A New Commandment
A New Commandment
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 & St. John 13:1-15
Actions often speak louder than words. It’s true and it’s why we have all sorts of aphorisms to make the point: “Talk is cheap.” “Put your money where your mouth is.” (It’s telling that we compare talk with money in our culture, but that’s another sermon for another time.) Holy Week is a week of action. It’s a week of walking with Jesus as he does things. On Sunday we were with him as he humbly rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Tonight we gather with him and his disciples in the upper room as he washes their feet and as he gives new meaning to the bread and wine of the Passover meal. Friday we’ll follow him to Calvary as he is crucified. And Sunday we’ll be with the disciples as they discover the empty tomb—empty because Jesus has risen from the dead. We can explain all these things in theological jargon, but it’s not the same as seeing the story played out, because actions speak louder than words.
Think of the angry friend you’ve called who refuses to the answer the phone. Not a single word is exchanged, but the silence speaks volumes. Think of the loving friend who gave you a hug when everything in your life was upside-down. Maybe that friend never said a word, but the action said more than words can say. Over the past year Pope Francis, for example, has repeatedly been in the news, often not so much for what he has said, but for his actions: Ditching his security so that he can give a hug to someone in the crowd. I think specifically of the morning after his election when he went back to his hotel himself to check out and to collect his bags. That was a servant’s job. And, yes, that’s exactly why he did it himself. He understands that to be a Christian and especially to be a bishop is to be a servant.
And, brothers and sisters, that’s a huge part of the message of Holy Week. That’s the message that began on Palm Sunday. In the Liturgy of the Palms we read about Jesus’ humble entry into Jerusalem and in the Gospel we read the story of his sham trial, his torture, and his painful and humiliating death. And the significance was summed up by St. Paul in the Epistle. He explained to us there that all this wasn’t some one-off thing God did in which he stepped out of character. Just the opposite, in fact. In Jesus, God humbled himself in becoming one of us and in allowing himself to be crucified, and he did it precisely because he is God and because it is his very nature and character as God to lovingly give himself.
The humble entrance into Jerusalem foreshadowed the bigger acts of loving humility that Jesus would submit himself to later that week. Tonight, as we gather with Jesus and his disciples in the upper room we see Jesus again preparing the disciples for what was about to happen. As they gathered for the Passover meal that Jews had been eating every year for more than a thousand years, Jesus took the bread and wine and gave them new meaning. The Passover was the annual remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt. Remember that an angel of death had passed through the land, taking the life of the firstborn of everyone in Egypt. But the Lord spared those who, in following his instructions, had sacrificed a lamb and painted the blood on the doorframes of their houses. When the angel saw the blood and that the sacrifice had been made, he “passed over”. And now, this night, Jesus took the Passover bread and told them, “This is my body, given for you.” He took the wine and said to them, “This is my blood and with it I make for you a new covenant.” We can only imagine how earth-shattering those words would have been for the disciples. The Passover and the Exodus were the events that shaped the people of Israel. Those events established and defined their identity as God’s people. It was their rescue in the Passover and their Exodus from Egypt that led them to Mount Sinai, where God established his covenant with them as he gave the law through Moses. The Passover was the annual remembrance for the Jews of who they were and where they stood with God and with his promises.
And now Jesus tells his disciples—using the elements of the Passover meal itself—that he’s establishing a new covenant. The disciples were, no doubt, confused by all this. If anyone else had said these words over the Passover bread and wine it would have been blasphemy. They only understood some weeks later at Pentecost. But Jesus prepares his friends for what was about to happen—for the how of this new covenant. As we read in today’s Gospel, at that same Passover meal, Jesus stripped off his tunic and took up a position that was normally taken by a household slave. He took up a towel and a basin of water and began washing the feet of his disciples. If Jesus truly were the Messiah, if he truly were God, the last thing anyone would have expected would have been for him to do an act like this—a slave or a servant act. But Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet serves as an object lesson. As St. Paul told us in Sunday’s Epistle from Philippians: This loving act of giving, of open-handedness, and of self-sacrifice is what true divinity looks like. The petty, fighting, jealous, and grasping gods of the pagans don’t embody true divinity. We see true divinity in a God who gives himself for the sake of his own creation. And Jesus shows us this in his actions.
But notice that Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples about his being a servant and about his being a sacrifice for the sole reason that they’ll understand the things that are about to happen to him as he suffers death and is buried. Yes, all this will help Peter as he has that “A-ha!” moment on Pentecost, when the meaning of the incarnation and of the cross and of the empty tomb all fall into place for him. Jesus tells them these things about servanthood and about sacrifice so that his friends will follow in his footsteps. Again, think back to Paul’s exhortation to us on Sunday: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” In our Gospel Jesus, after he had washed the disciples’ feet, tells them:
You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. (John 13:13-15)
This is the law of Christ. This is what the law of the Old Covenant pointed to. Every Sunday we recite Jesus’ summary of that law: To love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Jesus makes it possible for us to do this. How can we help but love God when we consider that he has poured out himself as a sacrifice for our sins? And if God has expressed his true being and nature by pouring himself out in love for us, our natural response in return should be to pour ourselves out in love for others. Further on in St. John’s account of the Last Supper, Jesus says to his disciples:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. (John 13:34)
Jesus reminds us that his sacrifice of love has both a vertical and a horizontal element. In giving himself as a sacrifice for sin, Jesus has redeemed each of us. We all come to the Saviour in faith, one by one through the waters of Baptism. But in Christ we all are united into one body. This is why we share a common cup and a single loaf of bread when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. I visited a service a few years ago where little hermetically sealed cups of grape juice and a tiny cracker were handed out at the door as people entered. They were never together on the Table, never blessed, never part of one united whole. In a way each person had his own personal Jesus. And while it might have reflected the vertical relationship between the sinner and God, it undermined the horizontal nature of the Lord’s Supper. We are one because we share in the one Lord who is present in and represented by the one bread and the one cup. One of the earliest Eucharistic acclamations of the Early Church is summed up in one of our Communion hymns tonight: “As the grains of wheat once scattered on the hills were gathered into one to become our bread, so may all your people from all the ends of earth be gathered into one in you.”
Again, in John’s Gospel Jesus goes on, explaining why this is important:
By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)
It is in the loving and self-sacrificing unity found in the Church that the world will know that we are disciples of Jesus. People will see him in us. This is what Paul stresses so strongly in First Corinthians. In our Epistle he describes Jesus’ institution of his Supper, but if we were to continue on in Chapter 11, going just beyond the point where our Epistle ends, we’d hear Paul rebuking the Corinthian Christians for abusing the Lord’s Supper. Reading between the lines, we can gather that rather than being a point of loving and self-sacrificial unity, the Lord’s Supper was being used by the Corinthians as a place for the rich to lord their superiority over the poor. The rich ate the best food in the dining room while the poor members of the congregation ate the scraps out in the courtyard. And Paul stresses to them that they were undermining the very meaning of the Lord’s Supper. In fact, they were nullifying it by their divisive actions. They called it the Lord’s Supper, but in reality it wasn’t.
We can be in danger of the same sort of thing. When we divide our churches by our class in society, by our race, or by our age we undermine out witness to the loving unity of the body of Christ. The plethora and ever increasing number of schisms and sects today dramatically undermines our witness to the unity Jesus has given. But we also undermine our loving unity when we come together grasping instead of giving—when we let our pride or our hurt feelings or our disagreements get in the way of our being one. Paul explains to the Corinthians that this is why some of them are sick and dying—because they’ve turned the Lord’s Supper into a sham, they’re under God’s condemnation. It’s serious business.
We see this in the Prayer Book. At the end of the liturgy the priest is given instructions about excommunication. There’s one paragraph about barring “notorious evil livers” from the Table, but there’s an even longer paragraph about barring those “betwixt whom he perceiveth malice and hatred”. Think about that. Two Christians who’ve had a falling out coming to the Table are at least as much a scandal to the body as a “notorious evil liver” at the same Table. Why? Because both are usually obvious to the outsider and both undermine our witness. Neither the notorious evil liver, nor the folks who’ve had a falling out are living like followers of Jesus. They’re grasping at their pride rather than giving of themselves sacrificially as Jesus did.
Coming back to where we started: Actions often speak louder than words. And it’s for that reason that Jesus calls us to more than just a verbal profession of our faith in him. He calls us to live out in our lives what he has done for us. As he chose not to grasp at his rights and prerogatives and instead poured himself out for us, he calls on us to stop grasping at our rights and prerogatives and to start pouring ourselves out in love for our brothers and sisters and for the world. As we wash each other’s feet tonight, let it be a reminder to us of the need to serve each other as Jesus has served us.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, as we live with the cross of Jesus always before us, give us grace to follow his example. As he became a servant, teach us to become servants. As he poured himself out for us, teach us to pour ourselves out for others. Let the world see Jesus in our love, in our unity, and in our giving of ourselves. May the world be made constructively curious by our lives and may men and women be drawn to Jesus. We ask this in his name. Amen.