Maundy Thursday is the day in the church calendar that we remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. Two important events happened that night: (1) Jesus washed his disciples’ feet; and (2) Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. Although these two events are sources of potentially endless reflection, I want to focus on the way in which the two events are connected.
The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin word mandatum, for “commandment” or “mandate.” So, when we speak of Maundy Thursday, we are referring specifically to the commandment that Jesus gave his disciples in John 13:34: “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.” This commandment to love one another as Jesus has loved us is the link between Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet and the Lord’s Supper.
We Love One Another Just as Jesus Loved Us
Jesus is our model for loving one another, a fact he makes plain in his own commandment to us. “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” Jesus’ command is that we should imitate toward one another the love that he has demonstrated for us.
So, Jesus gives an extremely practical example by washing his disciples’ feet. This was a task for the lowliest servant in the house to do for the others, but Jesus takes the task upon himself. He takes off his outer garment and washes the feet of his disciples, one by one–even stopping to wash the feet of Judas, who would betray him before the night was over. The lesson is clear: we ought to love one another through serving, even when serving requires us to humble ourselves to the lowest position, and even when serving requires us to treat our enemies better than they deserve.
But how does the Lord’s Supper teach us to love one another? We will answer that question in a moment. First, however, we need to see how the Lord’s Supper teaches us about how Jesus loved us. Remember Jesus’ specific commandment: we are to love one another just as Jesus has loved us. Until we see how Jesus has loved us, we don’t really understand what it means for us to love one another.
Here is how Paul hands down the tradition of the Lord’s Supper to the Christian church at Corinth:
23For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
The most precious promise of the gospel is that the body of Jesus was broken for you, and that the blood of Jesus was shed for you. This is no vague, religious idea, nor a burdensome command. This is gospel, pure and simple. Jesus Christ died, and he died for you. Saving faith is the faith that believes and depends on this promise, that Christ’s broken body and shed blood is for me. And what’s more, if we skip over the love of Christ and move straight into service, we will miss the point entirely. We love others because Christ first loved us.
So then, whatever loving one another means, it must imitate this kind of self-sacrificing love, where Christ poured out his own life for us. Certainly, we cannot save other people through our own self-sacrifice (only Christ can save), but when Jesus calls us to love one another, he tells us to do so just as he has loved us.
We Love One Another at the Lord’s Table
The chief moment of Christian love and charity, then, ought to be when Christians are gathered together at the Lord’s Table. When we receive together the bread and the cup, proclaiming the Lord’s broken body and shed blood until he comes, we do so on equal footing, coming together to receive the same salvation from our common Lord.
It is abominable, then, for human distinctions to be made at the Lord’s Table. Certainly, we must fence the table from those who do not love Jesus, or from those who claim to love Jesus, but are yet unwilling to repent from their sins. Jesus commands us to do as much. But we dishonor Jesus at a deep level when we differentiate on the basis of human differences, such as race or wealth or social standing. At Jesus’ table, we all come as beggars.
For this reason, Paul is furious at the Corinthian church who has been excluding and humiliating the poor in their midst during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Immediately before he recounts the tradition of the Lord’s Supper (above), Paul blisteringly rebukes them for their behavior:
20When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 21For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. (1 Corinthians 11:20-22)
And then, after the passage quoted above, Paul issues a stern warning against their behavior:
27Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
33So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another–34if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home–so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. (1 Corinthians 11:27-34)
At the celebration of the sacrifice of the Lord, the rich would sacrifice nothing to their poor brothers and sisters! Paul was furious, because such behavior completely contradicts the kind of love that Christ himself demonstrated when he instituted the Lord’s Supper.
Now, much could be said to apply this passage to our modern context, but to close this post, I want to ask a generic question: How are you treating the other people with whom you receive the Lord’s Supper? Do you despise them in your heart, or does receiving the Lord’s Supper destroy your bitterness by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that you are compelled to love and serve your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ?
The reason we do not continue to practice regular foot washing is that foot washing is merely an example of the kind of servant-hearted love that we are to be showing to one another. If we have genuinely come to experience the saving love of Jesus Christ, believing on his broken body and shed blood for us, to cleanse us of our sin, then we ought to love one another just as Christ has loved us. Even if we do not literally wash feet, how are you washing the feet of others?
On Maundy Thursday, Jesus extends the full, free offer of salvation through his own broken body and shed blood. But, Jesus also issues a mandate for those who receive his salvation: Love one another: just as he has loved us, we also are to love one another.