a fog of unknowing. As Moses brings down the Ten Commandments from the mountain, so Christ in his divinity brings down for us the ultimate commandment from heaven which subsumes all others: love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. And having received this commandment for what it is – a commandment, not an option – then we are told to go out and to put it into practice: By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. The rule and of love is about to be revealed in the King who comes to serve…in the words of that wonderful hymn we sang at the beginning, we strain to glimpse the mercy-seat, and find you kneeling at our feet.
In a topsy-turvy world, we are all redeemed by love, for the power of divine love turns our world upside-down and sets it the right way up, God’s way. And as we struggle to grasp the enormity of God’s love, Our Lord gives us another commandment, as recalled for us in the reading from St Pauls’ letter to the Corinthians – to taste his precious body and blood in the bread and wine of this Eucharist, in remembrance that he died for us. This, Paul tells us, is what he received from the Lord Jesus that on the night when he was betrayed he took a loaf of bread. And as St Paul receives it, so do we, in the Upper Room, in the real presence of Our Lord, proclaiming his death until he comes. So on this holy night, we gather here and receive a foretaste of the heavenly banquet to which we are called.
As we re-live the happenings of that momentous night, with Resurrection light illuminating the dark confusion of the next few hours, we stay with Christ, watching with the disciples as they try to stay awake through Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane; we loiter with Peter in the courtyard of the High Priest’s House, we gaze in disbelief as the crowds bay for blood and we take that long stumbling walk along the Via Dolorosa, to watch with breaking hearts as the image of God is revealed in the face of a suffering man dying on the cruel cross. And as we lift up our voices with that of the Roman centurion, Truly this man was the Son of God! we enter into the silent solitude of the tomb, that we may also be there, at daybreak on the third day, ready to greet the risen Christ and to usher in his rule of love, to be part of his Kingdom established for ever.
The three days begin now, in stillness and quiet. And as Christ finishes teaching, he says to his followers, Rise, let us be on our way. Amen