Maundy Thursday – a special day of friendship

Mary Copping, 29 March 2018

Exodus 12: 1–4, 11–14; 1 Corinthians 11: 23–26; John 13: 1–17, 31b–35

‘You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.’ Jesus spoke these words to his disciples in the upper room, as told in John’s gospel, chapter 15: 14–15. Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world. He knew what lay ahead, and in his last hours on earth he chose to spend the time with his disciples, who had become his closest friends.

Today is Maundy Thursday, with the meaning of the mandatum, ‘the new commandment’ of love. It is a special day of friendship, with all the traditional ceremonies of Christians coming together to be with Jesus in his agony. This morning Peter Seal and I gathered at the cathedral with many colleagues and friends for the annual Chrism Eucharist, where we renewed our ordination vows, and there was the blessing of oil for the sick.

At Windsor the queen gave out Maundy Money to men and women chosen because of the Christian service they have given to the Church and the community. This practice began in the thirteenth century, when the royal family would wash the feet of the poor and give money and gifts, showing humility and compassion. There are moving ceremonies to mark this day and this night.

Tonight we, as Jesus’ friends, have supper with him, receive his body and his blood in the bread and the wine, and wash each other’s feet, as friends of his and friends in Christ to each other. Then soon we will remove all trace of our shared supper and leave the altar bare; for tonight is when Jesus will be betrayed, and tomorrow is when all will know despair. And, as his friends, we will watch and pray with him, and with each other in our bond of friendship.

Soon we will remove all trace of our shared supper and leave the altar bare; for tonight is when Jesus will be betrayed, and tomorrow is when all will know despair.

Jesus had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. He’d gathered his twelve disciples there at the table. This Last Supper, the celebration of the Passover, was the moment of friends eating together before the pain of tomorrow. And Jesus knew what was going to happen. He knew that by the end of the night one of them would betray him to the authorities. He knew that Peter would deny him three times. And he was aware that all of them would leave him alone in his hour of greatest pain. They would abandon him in fear and confusion.

Yet, knowing all this, Jesus chose to eat this precious last meal, the Passover meal, with them. He chose to wash the feet of Peter, who would deny him three times. He chose to kneel in front of each one of them and wash their feet. What forgiveness, what love, for those who were weak and fearful! And what forgiveness and love he shows to us, as he allows us to share in his agony and sorrow, allows us to share this meal with him. He called those disciples his friends, and he calls us his friends.

In the washing of the disciples’ feet, Jesus was showing how they and we must be for each other. We must love and serve each other, consider each other friends and, above all, forgive each other in our humanity. Ours is to love, to show love to others – as Jesus in his knowing that his disciples would let him down, and our knowing that people will let us down. Ours is to forgive – as Jesus did, even though his disciples would betray him, deny him, leave him alone at his greatest hour of need; he forgave them, as we must forgive others. In this Last Supper with his friends, Jesus showed how we must be with others: loving, understanding, forgiving.

Some words from a gospel song: ‘Lean on me, when you’re not strong/ and I’ll be your friend/I’ll help you carry on/for it won’t be long/till I’m gonna need/somebody to lean on’. Jesus, at the Last Supper, needed to lean on his friends, his disciples, in his pain and sorrow. They didn’t understand, they had many motives, but they were still there for him, with him, in their confusion, sharing this last meal with him.

‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15: 13). Jesus gave his life for us, however we understand this, and ours is to give our lives for him and for our friends – in love, in humble service, in forgiveness. As we stay with Jesus through this night and tomorrow, bringing the pain we have been through, the pain that we may be in now, we can bring these to him as our friend, as we share in his pain and sorrow.

And as we come to the washing of feet, are we going to allow our friends to serve us? Are we going to allow someone to do something for us, or do we want to be the one to serve? Are we going to be as Peter, ‘You will never wash my feet’? With a certain kind of pride in not wanting Jesus to serve him, he wished to be the one to serve. In a hymn, we have just sung, ‘Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too’.

Help us, Lord, humbly to accept the service of our friends as we serve others.

‘You will never wash my feet.’