Maundy Thursday: “Behold the Man! A God Who Loves”
April 18, 2019
Text: John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Just what is new about Jesus’ Commandment to love one another? After all, Moses long ago had commanded us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18; ESV). And our Lord had already given us the Golden Rule: “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matt. 7:12). That is, as He tells us, “the Law and the Prophets,” the rule of the Old Testament. What, then, is new about the Command on this night when Jesus says, “love one another” (John 13:34)? It is these words: “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” Just as I have loved you. And how does He love us? Not just deep down in His sacred heart. Not with warm fuzzies and emotion. Jesus loves in action. He loves with His hands. He loves with His feet. He loves with His sacred head and pierced side. He loves with His whole Body, unto death. He dies. That is how He loves, as St. Paul says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Love is not an emotion. Love is action for the good of the beloved. Love is sacrifice. Love is the giving of the self. And where you and I always get it wrong, Jesus gets it right. You want to know what love is, Jesus asks His disciples on the night in which He was betrayed, during the Passover Feast? I’ll show you. Jesus, the Teacher and Lord, God in the flesh, stoops down with basin and towel and unstraps the sandals of His disciples. Remember, John the Baptist confessed that he was not even worthy to unstrap the sandals of the Lord. And that is a slave’s work. Dirty stuff. Feet mired in the muck of the road, dirt, mud, sewage. Jesus is not afraid to stoop down and grab ahold of that, take those caked feet in His hands, loose them, scrub them, rub them dry with His towel. That is how Jesus loves. The Lord of all acts as the slave. He gets dirty. He does not love with good intentions. He loves with humility. He loves with action. He loves by getting dirty, cleansing the filthy of their filth.
That’s pretty new, particularly in comparison with a religion all worried about clean and unclean. Peter is a good Jew, and He will have none of it. Now, this comes from noble intentions. Far be it from You to get dirty with my filth, Lord. But that shows us everything we need to know about Peter’s love. His love keeps his hands clean. And he doesn’t want to see the Lord get dirty. That’s too low for You, Lord. And it doesn’t even occur to him that Jesus’ action is the real thing. That’s love. That is God’s love for sinners that cleanses the filthy, head to toe. By taking the filth onto Himself.
And bearing it to the cross. Jesus loves us to the death of the cross. That is how He loves. There His loving hands are nailed to the tree, His feet, His brow, His side, pierced for you, for your redemption, for the forgiveness of your sins. To cover your filth and wash it away with the blood and water that pour from His side and weep from His precious wounds. The picture of love is the crucifix. If you want to know what love is, look there. That trumps even the Golden Rule. Jesus doesn’t just treat us the way He would like to be treated. He doesn’t just love His neighbor as Himself. He loves Himself not at all, but gives Himself up completely, in love for the world, in love for you. God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
God loves us in the Body of Jesus given into death for our sins. And the risen Jesus still loves us in giving that Body, the very Body crucified, dead, and buried, now risen and glorified, and the Blood that painted that Body red, shed for us. He gives it, under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink in the Supper He instituted on this night for the forgiveness of sins.
And you, like Peter, object. Now, this comes from noble intentions. Far be it from You, Lord, to come really and substantially, not just figuratively, with Your true Body and Blood, on the humble forms of bread and wine. Surely not. Surely this is just symbolic. Surely such common elements are unable to contain You and all Your gifts. The finite is not capable of the infinite. And to forgive sins in this way? Unreasonable is what that is. It is beneath You.
But here stand the bare Words of our Lord’s Testament on the night in which He was betrayed. “Take, eat. This is my Body. Drink of it, all of you. This is my Blood of the New Testament. Given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.” For all your good intentions and warm, fuzzy feelings about Jesus, to love Him is not to deny His Word. It is to believe it. It is to receive it, and so receive His love for you. He doesn’t love with feelings. He loves with His Body and Blood. And here they are for you in the Supper, which forgives your sins.
And that is the key to the new of the Commandment. “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” You can only love that way with the love of Jesus Himself, poured out for you at His death, flowing through you in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. That is to say, your love for one another flows from the Sacrament. We even call it the Holy Communion. Because it unites us as one in the love of Jesus. Jesus’ love (and remember, we’re not talking about some schmaltzy emotion here, but love that is action, sacrifice, the real thing)… Jesus’ love flows between you and your fellow Christians at the altar, and outward toward your neighbor.
And that means not a feeling in the inner-recesses of your heart, but concrete action. God became flesh to love you. You are flesh to be Christ to your neighbor. What does he need? Help him. Give to him. Be a Christian with your body, not just your heart. Get busy. Do good works, not because God needs them, but because your neighbor does. Love as a sinner among sinners. Do the dirty work. Don’t be afraid to take your neighbor’s filthy foot in your hands and wash away the mud and the sewage. Forgive your neighbor’s sins. Even his sins against you. Take his sin on yourself. Die to it. Even when he’s not sorry. Even when he doesn’t deserve it. That is the point of the whole foot washing business. That is not the sacrament Jesus instituted on that night, which is why we don’t have foot washing stations here tonight. The point of it is, that’s how low you go to serve. That’s the kind of service that is most important. Taking your neighbor’s filth away. Forgiving him. Remember that Jesus didn’t wash the feet of people who were deserving, or who even appreciated it. He washed the feet of His disciples who abandoned Him in His hour of need. He washed the feet of Peter, who denied Him. He washed the feet of Judas, who betrayed Him and rejected Him forever.
And then He died for them all. And He died for you. That is how Jesus loves. God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Now, who of us can love in that way? We cannot, of ourselves. Our old nature is incapable of it. Which is why we always come back to the altar where Christ puts Himself in us. St. Ambrose said, “Because I always sin, I always need the medicine.” So here we are. And as Christ places His incarnate love on our tongues and pours it down our throats, our sins are forgiven, including our lovelessness, and we die to self and are quickened in Jesus. We are given to live in faith toward our God, and in fervent love toward one another. We forgive one another’s trespasses against us, for God has forgiven ours against Him. We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19), and gave Himself for us, and gives Himself to us.
God’s love is not an emotion. It is the giving of Himself for us in the flesh of Jesus. It is the giving of Himself to us in the Holy Supper. This is really something new. The love of Christ’s disciples is the love of Christ Himself given into death for us, made one with us in the Supper, coursing through our veins, enlivening us in our very bodies to love one another. Just as He has loved us. Come to the Feast. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.