“I Give You a New Commandment…”

Maundy Thursday, Year C

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 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 and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 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 everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

“What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has already been,
in the ages before us.

The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
by those who come after them.”

-Ecclesiastes 1:9-11

These words of the Teacher, written hundreds of years before Jesus’ lifetime, end the opening poem of Ecclesiastes. “There is nothing new under the sun” might be one of the most quoted Biblical phrases that most people don’t realize comes from the Bible. In fact, most people don’t even realize they are quoting it. Ironically, we have “updated” these words of wisdom with our own colloquial phrases such as “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, though I suppose that only proves the Teacher’s point… Perhaps why these words have persisted as truth, even in times when Truth itself has been called into question, is because of how deep they cut to the Human condition. Depending on what we bring to this wisdom they can be immensely comforting, or immensely depressing. There is comfort in nothing ever changing, we know that our struggles have been experienced before, they have been conquered and can be conquered again. Yet what the Teacher wonders, does it matter if we won’t be remembered? If there is nothing new under the sun, what is the point of it all? Or perhaps, there is nothing new under the sun because we fail to remember those who come before or those who come after.

I wonder if any of the disciples thought of the Teacher’s words when Jesus said he was giving a new commandment. In this moment of intimacy where Jesus is acting differently, strangely, like a servant yet still giving commands, saying goodbye, It must have been a supreme disappointment to hear that the New Commandment sounded an awful lot like the Old. How painful it must have been to hear Jesus tell them, “where I am going you cannot follow” only to be followed by the same wisdom of the ages, that they are to love one another. They have to love one another without him.

But Jesus didn’t lie to them. He did indeed give a new commandment to the Disciples. While the disciples don’t quite understand yet, everything has changed. There is something radically new under the sun. For all of this time they have been with Him, they still don’t know who Jesus really is. They say and even believe that Jesus is Messiah, but they do not yet realize that it is God himself walking among them. How could they? The audacity that God who wove the universe out of nothingness became Incarnate as a carpenter from Galilee is almost offensive to common sense. Jesus has demonstrated His relationship with God countless times, but to realize that he is God, at this point it is simply too much to ask of the disciples. Jesus knows that this changes everything. His command to love one another, though it is the same words He has spoken for millenia “You are to love one another just as I have loved you”, they have taken on a new meaning. Fundamentally the relationship between God and humanity has changed. By God becoming incarnate and living amongst us, He has broken down every barrier that has ever separated humanity from Him.

Jesus begins teaching this idea to the disciples by upsetting their social habits. He, their teacher and master, puts on a towel, gets on His knees and washes their feet. If you have ever been to a foot washing Maundy Thursday service you’ll likely know exactly what the disciples felt. It leaves you feeling humble, vulnerable, and awkward. This simple act of washing each others feet is so out of the ordinary for us, we often don’t know how to handle it. While culturally this wasn’t very foreign to the disciples, they went through the same torrent of emotion because of who was doing the washing. Peter’s reaction testifies to all of their discomfort — and misunderstanding. When Jesus tells Peter that if he does not allow Jesus to wash his feet, he will not have a share in Jesus’ household, Peter makes the same mistake we often do in our relationship with God; we assume it’s about being clean enough, holy enough, blameless enough. “Lord wash not only my feet, but my head and my whole body!”. We want to be worthy of the gifts God gives us, but in that pursuit we quickly become distracted and seperate ourselves from God. No, Jesus washes the feet of the disciples not because they are unclean, but to show them that they belong to Jesus’ household. He is inviting and welcoming them into God’s kingdom, his father’s house.

By Jesus’ Incarnation and ministry, and soon His death and Resurrection, humanity’s relationship with God has changed. The distance between God and Humanity has been removed. God has always been our partner and patron, but through Jesus, God is our brother, our family, our friend. Through Christ the world has been made new, God has demonstrated that Death, or what we thought was the ruler of the world will be defeated, that there is nothing to separate us from God other than ourselves. At the same time, nothing has changed. This has been God’s will for humanity since the beginning of creation. The end He has been working toward. John makes it clear at the beginning of the story, when he narrates that “He [Jesus] loved them to the Telos”. In our modern translations we translate Telos simply as “end”. This does little justice to the scope of the word. In Greek, Telos has its origins in Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, and it encompasses the purpose of something. The ultimate function and fulfillment of what it has always meant to be. Jesus, loved his disciples to the Telos, and when he tells the disciples to love one another, He is telling them to love one another to the Telos. They are to love one another more than as they would love themselves. They are to love one another as their ultimate purpose, as the reason for their very existence on this earth.

We call this day Maundy Thursday, if you look closely enough the title gives away precisely what this day is about: It’s a play on the Latin word Maundatum, or mandate. On this day Jesus gives us his disciples two mandates: The first is to love one another to the Telos that God loves us. The second is to “do this in remembrance of me”. We are to Remember, to re-body, and be a part of God’s saving acts. On this night when Jesus celebrates his last meal with his friends he mandates that we remember what has been done, those who have come before us, and those who will come after us. This is the last time we will celebrate the Eucharist until Christ comes again. Once we finish the prayer we will strip the altar in silence, representing the betrayal of the disciples and Jesus’ entombment. You may also notice that there is no blessing or dismissal. We are entering into the Triduum, the three days where though you may leave the building, you do not leave church until the Easter Vigil. We keep vigil for three days as we await for Jesus’ resurrection. We celebrate the Eucharistic Feast as God has commanded, “Do this in Remembrance of Me”. By this love, we will be known as Christ’s disciples. Indeed “there is nothing new under the sun”, at the same time, everything has been made new by the Son.

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