Every Maundy Thursday, I am reminded of a particular event that occurred during my time at Seattle Pacific University. My senior year, I took a class from this notoriously hard professor who taught one of the most difficult courses that was offered at our school. For all of us aspiring theologians, this was the rite of passage.
On the first day of class, as the professor dramatically (no joke) made his way to the center of the room, he said to all of us, "Welcome. Your ignorance regarding the history of the Christian church cannot be overstated." Well, thank you, professor. I'm looking forward to this course as well.
Eventually, the deadline for our first paper rolled around, and I was pretty determined to prove him wrong. I was determined to prove that I was actually a church history prodigy of sorts and maybe the first one he had ever taught. I spent a lot of time on that paper. I have to tell you, I turned it in feeling pretty good about myself. I was imagining all the wonderful things he would say when I got that paper back.
I was feeling great, actually; until I got that paper back. Much to my surprise, the word "prodigy" was actually nowhere to be found. Instead, three times—in bright red ink—he had circled the phrase "Monday Thursday." Then at the top, he'd left a single comment: "Maundy does not equal Monday."
As it turns out, the name of this day is "Maundy Thursday," not "Monday Thursday." A subtle, but very important difference. That word "maundy" actually comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means "command." It's where we get the English word "mandate."
That word "command" is specifically referencing a moment Jesus shared with his closest followers the evening before he was crucified, and many of us know that story. It was this special night, a night nestled between the crowds who sang "Hosanna!" just days before and the masses of people who would gather for Jesus' trial the following day. It was a time filled with a lot of people, noise, and excitement: except for this moment.
It's about you
This was a different moment. Jesus takes this one last opportunity away from the crowds and the people and the noise to eat with his closest friends, to share with them what at first appears to be this rather ordinary moment. At a certain point in the night, he gives the command, the mandatum that would come to mark that event. He says, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another" (John 13:34). It's worth noting that up until this point in the Gospel of John, the author has never stated explicitly that Jesus loved his disciples. We all know that verse in John 3:16 where Jesus talks about God's love for the entire world, but on this night, in this moment, things all of a sudden get profoundly personal. It's not about the world. It's not about Israel. It's not about the person sitting next to you. It's about you.
First, it's about you. It's about the way he loved you, James. It's about the way he loved you, John, and you, Andrew. For those sitting at the table with Jesus that night, it's clear that before they could ever understand what the command compelled them to go out and actually do, first they had to wrap their minds around what that command revealed about them.
See, before the command to love others is about others, it's about us. Before it's about the person sitting next to you, it's about you. If this unique love was ever to be for anyone else, first it had to be for them.
They had to grasp the depths of it. "Just as I have loved you," Jesus said. Now truly, the question is: how did Jesus love them? At the very start of the story in John 13:1, John writes, "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." That statement might better translate, "He loved them fully, or to the utmost. He loved them to the greatest possible extent." It's less a statement about time and more a statement about depth, a statement about how far this love would actually reach into a person's life. What does it look like to love a person like that? Part of what's so special about this night in the middle of all the chaos is that Jesus pauses to make it very clear to show them.
To be a servant
As evening begins, it doesn't seem like there was anything too out of the ordinary. Jesus knew what the next few days would hold, but for everyone else, it was business as usual. Everyone was probably a little bit annoyed at Peter, who wouldn't stop talking about Palm Sunday and about the number of people who'd come out for the event. He kept asking Philip, "Could you even believe it?" Philip wasn't really paying attention to Peter because he was distracted by a blister he developed on the trek to Jerusalem just a few days back. Andrew was wondering (silently, of course) if there was more wine than what he was seeing on the table. He speculated someone had drunk more than their fair share. He further speculated it was Simon the Zealot. "Never trust a zealot," he'd always said that.
Now we obviously don't know the details of that moment—what went on over dinner or what they talked about—but we do know that in the middle of the meal, Jesus interrupts it. He shakes up the ordinary.
(Read John 13:3-5)
Mid-meal, Jesus gets up, and he takes off his garment, which would have left him in a tunic, a shorter garment kind of like an undershirt. This garment was actually what servants in that day would wear to serve a meal. He gets up from the table, and he physically dresses himself like a servant.
Paul would later write to the Philippians that Jesus made himself nothing by taking the very form of a servant. It's worth noting the language Paul uses in this passage. Notice he doesn't just say Jesus came and served. No, he actually puts on the very nature of a servant. He actually changed his clothes. He actually becomes a servant. There's a difference between choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant. When I choose to serve, that might be a good thing, but at the end of the day, I'm still in charge. I still decide whom I will serve and when I will serve. Often, I make that choice when it's in my favor, when it will still make me look good.
As I was thinking about that this week, I was reminded of a time growing up. We had chores as kids. My mom would get home from work every day precisely at 3:45. That was about a half an hour after I would get off the bus and come home. I was supposed to be doing my chores, but like any obedient, responsible kid, the moment I got off the bus, I went and helped myself to some ice cream, just a little afterschool snack. Then just before 3:45, I'd rush outside to the front flowerbed. My job was to weed. I'd rush out to the front flower bed in the driveway, so when my mom got home, she would see me there, and it would appear I was hard at work. One time, I remember I even rubbed a little bit of dirt on my face just for effect. It was brilliant!
See, when you choose to serve, you are still in control. You still choose when and how you will serve. But when you become a servant, then serving actually becomes a way of life. You relinquish the need to be in control, the need to gain anything from those whom you serve.
In some ways, this was the game the disciples were used to playing. In those days, it was customary for the servant of a host to wash the feet of their guests. It was a sign of hospitality. Roads were dirty. There was no sewage system in that day. There were no paved streets, and walking was the primary mode of transportation. The effects of these conditions could actually be seen in a person's feet. It's because feet would get so dirty that it was customary before a meal for the servant to wash the feet.
It wasn't a pleasant job. You wouldn't want anyone except for the lowly, the people you didn't care about much, to see and touch your feet. If you were trying to earn the love of someone above you in status, if you were trying to impress them, then maybe you would wash their feet, but you certainly wouldn't want the person whose love you were trying to earn to wash yours. That was just how it worked.
Jesus, on the other hand, showed them a new way. He had no need to manipulate, no need for image maintenance. John writes, "Jesus knew … that he had come from God and was returning to God, so he got up from the meal," and he took on the very nature of a servant. The ones who makes themselves servants don't have anything to prove, because they know who they are. They can serve impartially because their identities are deeply rooted in something beyond appearances.
Jesus knew he had come from God, and he knew he was going back to God. His capacity to serve was directly related to his security in that identity. His capacity to love was fully related to the knowledge that he himself was so loved: extraordinary love, love that loves to the greatest extent, to the utmost. It exists in the person who knows God in such a way that they don't need anything from the object of their love.
Before the command to love others is about others, it's about us. Before it's about the person sitting next to you, it's about you. We love because he first loved us.
Jesus knows the months to come will not be easy for this bunch. He knows the mission he is asking them to embark on will require they remember this moment. It will require they know they are loved. Soon enough, they'll be called to go out into the world like sheep among wolves. They'll be called to go love the unlovable. They'll be sent on a mission that could end in their persecution. For some of them, it will. He knows they need this moment. In fact, he knows the mission will only be possible if they have this moment. So slowly, Jesus begins working his way around the room washing feet: one by one, washing their dirty, grimy feet.
Growing up, I don't remember a lot about my grandfather on my mom's side, but I do remember his feet. He and my grandma had divorced well before I was born, and he passed away when I was still pretty young. My memories of him are few, but like I said, I remember his feet. I remember his feet because he had no toes. He had diabetes and, as a result, all of his toes had been removed. He had been remarried for some years, and when I was young, probably a couple of times a year, we would go and visit.
As a kid, I thought his feet were fascinating, but they were a little bit scary to me. I didn't know what to make of feet with no toes. I have this vivid memory of his wife (technically my step-grandma) always tending to and always taking care of those feet. I remember this one time in particular when we were visiting my grandfather, and he didn't have socks on. We were just sitting there talking. At one point in the conversation, his wife got up from the living room. She came back, and she had socks in her hands. She said to my grandpa, with a huge smile on her face, "Give me those feet." She proceeded to cover up his feet with socks. Then she sat there just holding those feet in her lap.
I didn't know a lot about my grandfather and his marriage and this new life he had, but I remember that moment. Even though I didn't have the vocabulary to name it as "love," that picture has stuck with me because it was different, because it was extraordinary, because that lady had shaken up the ordinary for me. I knew she loved my grandpa by the way she said, "Give me those feet." I knew she loved my grandpa because of how she held those feet, how she cared about the part of him that was the most broken.
We all have broken parts of ourselves that we'd rather not have anyone see. For the disciples, this was the case as well. In that room with Jesus on that night, there were hearts full of contradiction. There were folks saying all the right things outwardly, but inwardly plotting great evils. That was Judas. There were people with the best of intentions, but when push came to shove in the days ahead, fear would get the best of them, and they'd do the very thing they promised never to do. That's Peter.
Later on that night, Jesus would tell the group that "one of you is going to betray me." He was talking about Judas, but apparently Judas wasn't the obvious choice. John writes that his disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. Often I'll read that line, and my tendency is to think the disciples were confused and looking around because they're all sure it won't be them: they're all sure they're not the ones who are going to turn their backs on Jesus.
As I was reading that passage this week I couldn't help but think, What if they're confused because deep down, they're all wondering the same thing: "Is it me?" Deep down they're asking, Am I the one? Does he know about the things I've done? Does he know about my doubts? Did he find out about that secret addiction? Has he heard about that thing from my past that I have such deep regret and shame over? Does he know the places my thoughts sometimes drift, places I would be so ashamed if anyone else found out? Is it me?
For many of us, our greatest fear is that we'll be found out: that our dirty, grimy feet will be exposed. The fear is not just the exposure, but that such exposure will leave us unloved. Perhaps this is why when it's Peter's turn to have his feet washed, he puts up a fight. He insists that Jesus stay away. He says, "You shall never wash my feet."
Jesus tells Peter, "I have to wash your feet. It won't make sense to you right now, but in a few days, it will become clearer. In a few days, when you're at your lowest moment, Peter; in a few days, when you've denied knowing me, your friend and teacher; in a few days, when you're feeling more ashamed than you've ever felt in your life; in a few days, when you feel alone and unworthy of love, you will be glad I washed your feet. You will need this moment—this moment here, when the worst of you was exposed, and you were loved in that place. You'll need this moment where you know I love all of you: not just your clean hands or your presentable face, but all of you. Not just your achievements and your intellect and your wittiness—I love all of that, but I love your feet. See, that's fully loving. That's loving to the greatest possible extent. That's loving to the end. Now, Peter, give me those feet."
I bet each of the disciples had a moment that night when they knew they were loved. I wonder if even Judas, the infamous betrayer, had a moment in which he realized Jesus loved him to the very core. He loved even the conflicted, contradictory, misled parts of him with this extraordinary love.
Do you know that love? There's an author by the name of Brennan Manning who writes about God's love this way. He says, "Jesus came not only for those who skip morning meditations, but also for real sinners, thieves, adulterers, and terrorists, for those caught up in squalid choices and failed dreams." To the worst of the worst, to the one beyond hope, to you and to me, he says, "Give me those feet." Do you know that love?
The command Jesus gives that night is great, and it will change the world: "Go out and love, just as I have loved you." Before this command is about others, it's about you. Before you can replicate that "love others," it has to be for you. "Just as I have loved you." Do you know that love?
Between the commotion and celebration of Palm Sunday and the noise and celebration of Easter, let things get profoundly personal. Let yourself be loved with a love that shakes up the ordinary, a love that loves to the utmost, a love that reaches deep into all the shadows and the contradictions and loves in that place.
"Give me those feet."
Abby McHugh is a member of the teaching team and the Director of Sanctuary, the college and young adult ministry at Menlo Church in Menlo Park, California.