John 13:1-15, 34-35; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32; Exodus 12:1-14
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Why is it that Christ’s Church is certain to be full on Christmas and Easter, but much less than full on the other fifty Sundays of each year? Is it not because, in general, people do not feel a deep down need for God’s Word and Sacraments? I mean a true need, a hunger and thirst, a desire to be filled with God’s good gifts in Jesus Christ. For, surely a person that is hungry will seek out food to eat and be satisfied, a person who is thirsty will seek out drink, and a person who feels a need for God and His good gifts will readily seek them and will not stop until he is sated. Therefore, I suspect that many people simply do not feel such a need.
But then, why do they come on Christmas and Easter, or Mother’s Day, for that matter? If they are not coming because of their need, then why do they come? Perhaps they come simply because it is what you’re supposed to do. Perhaps they come because they believe that they should honor God with their presence at least once or twice a year. Perhaps they come because they believe that doing so is sufficient, that so long as they show up on Christmas and Easter they have done what is necessary to merit God’s approval. Either way, if you are not coming out of your need for God and His good gifts, because of what God is doing for you and giving to you, then you must be coming because of what you believe you are doing and giving. Dear Christian, may the Holy Spirit of God convict you to see the folly in such thinking.
Worship, the Divine Service, or Gottesdienst as our Lutheran forebears called it, “God’s Service”, is first and foremost God’s selfless, sacrificial service to you apart from, before, and throughout your response of praise, thanksgiving, and selfless, sacrificial service to your neighbor. God descends to you, who cannot ascend to Him. He washes you clean with Jesus’ innocent shed blood and raises you from death to life. He clothes you in Jesus’ righteousness, adopts you as His sons, and feeds and nourishes you with His Word and the holy Wounds of His Son. He fills you with Himself, from whose love, mercy, grace, compassion, and forgiveness springs forth in and out of us praise, thanksgiving, and a desire to love one another as you have been loved by God in Jesus Christ.
On that frightful night of the Plague of the Firstborn, it was God’s service, God’s Word, that marked and protected the Jewish faithful so that the Angel of Death would pass over their homes and spare their firstborn. He instructed them to slaughter an unblemished lamb at twilight and to mark the lintels and doorposts of their homes with its blood. Then they were to roast it and eat its flesh with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Anything remaining after the household had eaten was to be burned in fire. Now, there was nothing special about these sacrificial lambs. Their blood had no power to atone for sin or keep death at bay. But, it was the Word of God, which He attached to the lamb, to the blood, and to the ceremonial action that gave it the power of a sacrament. It was God’s service, God’s Word, God’s action from the mercy, love, and compassion of our heavenly Father, which redeemed the Hebrew firstborn from death.
Likewise, on the night in which He was betrayed, before eating the Last Supper with His disciples, Jesus served them by washing their feet. This was not a mere cleansing of dirt from the body, but it was a sign, like the lamb’s blood marking the doors of the children of Israel, that God would do, that God was doing, all that was necessary to make men clean, righteous, and holy before Him, to be able to stand in His presence once again, more than that, to commune with Him, in Him, and truly live.
John preserves for you the protestation of Peter as catechesis in the objective nature of God’s service in making you clean. Peter was scandalized that Jesus, His Lord and Master, would condescend to wash his feet. He vehemently protested, “You shall never wash my feet.” But, Jesus explained to Peter saying, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand,” and “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Here Jesus teaches both the necessity and the benefit of His washing – being a part of Jesus, His body, in communion with Him. Of course, Peter, never tepid, but always hot or cold, is still confused and insists, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
And, here, is displayed how it goes with you. For, you are Peter, vacillating in zealousness or apathy, adding to or subtracting from the Word of the Lord, while trusting in it not for the powerful, creative, true, and life-giving Word that it is. It is by Jesus’ washing you in His holy, innocent, shed blood that you are clean. This is both necessary and sufficient so that you need not do anything but receive it in faith. Surely that cannot be enough, you think. It can’t be that easy, you protest. But it is, because it’s all Jesus, all the time. He gives, you receive. It’s like having your feet washed. It’s like having the wind blow upon you. It’s like being born – pure passivity, pure reception, pure and holy grace.
However, as St. James teaches, the faith that is received by grace alone is never alone. Faith is proved by works. Therefore, James says, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” Thus, after washing His disciple’s feet – after cleansing them from their sins, purifying, and absolving them – Jesus taught them saying, “Do you understand what I have done to you? […] for I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” Then Jesus gave them a new commandment, a new mandate, after which this day is called Maundy Thursday, “Love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”
Now, perhaps you think this new commandment to be something too easy as well. In truth, it is easy, and it is also the most difficult thing to do imaginable. It is easy because it is with God’s love in Christ that you are to love others. That is what Jesus means by saying “as I have loved you” – you are to love with His love, the love you have received from him, which you are to show to others. For, you have no love of your own to give. God is love. God loves. And it is with God’s love in Jesus Christ that you love.
However, loving in this way is also the most difficult thing to do imaginable because this kind of love, God’s love in Christ, is boundlessly wide and immeasurably deep. Your personal well is not so wide and deep and, too often, is nearly bone dry. How then can you love as Jesus commands? By yourself, you simply can’t. First, you must be loved; you must receive Jesus’ love. You must stop doing and begin receiving. Stop trying to chase and grasp the wind, but permit the wind of God’s Holy Spirit to blow upon you through His Word. Stop trying to make yourself clean by your obedience, piety, and works of charity and mercy, and permit Jesus to wash you in His blood and make you clean. If He says that you are clean, then you are clean. Believe it, trust in it, cling to His Word of promise. And, stop striving to be born again by your decision and choice. You had no choice, you made no decision when you were born the first time; so it is that you do not choose or decide to be born again in the Spirit, but this is the work of the Holy Triune God alone. Stop, be still, receive, believe and be filled with Jesus. Then you will love with His love, and it will be easy, for it will flow out of you like an overflowing chalice into the lives of your brother, your neighbor, your friend, and your enemy.
This truth St. Paul speaks of saying, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you….” Paul had nothing to offer to anyone other than what he himself had received. And, what had he received from the Lord? Particularly, in this passage, it was the Lord’s Supper, our Lord’s institution, which we remember and celebrate this night. The Lord’s Supper is a powerful sign of God’s love in Jesus Christ. While it’s power comes from His Word, in love God wraps His creative and life-giving Word in lowly bread and wine that you may handle it, eat it, and drink it, just as He once wrapped His creative and life-giving Word in human flesh, born of the Virgin Mary, to suffer and die with your sins, in your place, and to be raised to life that you might live with Him forever in His kingdom.
This is the feast of God’s love for you in Jesus Christ. Come and receive. Take, eat His body. Take, drink His blood. He is for you, the perfect and holiest of gifts. He will fill you with His love to the brim, and He will fill you to overflowing that you may truly love one another as He has loved you. His new commandment, His mandatum, is not a commandment of the Law, but it is fruit of the Gospel. He has perfectly loved you so that you may love one another, not perfectly, but with His perfect love. What you deliver to others is only that which you yourself have received.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.