Maundy Thursday, foot washing and love
In John 13 Jesus isn’t simply teaching his disciples to serve and be served. He is showing them what love looks like: intimate, compassionate, tactile. John Goddard wonders what Jesus’ commandment will look like for us once the current crisis has passed?
Maundy Thursday takes its name from the Latin word for commandment, mandatum, and referencing therefore the new commandment Jesus gave to his disciples on the night before his death.
We live in a time of novel instructions and new commandments. Physical social distancing, closure of public buildings and spaces, restrictions on travel, working from home where possible – all seem like new commandments for a new world. Thankfully they will prove to be of only temporary necessity, and what passes for normality will one day resume, but perhaps that transition will leave us seeking new commandments that last – ways of living that build up rather than tear down, that heal rather than hurt.
Jesus said, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’ (John 13:34) This is such a familiar command that we struggle to see it as new, and I’m inclined to wonder whether that’s how the first people to hear John’s Gospel being read might have responded as well. A new commandment? Surely the command to love one another has always been there? Leviticus 19:18 taught us, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, a theme Jesus explored and celebrated. Yet now in John 13, on the night he would be betrayed, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment – love one another.
We might want to notice that the instruction to love one another is repeated with emphasis as Jesus says, ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’ How should we love one another? We should love just as Jesus loved us – in the same manner that Jesus demonstrated love so we should love. This seems to pick up on the language of earlier in the chapter when, following his washing of his disciples’ feet, Jesus says, ‘I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.’ (John 13:15) And what had that example looked like? Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet.
This has long been a favourite passage for me. The poignancy of this event is established in verse 2: ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’ The evening meal is already in progress when Jesus gets up, removes his outer clothing, wraps a towel around him, pours water in a basin, and washes his disciples’ feet, drying them with his towel as he goes.
When I agreed to write this reflection I ‘knew’ that I would be focusing, as I have done so often before, on the humility and servant-hearted nature of this act. And I knew that the focus would be on dear old all-or-nothing Peter and his refusal to be served, and his eventual whole-hearted acceptance of his need. In fact I considered this could be a timely reflection in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, as those who have been so used to looking after others find themselves relying on neighbours and friends, and even strangers, for shopping and other essential supplies. Some of us find it far easier to applaud all the sacrificial service provided by others, than to accept our own need of help. We are called to serve one another, but that means having our feet washed too! I knew this was the message I needed to share, and then the Spirit spoke to me via BBC Radio 4…
On Mothering Sunday I was arriving at an almost deserted Premier Inn (just prior to the lockdown) in preparation for visiting the Registrar the following morning to register my late uncle’s death. And as I drove I was listening to the first in a series of short stories by new Irish writers, Tickles by Paul McVeigh, first broadcast in 2014 (and still available on iPlayer for the next 10 days or so). I was held by the simple story in such a way that I had to sit in the car park for a few moments to hear how it would end!
Tickles is the story of a son visiting his mother in a care home, where she is now resident because of her dementia. She embraces him and will not let him go. He becomes very self-conscious, not least because his mother often mistakes him for his father and he is concerned that the embrace might become inappropriate. She starts to tickle him. And his mind goes back to childhood, and how his overworked mother would come in from one of the two jobs she held down, both of which involved long hours stood on her feet, and would tell him to fetch the basin. He remembered how he would wash her feet – and even tickle them – the last time he had been properly intimate with his mother. He remembered the patience and care required to look after her fearfully ugly feet, and the bond that existed between them in this intimate act. The embrace in the care home is finally broken and he talks with a nurse, who mentions his mother has been complaining about her feet. He asks her for a basin. And I wept.
In John 13 Jesus isn’t simply teaching his disciples to serve and be served. He is showing them what love looks like. Intimate, compassionate, tactile love. In these days of physical social distancing how many of us feel the neglect of the lack of physical touch? And will things ever be the way they were? I am an instinctive hand-shaker – it is a part of who I am. Will that ever be appropriate again?
And yet Jesus demonstrates love in this way, he washes his disciples’ feet. He loves them enough to be appropriately intimate and tactile – to show them that they are loved. Yes, he seeks consent, and will not wash Peter’s feet until Peter’s no has become a yes – yes, all of me! But his love is a love communicated through touch, and care, and cradling, and washing, and drying.
What will the new commandment look like for us once the current crisis has passed? Might we need to find new ways of being appropriately intimate and tactile? Will isolation have taught us to cope without others, or will it have reminded us of our need for others that allows us not simply to survive but thrive? Do we need to pay more attention to a theology of feet and washing, of body and touch, alongside our more familiar theology of heart and mind? In our debates about sexuality do we need to rediscover our need for loving intimacy?
Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and gave them a new commandment, ‘love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.’ Amen?
John Goddard, Minister, Saffron Walden Baptist Church
Image | Laura Merchant | CreationSwap
This is the latest in a series of theological and biblical reflections from Baptists for Holy Week and Easter
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