He Loved Them to the End: A Homily for Maundy Thursday

Augustana Lutheran Church
13 April 2017 + Maundy Thursday
John 13.1-17, 31b-35

Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

Jesus went out with his disciples to a place where there was a garden… Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place… So he brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons… and they arrested Jesus and bound him.

Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus… A woman said to Peter, “You are not  also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”

Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to end.

In our reading from John’s gospel today, we encounter a familiar story read every Maundy Thursday — the word “Maundy,” of course, deriving its meaning from the Latin word mandatum, meaning “commandment,” as in: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” This is perhaps the most famous verse in the entire passage and probably the one on which at least I have heard the most sermons.

But often overlooked, I suspect, is the first verse that opens this reading: He loved them to the end. A simple statement made all the more profound by its position in John’s gospel, ahead of the passion narrative we will read tomorrow on Good Friday, ahead of the Judas’s act of betrayal, ahead of Peter’s denial of Jesus. In spite of all this, says the gospel writer, he loved them to the end.

We get a very specific, tangible example of what that kind of love looks like in the verses that follow. Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.

To be sure, foot washing was a common practice of hospitality in the first-century world, but it was also dirty work — work that would have been relegated to a slave or something that a host’s guests would have had to do themselves. But here, Jesus flips the practice on its head. The master becomes the servant, the teacher taking the form of a slave, emptying himself before those whom his social world would have deemed lesser or inferior.

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche movement, knows something of what it means to serve those whom our culture has deemed inferior. His movement is made up of individual group homes designed for those with mental disabilities who share daily life and spiritual community with non-disabled assistants.

In his first encounter with persons living with disabilities, Vanier recounts being struck by their cry for relationship and to be loved and seen as human beings. He also talks about meeting one woman who was so astonished that he had devoted his life’s work to ministering to persons with disabilities because, in her words, they’re so “frightening.” But isn’t it the case, Vanier reflects, that we see in others what we’re afraid to see in ourselves — that we as humans are all fragile beings, with weaknesses, limitations, even disfigurements, and we all have a need to be loved as we are.

It’s for this very reason that L’Arche focuses on the body, and particularly suffering bodies and bodies that have been deemed useless by the world’s standards. Vanier stresses the importance of touch and attention to the body in welcoming newcomers to a L’Arche community. In sharing about how he himself has been physically touched by those whom he serves, he speaks of a tenderness where touch is important, touch which is not aggressive but welcoming and which teaches something about what it means to be human and to relate and to celebrate life together.

Which brings us back to our scene with Jesus: Touch, of course, is central to the practice of foot washing, and this moment Jesus shares with his disciples is perhaps the most intimate, vulnerable moment of connection they experience in the whole gospel. This is the embodiment of the love with which Jesus loved them to the end.

This, too, is the love to which we are called as a community which follows our servant-teacher. Jesus’s love, the love to which we are urged, is a self-emptying love which is wholly concerned for the other. It’s a love which knows no bounds, and it’s a love in which we are enveloped by a God who comes to us in the flesh, emptying God’s self in Jesus for us and for the life of the world.

It’s a love that often doesn’t often make any sense to us, as Jean Vanier again says: “Jesus was quiet. And he ate with people who are caught up in prostitution, with tax collectors, with lepers… there’s something so simple about Jesus that he is disarming. We don’t quite know what to do with it. Because frequently, we would want a powerful Jesus who will put everything straight, who will cure everybody, who will do everything that we tell him to do. And it’s not like that.”

Indeed, it’s not like that at all. Thanks be to God.

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