Feed Thy children, God most holy,
Comfort sinners poor and lowly;
O Thou Bread of Life from heaven,
Bless the food Thou here hast given!
As these gifts the body nourish,
May our souls in graces flourish
Till with saints in heavenly splendor
At thy feast due thanks we render. (TLH 659)
Amen. God’s grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God our Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.
The night He was betrayed was a busy time for Jesus. John says He knew His hour had come to depart.
Jesus spent this most precious time with His beloved disciples. He gathered them for a Passover meal, where they would review the history of God’s deliverance from Egypt by the tenth plague. Death struck every house in Egypt, but passed over those marked by the blood of a lamb. From this event came the nation of Israel, who remembered it annually ever since. Now this final feast in Jesus’ earthly life was the backdrop as Jesus prepared His disciples for the task that lay just ahead. He would soon be arrested and suffer, but what He accomplished that Friday in a sense continues on in the life of the Church for all time. We’ll see how shortly.
The Church calls this day “Maundy” Thursday, coming from the Latin word for a commandment. That night Jesus gave a command to His disciples that would form the very core of His Church for the rest of time, even into eternity.
What was that command? We could think of at least three. One is in our Gospel: to wash one another’s feet. Another is later in the same chapter, where Jesus commands them to “love one another.” These are both excellent commands, but the one that was truly unique that night was the command, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The others are ways of interacting with people. This was a solemn, liturgical act of worship for us to do together.
But as far as washing feet goes, Jesus’ disciples need that command, too. We consider it preferable to have our feet washed and massaged and maybe pedicured, rather than doing those things for others. We consider any kind of authority as a way to avoid it. Wouldn’t you prefer to avoid such a menial task as foot-washing? To spend your time going from one set of feet to the next? Not very entertaining or relaxing. But this is the act chosen by Jesus when He knew that He possessed all authority, and that He would soon return to heaven. Sinners selfishly abuse authority, and neglect responsibility. This happens in your workplace, in your home, and at every school. You show love toward yourself rather than toward others. Jesus used His all-powerful authority to wash the feet of those He loved. What a contrast. We would rather point out their faults than wash feet. But this is why Jesus also gave the new command, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” He knew we’d need forgiveness for our sins.
The Israelite worship before this time looked ahead and prepared God’s people for this. It had been an elaborate preparation, demonstrating through the Tabernacle and its sacrifices what it took for sinful people to exist safely in God’s presence. This command Jesus gave established something similar, but better, and long anticipated.
Before this, the sacrifices at the Tabernacle churned and continued day after day, year after year, for most of about 14 centuries. As long as they continued, those sacrifices were comfort for the faithful, the evidence of God’s gracious presence and their safety.
The night He was betrayed, Jesus began bringing all of that to a close. This was the end point of Israelite worship through all those centuries. He gave His disciples the command, “Do this in remembrance of me,” meaning “repeat this special meal I’ve attached to My once-for-all sacrifice.”
This meal means the end of the Tabernacle sacrifices because they will no longer be needed. Israelite worshippers used to rejoice in the certainty of God’s favor by sharing the meal of the peace offering, the priests eating the sin offering, and God consuming the burnt offering. Taken together, these were a communion of sorts between the penitent sinner, his friends, and God himself. But that was all now ended with this meal that Jesus established on Maundy Thursday.
The meal He gave them was itself not a new sacrifice, as the papists say it is. But it is truly linked to the sacrifice that Jesus made, himself the victim and himself the priest. For this reason we call the most imposing piece of furniture in the sanctuary an altar despite that we don’t offer burnt offerings or pour the blood of sacrifices upon it. This altar is connected to the cross represented above it, for the cross of Jesus is where the one sacrifice was killed and consumed by God, and where the blood of our atonement was shed as it ran down to the thirsty soil. The body and blood of Jesus are the very sacrifice given and shed for the sins of the world. By this sacrifice we have forgiveness for our sins. We have peace. We become participants in the altar of the cross by receiving the body and blood that He offered there. It’s the sacrament of the altar.
This one sacrifice did not remain dead. We will soon celebrate that most joyful fact. Unlike the sacrifices of the bulls and goats in the Tabernacle all those years, the offering that Jesus made for the sins of the world was completely sufficient to make full atonement for every sin committed in the world, from beginning to end. On this basis, God’s forgiveness comes to you free and clear. There is no catch. There is no footnote. The offering of Christ was once, for all. We will see the proof when we gaze again with the whole world through the open doorway of His tomb on Sunday morning.
This means that the offering of Jesus was most certainly for you, and that it cannot fail to cleanse you completely from every guilt and every shame. Even your attitude toward your neighbor’s stinky feet or other problems.
Have you been played out by the way life has been going? The world can be a very dark place when you bear its weight alone. It can be a kind of idolatry or pride: holding your burdens jealously, and refusing to consider God’s offer to bear them for you and with you.
But Jesus does that. He came to bear the weight of your problems, of your life. He came to bear the weight of the whole world. All of those sins, all of that twisted wrongness, the sense of waste, the exhaustion, the desperation. He drank it in the cup of suffering provided by the Father, and He disposed of it all on His cross.
Go there yourself and see. You can return to the cross spiritually by following His command to “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Come prepared: recognizing your sins, and discerning the body and blood of Christ from His own words that do not lie. But come in this way to His cross, and you will see that His body was indeed given for you, and His blood was shed for you. Contemplate what Jesus’ own innocence means: that He was bearing no guilt of His own, but yours. Understand that the meal He provides goes far beyond the visible earthly elements.
One drop of Christ’s blood is worth more than thousands of worlds like this one, even if they were perfect and sinless. He shed that blood for you, and He gives it to you, and so brings heavenly, eternal life from paradise into your mouth and body.
It was in the context of this same Passover supper that Jesus took a towel and a basin and demonstrated His lordly love toward His disciples by washing their feet, one by one.
It was awkward for them. Lords don’t do that kind of thing. Only Jesus. Peter refused it, then reversed completely when he saw that his sinfulness made this necessary. Jesus even washed the feet of His betrayer, though He made it clear that Judas needed more than that. What do you make of this?
A little repulsive? Feet get sweaty and stinky, and that’s only the beginning. But the Son of God did this thing. The words between Peter and Jesus show that His command for us to wash feet is not that we wash literal feet, but that we wash figurative feet. It’s about forgiveness. Forgive gladly as you have been forgiven, for big things and small things.
Bunions, corns, and fungus are easy to deal with compared to sins and faults. Just think about how you react when you think someone has unfairly criticized you. Or worse: mocked you. Do you remember being so humiliated? How difficult then to wash the feet (forgive the sins) of such a person. Jesus’ example shows what it takes, when the Lord of the universe kneels to wash the dust from His own disciples’ feet.
It takes a better man than me. It takes a higher power than anything naturally found on earth. It takes the Son of God giving His own life and shedding His blood to cleanse me, adopting me as His son, creating a new nature within me, and making me an heir of eternal life. He did this in Baptism and does it still when I hear His voice forgiving my sins. Then I want to live up to Jesus’ example, but can do it only as He accomplishes it in me. He enters my body, empowers me by His Spirit. Without that, it couldn’t happen.
Wouldn’t you say the same? To forgive others, we must first be forgiven ourselves. So when you are forgiven and brought into the communion of our Lord’s body and blood, what effect do you suppose this has on your spiritual life here on earth? On your relation to your spouse, children, parents, church family, friends, and coworkers? Jesus comes to dwell in you. That’s good for everyone.
Hope. Strength. Patience. Contentment. Peace. Joy. Love. Such things are eternal, but they begin already in this life for those who receive and believe the Gospel, and finally commune with Christ.
This is Jesus’ gift to you, me, and His whole Church. He has given us Himself. So also He has given us one another.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!