”I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you”
( John 13:34 )
Imagine the scene. You are at a lavish state banquet at Buckingham Palace. The Queen herself presides at the top table, resplendent in a silk gown and and bejewelled with diamonds. Suddenly, in the middle of the meal, Her Majesty rises from her seat. Removing her tiara, she whips out a flowery apron from beneath her chair, and ties it firmly around her royal middle. Then she moves swiftly along the line of chairs, reaching over the astonished diners to collect up their plates, scraping leftovers into a messy pile on the top one.
In the stunned silence, you glance at the guest beside you, who looks as horrified as you feel. Footmen come running, try to relieve Her Majesty of the task, but she shrugs them aside. “This is something one has to do,” she insists.
At the Last Supper, the disciples were as stunned as the Queen’s guests in our story, when their Lord, their King, got up in the middle of the meal, wrapped a towel around himself, and insisted on washing their dusty feet. To the disciples it was unthinkable that their leader should so demean himself. As unthinkable as the Queen of England doing the washing up after a state banquet. One thing was for certain, the weirdness of the situation meant that the disciples would never forget the incident, or what Jesus had to say to them about it.
Quite what the Queen wanted to show by her actions in our fable must be left to the imagination. Perhaps she, too, was making a point. Jesus, however, openly explained to his astounded disciples that he was illustrating something: “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done..” And, lest they misinterpret this simply as an order to wash feet, he issued the universal rule which his specific action had illustrated: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you.”
On this last night before he died, Jesus instilled into his disciples the need to serve others humbly, as he did. The events of the next three days would add an extra dimension to this instruction. His love for his disciples stretched beyond washing their feet; he would die for them, to wash away their sins. He laid aside his heavenly identity, to die upon the cross, just as he laid aside his outer robe to wash their feet. And just as he put on his robe again afterwards and returned to the head of the table, so he resumed his identity as Lord and God after his crucifixion, rising from the dead to return to his Father, to sit at God’s right hand at the head of the heavenly table.
On Maundy Thursday, we commemorate the new commandment, that we should love one another as Christ loves us, as we await the events of Good Friday and Easter, which give the commandment its full meaning. Sunday by Sunday, at Holy Communion, we recall these events, in remembrance of him. But, of course, it is no good just remembering what Jesus did and said if we are not prepared to copy his example and obey his commandments. We need to love others, in remembrance of him. Sacrament and service: one is meaningless without the other.
The commandment to love was not new, since it was already a part of Jewish religious practice: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” What was new about the commandment Jesus gave us was the reference to himself as pattern and example, and the reason for following it which was so that others would know we are his disciples. We, too, all these years later, are called to love others in imitation of Christ’s love for us: self-giving, and not clinging to our dignity.
The idea of being a servant like Jesus was a servant, the Servant King, beloved of modern hymn writers, is very popular nowadays in the Church, and the higher up the hierarchy you go the more it is mentioned. However, I am yet to see servanthood truly embraced by those with power without there being an alternative motive. The Church has always had a problem in being truly servant-like and the reason is that it likes power too much. It likes authority. It likes to keep its power and authority within just a small group. The members of this group tend to come from certain university and college backgrounds. In my church there is still very much an old school tie ethos.
But, Jesus Christ was a radical and a revolutionary. He was not a good, conservative Jew. Those who write books stating that he was are blatantly ignoring the gospel record. Like latter dsy upsetters of the status quo such as de Vinci, Newton, Marx, Darwin and Einstein, Jesus preached a message that shocked the world. It still does. We still find the idea that power structures should be inverted very scary, very unsettling, very dangerous. We find it particularly scary when such teaching is directed at ourselves. We are selfish animals. We want to be served. We don’t want to do the serving. Most of us who take Christ’s teaching seriously have to force ourselves into servanthood. Certainly I have to, all the while.
To be a servant you have to be prepared to make sacrifices. Your pride, your dignity, your power, your influence, your standing in the community; all these things will have to be sacrificed if you follow the example of Jesus. And Jesus expects us to make such sacrifices for the kingdom, and he has the right to do so because he himself made the ultimate sacrifice. He laid aside his majesty, his power and authority and suffered complete degradation. The King of the Universe, nailed to a couple of bits of wood and left to die. He did not do that in order for nothing to change.