‘He loved them to the end’

Maundy Thursday
John 13:1-20; 31b-35

Matthew, Mark and Luke all record the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples. They each tell us of the institution of the Lord’s Supper that night, of the betrayal of Judas, and the prediction of Peter’s denial of Jesus.

Like Matthew, Mark and Luke, John tells of Judas’ betrayal and of the prediction of Peter’s denial of Jesus. John does not, however, mention a single word about the institution of the last supper. But this is not because John is in a hurry to move past this meal to the account of the arrest of Jesus. Whereas the three earlier gospels devote less than a chapter each to the event of the Last Supper (68 verses between them) John devotes five full chapters to the words and actions of Jesus as this meal totaling 155 verses, nearly a quarter of his gospel.

As in other parts of his gospel, John feels no need to go over ground that is already well covered. So John begins his account of the events of the upper room with a story the other evangelists had left out, the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. After reporting what Mary of Bethany had done for Jesus, this seemed an obvious follow-on story. The humility and love of Jesus are themes that John frequently returns to in his gospel. So this is a story that must be told.

But how to tell such a story? What is it really about? Well, it is about love. John brings up the theme of love more than all the other gospel writers combined. So it is no surprise that he once again wants to focus on Jesus’ actions and words concerning love.

So he begins his account like this, ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’ (13:1). The things Jesus is about to do and say are consistent with his entire life with his disciples. Jesus is about to go to the cross, but his focus is still on his love for those who have followed him. Having loved his disciples, Jesus continued showing them his love to the very end.

And then this story, ‘And during supper – and this is the only reference in these entire five chapters that this all took place in the context of a meal … ‘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 his disciples’ feet and to wipe them each with the towel he had tied around him’ (vv. 3-5).

The reader, of course, is going to think back to the story of Mary of Bethany, which occurred just a few days earlier. Remember how shocking and humbling her actions were. Now here his Jeus, humbling himself. He is their rabbi, their leader, the one they have come to recognise as the Messiah. And he is washing their feet! And towelling them dry! This would have been hardly less shocking than what Mary had done. And, like Mary’s actions, it elicits a strong objection, this time from Peter.

As Jesus came to Peter, who probably would have been very near Jesus at table, perhaps only the second or third person he comes to, Peter asks in dismay, ‘Lord, you are not going to wash my feet?’ (v. 6). When Jesus confirms that this is exactly what he intends to do, Peter is almost offended at the thought. ‘You will never wash my feet!’ he says. Peter, you see, knows exactly who Jesus is. He can still hardly believe that the Messiah, indeed, the Lord of the universe, would let him, a simple fisherman, be a part of his mission, one of his group of disciples. But Peter knows his place. And he is not about to let Jesus humiliate himself by washing his feet. To say that Peter was firm in his response would be an understatement.

I wonder how many times God has called us to do something, perhaps through the voice of others, or a gentle nudging, or perhaps a conviction from his Spirit, and we have responded like Peter with a sharp ‘no’ or, ‘that won’t work’ or, ‘you’ve got to be kidding.’ We respond this way not out of any disrespect for God’s leading, but we simply do not think we are capable or worthy. That was Peter’s situation. He was not being disrespectful or rude. He simply felt overwhelmed with unworthiness.

But Jesus changes Peter’s mind. ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me – you are not one of my followers.’ And that was enough. ‘Don’t just wash my feet, then,’ says Peter, ‘wash my hands and head as well!’  Jesus explains that that was not necessary. Those who are clean, after walking about during the day, only need to wash their feet. But the point was made. This was not about pride and humility so much as it was about love. And Peter loved Jesus and wanted to remain a part of that circle of love.

And so Jesus washes Peter’s feet, and those of the other disciples – including, significantly, Judas.

Jesus has shown his disciples his love for them with his actions, through his humility and service. It is an important lesson, and he is about to draw the point home. ‘If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also out to wash one another’s feet, for I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you’ (vv. 14,15).

And that is exactly what disciples do. They watch their teacher and do as their teacher does. That is what is means for us to follow Jesus and be his disciples – to do what he does. And what does Jesus do? He shows his love by his actions – by humility and service.

Jesus brings the point home even further when he tells his disciples that he is giving them a new commandment. This is a big deal. There were over 600 commandments in the Hebrew scriptures. And there were the ten famous ones that God gave through Moses. And now Jesus is going to give them a new commandment? He certainly has their attention. And remember, this is all taking place in the context of the washing of the disciples’ feet. And this new commandment Jesus is about to give is so significant that it has given its name to our celebration of this day, for the name Maundy Thursday comes from an Anglicising of the Latin ‘Mandatus’ or ‘commandment’. So literally, this day is Commandment Thursday. And this is the commandment.

Jesus said to his disciples:

‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (vv 34,35).

Again, this text is all about discipleship. It is about what it means to follow Jesus. On the surface, it seems like an easy enough command to follow. But loving one another can be a challenge.

Take a moment to look to your left, now to your right. Now look behind you and in then in front of you. Who do you see? These are the ‘one another’ that we are commanded to love and to serve in humility. Can you love and serve these people?

If you are honest, some of you might be thinking, ‘Is it too late to move to a different place?’ or  ‘I don’t know some of these people that well.’ Or perhaps, you know them too well. Let’s face it, some of us are difficult. How do we love and serve the sister or brother in Christ who seems prickly, or who always disagrees with us, who voted for blue chairs when we wanted burgundy! That’s one side of the challenge. But Jesus says if we are his followers we will do it. And that is how people will know we are his followers. Not because we serve and love those who are easy but because we do this for each other (and all people) – even when it might not be easy.

Then there is the other part of the challenge of this commandment – letting others show their love by serving us.

And this is the part that most of us find most difficult. By nature, most of us do not want help. We are proud. We want to be do it alone.

There was a story in the news this past week out of the US about a man trapped in a drain on a back street that he had climbed down to retrieve a set of dropped keys. Two women passed overhead late that afternoon and noticed him struggling to climb back out. They offered him a hand up, but he refused their help. He could do it on his own. The next morning, he was still in the drain, too exhausted to make any more attempts. The police were called, and then the fire department, and they got him out. But for his pride he could have been out the evening before and spent the night in his own warm bed, and probably avoided the embarrassment of making the evening news. Afterall, the night before he was strong enough that a simple ‘hand up’ was all he needed. By the next morning, he had to be winched out, with cameras rolling.

Now we might laugh at this fellow. I certainly did. Until my wife said, ‘That sounds like something you would do.’ And of course, that is exactly like something I might do.

We show we are followers of Jesus by loving one another. And Jesus showed us by his example as our Teacher that his is done by humility and service. So we show the love of Christ in our community by a two way flow of humility and service. That means it is just as important to serve others in humility, as it is to accept the help and service of others in humility. It means accepting offers of help or assistance without rejecting them outright out of pride, or without the need to immediately think of how we can ‘pay the person back’ or ‘return the favour’ so that we do not feel we owe anyone. That is a misplaced pride that we are all often guilty of. It is not showing love through mutual service and humility.

That last night that Jesus spent with his disciples, and at that last meal he shared with them, he began the tradition of the Lord’s Supper, which we still observe today, in remembrance of what he did for us. The first three gospels and the Apostle Paul all told that story.

John tells us another story from that night and that meal. It is the story of how Jesus loved his disciples to the very end. It is the story of the washing of the disciples’ feet. It is the story of Jesus’ new commandment to all of us who follow him: to love one another.

And just as we regularly need to remember what Jesus did for us by our taking part in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, so, too, we need to remember the importance of sharing and demonstrating the love of Christ through loving one another in humble service. For it is by this loving service that everyone will see that we are his followers.


Pastor Mark Worthing.
Port Macquarie.