Maundy Thursday, 24 March 2005
A Sermon on John 13:1-17 by Samuel Zumwalt
(->current sermons )
John 13:1-17, 34
1 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" 7 Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." 8 Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." 9 Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" 10 Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you." 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, "Not all of you are clean." 12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord-- and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
THAT YOU SHOULD DO AS I HAVE
Lutheran Christians don’t believe that Holy Baptism is an outward sign of an inward action – something one does once you have invited Jesus into your heart. Rather we believe that Holy Baptism is God’s gracious act of choosing us (especially as helpless infants) for Christ’s sake. We believe, teach, and confess that Holy Baptism is the pattern of our lives until we die. Yes, we are only washed one time with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yet we believe, teach, and confess that Holy Baptism is a way of life – daily dying to sin through confessing our need for a Savior and daily being raised to live a new life in the power of the Holy Spirit (given as a free gift in baptism).
Maundy Thursday, the first day of the Triduum (“three days” in Latin), introduces us to shape of this baptized life and the real meaning of discipleship. We are to do as the Lord Jesus does. We are to love as our Master loves. He gives us a new commandment – to give our lives away in humble service even unto death.
Now, needless to say, the inner circle of disciples didn’t get it that night or the next or the next. When Jesus took off his outer cloak and tied a towel around himself and began to wash feet like the lowliest servant, the disciples were taken aback and even repulsed by this kind of deliberate choice. When Jesus was arrested later that night and went without protest, the disciples were terrified and lost heart by this kind of deliberate choice. When Jesus was on trial before the religious leaders and the secular leaders, when he was mocked and beaten, when he was condemned to death, the disciples were in fear for their own lives and disbelieving of this kind of deliberate choice. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, the disciples were grief stricken and utterly disoriented by this kind of deliberate choice.
Only later, after the fact, when they knew the rest of the story, only then would the disciples begin to understand that Holy Baptism is a way of life – the pattern of dying to self and rising to life a new life of humble service in the power of the Holy Spirit. In short, during the original Triduum, the disciples could not be faulted for not knowing what they didn’t know. And to the extent that anyone has not been taught what it means to die and rise with Christ in the washing of Holy Baptism, that person cannot be faulted for not knowing what she or he doesn’t know. Nevertheless, all sin and all die.
But if we know what it means to die and rise with Christ in the washing of Holy Baptism and we do not do it, then we stand with all those that have renounced and abandoned the Christian faith. Abandoning God, we are guilty of apostasy.
The hard truth about us is that we do not fear, love, and trust God above all else. In short, daily we renounce the Lord our God and abandon the Christian faith. Daily we fail to die to ourselves and knowingly commit apostasy. Following the suggestion of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, I call this functional atheism. When we exclude God from whole portions and chapters of our lives, we abandon our God and function as atheists in that area or that period of our lives.
We live in a culture that despises the Christian faith and encourages us to function as atheists. The Lord Jesus’ call to give your lives away in humble service is often mimicked by random acts of kindness like blood drives and collections for world hunger even in churches! But this culture urges and encourages us to “look out for yourself – do what you want, do what makes you happy, do what you feel like doing.”
This culture doesn’t want to be told that prices need to be raised to pay a living wage to everyone. This culture doesn’t want to be told that taxes need to be raised to provide health care to those that don’t have it, to provide an education to all that need it, to take care of those that cannot work and those that no longer can work. This culture doesn’t want to be told that roads, bridges, and sewers are wearing out and need to be replaced and that it’s going to cost money. Instead we love to hear the politicians say “No new taxes!” And we believe we can have everything without any personal cost.
This culture doesn’t want to be told that selfishness breeds selfishness, heartache, and destruction. Instead it celebrates the freedom of the individual. This culture says that whatever you feel like doing is fine within very few limits.
This culture says that if you feel like having consensual sex, go ahead and do it. This culture says that if you feel like living together outside of marriage, go ahead and do it. This culture says that if you feel like abandoning your marriage and your children, go ahead and do it. This culture says that if you feel like aborting a child, go ahead and do it. This culture says that if you feel like all the previous generations are wrong about marriage being for one woman and one man until death parts them, go ahead and do it. This culture says that if you feel like it’s a burden to take care of someone and you feel that it’s time for them to die, go ahead and do it.
The Lord Jesus says to us: “Do as I have done – give your lives away in humble service.” And we answer back: “You have got to be kidding!” After all, the culture we live in is far more appealing than the kingdom the Lord Jesus calls us to inhabit. Autonomous individuals don’t want to be told what to do, and so we keep deconstructing what God has made. Like those that put the Lord Jesus on trial, we declare that the Lord Jesus is a threat to our culture. And He is! He is out to destroy this culture of death. He is out to obliterate its obsession with selfish autonomy. He longs to give us a new life!
Someone once said: Before the truth sets you free, it makes you mad! Well, that’s not quite it. The Lord Jesus is the Truth embodied. In Hs presence, all of us are exposed as selfish, functional atheists that are on the way to the cemetery. Even our random acts of kindness are shown for what they are – magnanimous gestures by self-serving egotists! We do not fear, love, and trust God above all else. Left to ourselves, we abandon God.
Confronted with the Truth – in the presence of Jesus the truth about himself – Simon Peter asked to be washed. Confronted with the Truth – in the presence of Jesus the truth about ourselves – we at began the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday with the words of Psalm 51: “Wash me through and through from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin” (v. 2). We confessed our utter brokenness. We were reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. The Truth about us is that there is no help or hope to be found within this body of death. No matter how many counselors and false prophets tell us that we should follow our feelings. The Truth is our feelings are the stuff of death.
Baptized into the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, we die to ourselves again and again. If we do not die to ourselves, we function as atheists and abandon God. The liberation provided by the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus is not, as the false prophets say, a freedom to follow my feelings and my experience wherever that leads. The Lord Jesus means freedom from the culture of death – freedom to die to ourselves daily – to go to our graves giving our lives away daily in humble service like Jesus!
We should enter into this Triduum – these three days – with awe and wonder, because we know that the Lord Jesus deliberately chose to do what we gladly run away from. In love that is beyond our imagination and our ability, God in the flesh willingly and without hesitation went the way that we cannot go if we are left to our selfish selves.
That night when the disciples were gathered with him for supper, the Lord Jesus did what every pious Jew does to this day. He took bread and wine and gave the King of the Universe thanks and praise for it. But on that occasion, the Lord Jesus said: “This my body and this my blood given and shed for you.”
His disciples did not know what He was up to, but we baptized Christians know the rest of the story. The Lord Jesus was promising that the life He was about to sacrifice for the sins of the world would be ever after given in bread and wine as we eat and drink, remembering that we were there with Him on the cross. In Holy Baptism, we have already died with Him on Calvary’s tree and now in the Holy Communion He gives us His life as a free gift again and again and again unto eternity.
Left to ourselves, we abandon God and can never love as Christ loves us. But dying to ourselves daily and being filled with that Life and that Love that can never be taken from us, we can give our lives away in humble service just like the One who lives in and through us.
Today, in this place, it seems possible as we look around to see Visible Words and living embodiments of the discipled life. Here we have been called out of the world of unbelief, out of the culture of death. But tonight and tomorrow we go to our trials, to our sufferings, and to our crosses, and the culture of death screams out: “Fools, why would you ever live like that when you can be your own little god?”
The Lord Jesus shows us that the way of eternal life leads through the death of self and, yes, the death of this body with all of its feelings and experience. The Lord Jesus shows us that the way of eternal death is nothing other than a celebration of the autonomous self and the culture of death that is trying to seduce us daily!
“Don’t go to hell with the culture of death! Come, die with me,” says our Lord Jesus, “and you will live forever.”
Pastor Sam Zumwalt
St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA