It is said that, in his later years, the preaching of St. John the Apostle could be summarized simply as, “My little children, love one another.” That 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 the Lord Jesus, the “mandatum” for which this day has been named: “Maundy Thursday.” St. John likewise writes of this New Commandment in his Epistles, and he there repeats the point with emphasis. Hence, the “beloved disciple,” who knew the love of Jesus well, has also become the Apostle of Love.
Not only St. John and St. Paul, but the Lord Jesus Himself teaches you that Love is the summary and fulfillment of the Law: Love for God above everything else, and love for your neighbor with the same affection, care, and dedication that you have for yourself. This is what the Lord requires of you as a child of God, as a disciple of Christ Jesus, in all that you do and say.
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 your “neighbor” is found in all those people whom God the Lord has stationed alongside you in this 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.
How, then, shall you wash your neighbor’s feet? Little children, how shall you love one another?
And with that, you fathers and mothers, how shall you teach your own children to love, as Christ Jesus and His Apostles have taught you and commanded you to love? Or, if you have no children of your own, how shall you teach your students to love, or anyone else entrusted to your care and oversight? The answer is obvious enough. In the first place, you are to love them. For you cannot expect or suppose that your children (or students) will love any differently than you love them.
Parents, do you want your children to love each other? To be polite and respectful to you and to other people? To be considerate, kind, and gentle? To put the needs of others ahead of their own? You should desire all of these things. And so should you love your children as Christ Jesus loves you, and serves you, and gives Himself for you, as He forgives you, cleanses you, and feeds you.
Jesus does not ask you to do anything more or anything else than what He Himself does for you and gives to you by His grace. He rather commands you to be like Him, and to do for others as He does for you. As we have heard from St. Peter earlier this week, the Lord Jesus Christ has left you an example in the bearing of His Cross and Passion, that you should 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 found in all of this? For the Gospel is not a law, it is a gift. The Gospel does not tell you what to do. It proclaims what Christ has done, and it freely delivers His good things to you. 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 higher and holier Law than God had previously given through Moses in the Old Testament? Has He just upped the ante even more? For the whole Law of Moses was already summarized in Love — for God and for the neighbor — whereas now you are commanded to love both God and man in the perfect way that Christ Jesus does.
But in fact, the perfect love of Jesus — for His Father, for you, and for all people — is precisely the fulfillment of what the old Law demanded. So that expectation is not the “newness” at hand.
In any event, you could not do it — not of yourself or by yourself.
You love God and your neighbor only as the Lord Jesus first loves you. You learn from Him to love, not only by His good example and instruction, but as He serves you in love, and cleanses you by grace, and makes you brand new in Himself, recreated in His divine Image and Likeness.
Would you presume to wash your own feet and cleanse yourself and become your own savior? You know better than that! 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 that is truly meet, right, and salutary. But here, too, humble yourself by giving Him your dirty feet to be washed, and by opening your mouth to eat and drink from His hand.
There is something remarkably new in that. 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 well 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 the many — in this you are brought to the heart of the matter. For the “newness” of His Commandment is the newness of the New Covenant in His Blood.
It is in Him that all things are made new, including you. In His own Body of flesh and blood.
The 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 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 all culminates and is completed — even as it continues — on this night, in this Hour, in His Passion unto death.
In humility He 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. It is something that a master would never do for a slave; and yet, the Lord Jesus does so for you.
The waters with which He cleanses you flow from His wounded side together with His Blood. So you are cleansed by His Blood in the waters of Holy Baptism. And you are cleansed by His Blood from the Cup of His New Covenant, which He pours out for you in His Sacrament of the Altar.
When the Israelite fathers sacrificed the Passover lambs at twilight, they did so in the doorways of their homes. At the threshold was a basin, an impression dug into the floor, which would normally be useful for preventing water from washing into the house. The blood of the sacrificed lamb was poured out into that basin, and then painted onto the doorframe at its top and each of its sides with a brush of hyssop — thus making the sign of the Cross! In like manner, the Blood of the true Passover Lamb, Christ Jesus, is poured out from His sacred wounds into the “basin” of His Baptismal Font, and into the “basin” of His Holy 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.
You know well enough, even from everyday life, how important and significant meals are, not only 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 one another. The husband and father who provides the meal, whether by farming, by hunting and fishing, or by paying for the food, thereby loves and cares for his wife and children. Likewise, the wife and mother who prepares the meal and serves it to her family, thereby loves her husband and children and cares for them. Such works and service are not incidental; they are among the cords of love that bind the members of a household to each other and actually make them into a family.
Similarly, 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 includes you in His Family, His Church. He gives you a part in Himself, in His Body. All the more so because 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 Himself serve you, as your Waiter, through His Ministry of the Gospel; but He is the Food and the 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 in Him you are “bodied” and “blooded” together with each other. You are all one Body in Christ, as you all eat of His Body and drink of His Cup. Thus, you belong to each other, and you are given to love and serve and care for each other, as the Lord Jesus Christ loves each of you.
To be sure, you are “bodied” and “blooded” together with Christians of all times and places. But this congregation is your immediate family. The Christians who sit and stand and kneel beside you here in this place are your brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. And you all have one Father, who gathers you right here to love you and to feed you with His beloved Son. So this is your family, and this is your home. And this is the Table where you eat and drink together in faith and love.
Where then shall your feet take you, as they are cleansed by the Lord who loves you? Let them bring you here to share this Meal with your family, which Christ in mercy has prepared for you and gives to you. And then let your feet take you from this Altar to love and serve your neighbors in the world. Learn to know the needs, the hurts and hopes, the heartaches and joys of your brothers and sisters, and do not run away from them and their pain, but walk beside them with compassion.
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.
Not only that, but “the end,” it turns out, is really the beginning of abundant life with God in Christ Jesus. 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, in order to clothe you in His garments, richly wrought, and to adorn you in His righteousness like a beautiful bride or a 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 God and Father in heaven. And as He has come down from heaven for you and your salvation, so does He bring you, in and with Himself, to the One who is your own dear God and Father in Him.
The Son of Man has glorified the Father in Himself by His sacrificial death as the Lamb of God, bearing the sins of the world in His own Body on the Cross. 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 and on His left. His Blood has likewise signed and sealed you with His Cross in the waters of your Baptism, so that you are 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 His Table you are united with your whole family in heaven and on earth within your Father’s House. And here you are kept safe and sound. 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, that He should abide in you, and you abide in Him, body and soul, unto the Life everlasting. This is Love. And this is your Life forevermore.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.