A SERMON FOR MAUNDY THURSDAY – A new commandment: will you share a towel? John 13.1-17, 31b-35

We’re back to the beginning of John’s account of the Last Supper. It’s beforethe festival of the Passover. There’s a difference here between John and the other Gospels that scholars still debate. I was taught at school that the other Gospels should always be preferred on matters of chronology. John was good at theology, but go to them for history. Later when I studied at Cambridge with John Robinson (who was actually a substantial and sometimes quite conservative scholar), I came to understand that it wasn’t as simple as that. St John in fact preserves some very early and very accurate memories of both dates and places – and this may well be one of them.

It seems obvious to make the Last Supper a Passover meal: we’re so used to the idea. But where is the lamb? And where are all the other special items and liturgy that the group would have followed? For John, and I think he is on the right track, Jesus saw himself as the Lamb of the Passover – remember John the Baptist’s words right at the beginning that John the Evangelist heard: “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” As Jesus meditated on his mission he saw the same imagery of the lamb in Isaiah, as the Servant is led like a lamb to the slaughter; so for him it was his own coming death on the cross which was the slaughter of the lambs, and in God’s providence it would take place just as those lambs were slaughtered too, on the afternoon before the Passover (which that year was also a sabbath).

Working out the chronology is a very technical business with plenty of room for the Dan Browns of this world to go astray, but my choice is to follow John’s own words, and set tonight’s scene on the Thursday night which was the night before the Friday night on which the Passover meal would be eaten, and the night by which the authorities needed to have Jesus safely off the Cross and shut up in the tomb.

Jesus knows how close the end is, and as the tension rises the disciples, as we have seen, start to get squabbly, even if they don’t really know what is going on. Luke tells us more about the squabbles; and Matthew records Jesus as telling the disciples that when all things are made new, they will sit on twelve thrones and be the judges of Israel, which was perhaps what set them off. I suppose in their ignorance and innocence they thought – as Judas hoped would happen – that this be a worldly thing and very soon as well. So, who will be top? Only John perhaps, and even he not immediately, would grasp the real inwardness of what was going on.

The world was being turned upside-down; or perhaps we should say right-way-up again. The bottom line is the love of God for us and for his creation. Of course, God is number one, and God is our judge, but his justice is framed by his mercy and he exercises his authority by creating the space in which others can live. He loves them, and he will love them to the end. A mediaeval theologian I am studying at the moment speculated in fact that even if there had been no need of salvation, God would still have become incarnate and shared our human condition to the end, simply because his love and the perfect connection of his love and ours demanded it.

So, Jesus in a highly prophetic way acts out a parable of God’s love, designed to bring home to us the self-giving love of God that we are to share. What a shock it must have been. The tradition was that an important person had his feet washed (it would have been a “him”) by a lesser one, and on arrival. It hadn’t happened, I suspect, and Jesus turns the table on his disciples most dramatically.

We are told that as he does so, he knows that the Father has given all things into his hands, that he has come from God and is going to God. It suggests a poise, a peace; and I think that it is speaking not just of the peace that Jesus has, but of the peace that he wants to give to his disciples. Knowing that we are children of God, made by him, known by loved by him, called to be with him: the deep sense of personal assurance that is at the heart of our Christian identity and Christian hope. Few of us can manage to appropriate it and live within it on a fully continuing experiential basis. But when the winds blow, then we can remember that underneath are the everlasting arms, that there isa peace that passes our understanding, and it may be that we can avoid losing ourselves entirely into the maelstrom of emotions that such times bring, and manage to still have something of the peace of God about us even in the heart of the storm. That surely must anyway be our prayer.

It’s a big prayer though, because we are, if we are honest, all too aware that as individuals we can be as ratty as anyone else, as hurtful, as caught up in ourselves, as fearful and as angry. It’s being human, and being in Christ doesn’t stop us being that. We are also aware that if we find the first challenge difficult, to rest in the peace of knowing that we beloved of God, then we also find the second one difficult: that of accepting that the other rather difficult, rather different people who we discover are in church and in Christ with us are also beloved of Him, quite as much as we are. Again, it seems to be hard-wired into our human nature: the minute there are two of us, we start to compare, to wonder like the disciples who is going to turn out top. My Yorkshire grammar-school instilled it into us on a daily basis, as marks were collected and tables published. But really, in the great scheme of things, did I have to want to be top in everything? What room then for others? What silly place to end up. But we do.

The action Jesus undertook was chosen to strike the disciples as personally as possible, with far more emotional freight than a set of school marks. It was up close and personal. It was washing smelly feet. And, shock horror, wiping them all with the same towel. We’ll be doing some foot-washing here in a moment. My wife Jean was a serial victim of this when I was a Canon at Carlisle Cathedral. Her right foot is now very holy indeed. We don’t ask questions about the left one. She did of course wash it very carefully beforehand, just as many of us rush round the house cleaning before the cleaner arrives, if we’re lucky enough to have that help. I don’t know what the arrangements will be here or the state of the feet involved, but I suspect it will be very sanitised. The ones back then were not. Folk wore open sandals, without socks, on streets that had neither drainage nor sewers. There was a reason why you offered to wash the feet of your guests on arrival …

So, who are you prepared to share a towel with? Not so much tonight, and not so much as a literal thing, but in the sense of being prepared to let others share the limelight, share your space, not be a threat to your peace, be the shoots of the same Vine, one in Christ with you? It’s been interesting joining a church in retirement. We’re feeling really at home there. Everyone is very nice and very friendly, but it took a while for us all to work out how we fitted together and get the conversations going. That’s all fairly normal, but we do need to be careful if folk of a different colour, or country, or sexuality, or ability end up being left out in the cold, or worse. I do so long for the church to be truly known for its welcome to everyone in actual actions, and not just words.

Peter is well caught out by all this. I’m sure he agreed 100% with Jesus’s teaching that we should love one another as he has loved us. But he was a brusque and busy type, quick to stand perhaps on his dignity. The present-day people of Israel call themselves prickly pears, and that captures it nicely. But even prickly pears need to wash sometimes, and we can’t spend all our time in top-class tourist hotels with en suites and clean towels every day. Sooner or later we have to settle down and be family together, and maybe share the bathroom.

Would you mind awfully if we shared the towel of the foot-washing tonight?