It is said that, when the Apostle St. John was an old man, his preaching was summarized simply as, “My little children, love one another.” It is not hard to imagine. St. Paul often writes of love in his Epistles, but it is St. John who has recorded the New Commandment of Christ Jesus, the “mandatum” for which this day has gotten its name: “Maundy Thursday.” St. John writes of this New Commandment in his Epistles, too, where he repeats the point with emphasis. So it is that the “beloved disciple,” who knew the love of Jesus so very well, has became the Apostle of Love.
Not only St. John and St. Paul, but the dear Lord Jesus also teaches you that Love is the summary and fulfillment of the Law: Love for God above everything else, and then love for your neighbor, with the same affection, care and dedication that you have for yourself. This is what the Lord your God requires of you, in your life as a child of God, as a disciple of Christ Jesus, as a Christian.
In faith before God, to the glory of His holy Name, you are called and commanded to humble yourself in service to your neighbor (and who is your “neighbor,” if not each and every person whom God has positioned near you in your life on earth). You are to sacrifice and give yourself for others, to cleanse and feed your neighbors in the world, even those who trespass against you.
If this all sounds rather generic, and therefore easy, think concretely of your actual neighbors — your wife or husband, your children, your parents, your siblings; your fellow parishioners; your customers and co-workers; your colleagues and peers; your teachers, your students, and your classmates; and of course, the people in your neighborhood, in your building or on your street.
Think of them, of their names and of their circumstances. If you do not even know their names, or if you have no clue concerning their situation and their particular needs, you best start loving them by introducing yourself and by taking the time and making the effort to listen and to hear.
How, then, shall you wash your neighbor’s feet? Little children, how shall you love each other?
Along with that — you fathers in particular, but also you mothers — how shall you teach your children to love, as Christ and His Apostles have taught you and commanded you to love? If you have no children of your own, how shall you teach your students to love, or anyone else entrusted to your authority and care? The answer is simple enough: Chiefly, you are to love them. For how do you expect or suppose that your children or your students will love better than you love them?
Fathers, do you want your children to love each other? To be polite and respectful to you and to their mother? To be considerate, kind and gentle? To put the needs of others ahead of their own? You should so desire all these things, and so should you love them, as the Lord Jesus loves you, and serves you, and gives Himself for you, and forgives you, and cleanses you, and feeds you.
Jesus does not ask you to do anything more, nor anything else, than what He Himself does for you, and gives to you by His grace. He commands you, rather, to be like Him, and to do as He does. Not only St. John, but St. Peter also learned that lesson well, as we have heard from his first Epistle this Holy Week; for the Lord Jesus has left an example for you to follow in His steps.
Your feet are to walk in the way of Christ Jesus; which is the way of faith before God, and the way of steadfast love for one another (as Dr. Luther’s post-Communion Collect summarizes so well).
But where is the Gospel in all of this? The Gospel is not a law, but a gift; it does not tell you what to do, but it proclaims what Christ has done and gives that to you freely. So where is the Gospel in the Lord’s good example and in His New Commandment?
Is the “newness” of the Lord’s command an even greater Law, now, than the one God had already given through Moses a few millennia earlier? Has He just upped the ante that much higher? For the whole Law of Moses was already summarized in Love (for God and for the neighbor), but now you are commanded to love (both God and man) in the perfect way that Jesus does.
Actually, the perfect love of Jesus — for His Father, and for you and all people — is precisely the fulfillment of what the old Law demanded. So that expectation is not the “newness” at hand.
In any case, you can’t do it — not of yourself, nor by yourself.
You do love, dear little child, but only as Jesus first loves you. You learn from Him to love, not only by His good example or instruction, but as He serves you in love, and cleanses you by grace, and makes you brand new in Himself, recreated in His Image and Likeness.
Would you wash your own feet and cleanse yourself and become your own savior? Rather, with St. Peter, be humbled before the Lord who humbles Himself to love and serve you, and so receive His grace. Be cleansed and fed by Him, who is your Savior. You bend your knee in reverence before Him, and rightly so. You meekly bow your head and fold your hands in His presence, and this too is meet, right and salutary. But here, also, humble yourself by giving Him your dirty feet to be washed, and by opening your mouth to eat and drink from His hand.
There’s something new, and remarkably so. Among the Jews, it was unusual even for a servant to wash the feet of his own master. A Jewish servant could not legally be required or compelled to do so, although he might choose to do so for a beloved master. But here it is the Lord who strips Himself to serve, who gets down on His knees to wash the feet of His disciples, including one who will betray Him and one who will deny Him (as He already knows); and all of them will run away.
In this humble service of Christ Jesus — the great Lord who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many — in this we are brought to the heart of the matter. For the “newness” of His Commandment, beloved, is the newness of His Covenant — in His Blood.
It is in Him that all things are made new, including you.
That newness is found in His keeping and fulfilling of the Law — not only God’s commandments, but also His promises — including the divinely given rites and ceremonies of the Lord’s Passover. So has He kept and fulfilled the whole Law of God from His conception, birth and childhood, from His Baptism in the Jordan River and throughout His life and ministry on earth. But it culminates and is completed (even as it continues) on this night, in this Hour, in His Passion unto death.
He humbles Himself and comes down from the Father in heaven, into the very depths of your sin and death. He lays down His life for you, as He lays aside His garments and kneels down to wash your feet. Something a master would never do for a slave, yet the Lord Jesus does this for you.
The waters with which He cleanses you — not as a washing away of dirt from your body, but as a cleansing of your conscience from sin and guilt and shame and all unrighteousness — it is the water that flows from His wounded side, mingled and permeated with His Blood. So are you cleansed by His Blood in the waters of Holy Baptism; and so are you cleansed by His Blood from the Cup of His New Covenant, which He pours out for you in this Holy Sacrament of His Altar.
When the Israelite fathers would sacrifice the Passover lambs at twilight, they would do so in the doorways of their homes. At the threshold was a basin, an impression dug into the floor at that place, normally to prevent water from washing into the house. The blood of the sacrificed lamb was poured out into that basin, then painted onto the doorframe at its top and each of its sides with a brush of hyssop (making the sign of the Cross in the process). In like manner, the Blood of the true Passover Lamb of God, Christ Jesus, is poured out from His sacred wounds into the “basin” of His baptismal font, and into the “basin” of His communion chalice, at the foot of His Cross.
Here is the Love of God with which He loves you: His own Lifeblood, shed for you and poured out for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins. And with that, you have Christ Jesus, and life and salvation in Him, as a member of His Body, the Church, His own beloved household and family.
Now, you already know well enough from ordinary life how important and significant meals are; not only as daily bread for the nourishment and sustenance of your body, but also for fellowship with your neighbors. To eat and drink together is a fundamental bond of family and friends, and the dinner table is (or ought to be) a regular gathering place for parents with their children, and for brothers and sisters with each other. The husband and father who provides the meal, whether by farming or hunting and fishing, or by paying for the food, is thereby loving and caring for his wife and children. Likewise, the wife and mother who prepares the meal and serves it to her family, is loving her husband and children and caring for them. These are not incidentals, but are among the cords of love that connect the members of a household to one another and make of them a family.
So, too, Jesus here “presides” over the Meal of His household and family, as a Husband to His beloved Bride, and as a Father to His dear little children. In gathering you to Himself in this Feast, He makes you part of His family; He gives you a part in Himself, in His Body. All the more so, in that He has not only provided for this Feast and paid for it with His own Life; He has not only prepared it by His death, and not only does He serve you, Himself, as your Waiter, through His Ministry of the Gospel — but He is the Food and Drink with which He now feeds you.
Consequently, you are “bodied” and “blooded” together with the Lord Jesus Christ. You are what you eat, that is, a member of the Body of Christ, truly flesh of His flesh and blood of His blood.
And so also, dearly beloved of Christ Jesus, you are “bodied” and “blooded” together with each other in Him. You are all one Body in Christ, as you eat of His Body and drink of His Cup. So do you belong to one another, and so shall you love and serve and care for each other, each of you loving your neighbor — as you love yourself, and even better, as the Lord Jesus Christ loves you.
Consider what it means that you eat and drink together here, and what is more, that you eat and drink the very Body and Blood of Christ Jesus, the Son of God, your Savior.
In truth, you are “bodied” and “blooded” together with all Christians of all times and places, with even St. John, St. Peter and St. Paul. But this congregation is your immediate family. The fellow Christians who sit and stand and kneel beside you here, and all around you in this place, are your brothers and sisters; for you all have one Father, who right here gathers you and loves you and feeds you in His dearly-beloved Son. This is your family, and this is your home, and here is the Table where you eat and drink together in faith and love.
Where, then, shall your feet take you? Let them bring you here to share this Meal with your family. And let them also take you, in love, to one another in the world. Learn to know the needs, the hurts and the hopes, the heartaches and joys of your brothers and sisters, and do not run away from them in their pain, but walk toward them in mercy and compassion.
Christ Jesus, the Lord, has surely cleansed your feet in His love for you.
You, also, do the same for each other.
Little children, love one another. For love is of God, and you are beloved of Him. He loves you, even here in the midst of sin and death, even to the bitter end.
But “the end,” it turns out, is really the beginning of abundant life with God in Christ. For the One who has laid aside His garments to cleanse you by the shedding of His Blood, by His innocent suffering and death, and by the washing of water with His Word, has also taken them up again: to clothe you in His garments, richly wrought, and to adorn you in His own glorious raiment of righteousness, like a beautiful bride or handsome prince, made good-looking by His love for you.
The One who has laid down His life for you, has taken it up again, on His journey back to His own God and Father in heaven. And as He has come down from heaven for you, “for us men and our salvation,” so does He bring you in and with Himself to God, the Lord, who has in fact become your own dear Father in Him.
That Hour has already come. The Son of Man has glorified the Father in Himself, in His sacrificial death as the Lamb of God, who has taken upon Himself and taken away the sins of the world. And His Father has glorified Him, by raising Him from the dead, never to die again. So it is that all things are made new in Him, in His crucified and risen Body, and all flesh is cleansed and made alive by His holy and precious Blood.
His Blood marks the threshold of His Church in Holy Baptism, sealed with the sign of His Cross from the basin at His feet to the beam and lintels above His thorn-crowned head and on His right hand and His left. His Blood has likewise signed and sealed you with His Cross in the saving bath of your Baptism into Him, so that you are washed and clean and made ready for this Feast — which He has made ready for you.
In your eating of His Body, in your drinking of His Blood, you pass with Him through death into life, and you enter with Him into the Most Holy Place. For here at this Table, you are with your whole family in heaven and on earth, because you are in your Father’s House. And you are safe. The destroyer, and death and the devil, must leave you alone and cannot touch you here, because Christ the Lamb lays hold of you in love, so that He may abide in you, and you abide in Him, unto the life everlasting. This is Love, and this is your Life, forever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.