Maundy Thursday: Love and Humility

Lessons: Exodus 12:1-14, 1 Corinthians 11:23-32, John 13:1-15, 34-35
Hymns: LSB 431, 445, 452, 630

      Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

      On this holy night, many things happened. Christ Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper as He celebrated the Passover with His disciples in the Upper Room. He washed the disciples’ feet. He preached to the disciples, as recorded in John 13, 14, 15, and 16. He prayed His High Priestly Prayer, as recorded in John 17. He continued to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, where He was betrayed by Judas. He was arrested and denied by Peter.

      He also said these words recorded in John 13:34-35: “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. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The love by which Jesus speaks is not the brotherly love that we would prefer, but the unconditional, agape love that God requires. Jesus’ word for “commandment” in the Latin translation of the Bible is mandatum. Today is Maundy Thursday. “Maundy” is a Middle English word based on the Latin mandatum, from which we get our modern word “mandate.” Mandate and commandment are synonyms.

      You see, love is the fulfillment of the Law. Loving our neighbor involves keeping the commandments. We don’t simply stop ourselves from hurting or harming our neighbors or their possessions, but we also do good to them. And we do so humbly.

      Jesus teaches some lessons in humility, or humbleness. And we, as His disciples, are taught to follow His example. Being humble does not get us into Heaven. However, being humble is an indicator of those who have already been marked by Jesus through Baptism for entrance into Heaven. It is worked by God in us Christians.

      Let me give you some examples taught by Jesus on humility. This past Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He did not enter the Holy City riding on a strong horse or in a chariot. Instead, he entered on a laborer’s beast. Donkeys are not as sightly, but that was part of our Lord’s purpose: to be humble.

      Jesus’ humility is taught in these words of Scripture: “You made Him for a little while lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:4-6, Heb. 2:6-8). God had made the angels as servants of His creation, even our servants. Therefore, we are higher than the angels. And yet, God the Son, for a time, was lower than the angels—a Servant to those who serve us!

      Also, Jesus rode into Jerusalem to give up His life as the ransom payment for all others. In love, He bore our sins in His body and went to the cross and paid for all our sin. As the Son of God, He did not think of Himself as being too important for us sinners; instead, He came to save us and add us to His family.

      And, as we heard in Sunday’s Epistle, Jesus “emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:7). Here you have God Himself—divine, almighty, holy, righteous, pure—and what does God do? He becomes a Man! Remember, God created man. Now you have the eternal God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who uncreated—He becomes Man! He did so for a purpose, as we’ve already heard—to bear our sins in His Body and shed His innocent Blood in our place to take our sins away. That is humility!

      Then Jesus does the unthinkable. Not only does He institute the Lord’s Supper with His disciples, but He also washes their feet. He grabs a wash basin and washes some of the dirtiest skin on the human body. He didn’t wash His own feet; He washed the feet of others. Where have those feet been? What have they walked through? How smelly are they?

      But none of that mattered to Jesus. He washed them. And He taught that they ought to wash one another’s feet.

      This is a peculiar scene and instruction given by Jesus. Other than one instance (1 Timothy 5:10) in which older widowed women were instructed to be humble and hospitable, we don’t hear of additional foot washings in the Bible. On that night, Jesus instituted the Lord Supper, saying, “Do this” and we have several examples in Scripture in which the disciples celebrated the Sacrament. Not so with the foot washings.

      Does this mean they picked and chose what they wanted to do? Is the New Testament incomplete? What’s going on here? To understand, we really need to look at the context. Then we will see that the disciples were not wrong in refraining from foot washings. Instead, we can see that Jesus is not instituting a new ceremony at all; He is modeling a behavior that God’s people are to follow.

      I want to highlight two important points Jesus makes when He washes the disciples’ feet. First, Jesus says, “If I do not wash you, have no share with Me” (John 13:8). Clearly Jesus is not saying that we must wash other peoples’ feet, so they have a share with us. Instead, Jesus is teaching that the way they had a share with Him is from Jesus washing them. If He washes their feet, He makes them completely clean.

      Jesus does this for us in Baptism. We were soiled in our sin. Jesus cleanses us from our unrighteousness. We are washed, justified, and sanctified by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:11). If He makes us clean, we shall certainly be clean.

      Second, Jesus also said, “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:15-17). Jesus’ example is to be a servant—even by serving as messengers of the Gospel. By getting down on His knees and washing the disciples’ feet, He is being the Servant par excellence. Jesus also told His disciples when in the Upper Room, “Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:26-27). You see, Jesus came to serve. He does so humbly. And He teaches us to do the same. He illustrated this by washing the disciples’ feet.

      The Bible extols loving our neighbor and being humble. It is written, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:5-6).

      Why do the Scriptures teach humility? The answer is simple: by nature, we are not humble. Since the fall into sin, we are naturally and sinfully proud. Therefore, we must become humble by grace. This happens as He teaches us His will on humility. God can also humble us as He sends hardship into our lives. In fact, God can even use the temptations we face to serve as lessons in humility.

      We are to be humble toward God, as Jesus Himself was. He prayed “Not My will by Thine be done” (Luke 22:42). We are humbled as we consider the greatness, majesty, glory, and holiness of God—as we see that the angels, seraphim, cherubim, and all the saints worship and praise Him—and when we see our own unworthiness and sinfulness whom God could smite in a second. All these realities teach us to be humble before God.

      Also, we are to be humble toward our fellow neighbors. For we share with our neighbors one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all (Eph 4:5-6). We participate in the one Supper—for we, though many, are one loaf (1 Cor. 10:17).

      If we see in our neighbors someone who is lowly, we pray that God would guide us so that we do not look down at them. And if we see people who are talented, wealthy, good-looking, or blessed in any other way, we pray that God would guide us to recognize their advantages as God’s work, that God has made them and blessed them—so that we do not begrudge them or envy them, but give God the glory.  

      Also, we are humbled when we recognize that everything we have comes from God and belongs to Him. In fact, He could do to us as He did to Job—allow everything we have be taken away from us in an instant. When we realize this, we will not boast of ourselves or of our possessions. Instead, we will boast in the Lord (2 Cor. 10:17), for He has made all things and has redeemed us.

      Finally, we are even humbled as we approach the Lord’s Table to receive Holy Communion. For in doing so, we give up our individual thoughts and the desires of the flesh. We come before the Lord as sinners, yet we have received from Him a confession of faith that our flesh abhors. Our flesh is being crucified with its passions and desires. We confess with our lips the truth of God’s Word, for our thoughts and opinions have been replaced with God’s truth. We receive with our lips the very Body and Blood of Jesus for our forgiveness. We humbly proclaim the Lord’s death, for His death grants us life. No one is above or below the next. No one is greater or lesser. We are all one in Christ Jesus. This is symbolized by the normal distribution of the Sacrament, where brothers and sisters in Christ kneel side by side, receiving the same Body of Christ. And, by receiving the Blood of Christ through the same cup, we are also expressing sameness and unity produced by our Lord Jesus Christ.

      On this night, Jesus instituted this blessed Sacrament. He also washed the disciples’ feet to teach them to be humble before God and one another—and to serve as our example in humility. And finally, He taught us the commandment to love one another. We love because He first loved us and gave Himself for us (1 John 4:19). Thanks be to God. Amen.

      The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen        

(Some ideas in this sermon are gathered from “The Believing Christian Prays for Humility” in Starck’s Prayerbook, pp. 198-202.)