This is Easter Week 2019. On this day, since the late 4th century (393) the Western (Latin) church has remembered that our Lord instituted the sign and seal of the renewal of the covenant of grace, holy communion (the Lord’s Supper). On the church calendar, this day is known, in English, as “Maundy Thursday.” Maundy is a Middle English word derived from the Latin translation of the Bible, in which version our Lord gave a “mandatum novum,“ i.e., a new commandment, after the institution of holy communion. Of course, as the church has been wont to do, she invented this day on the church calendar even though our Lord himself did not establish it as a day.
The entry in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church notes that this day is usually connected with a foot-washing ceremony (the pedilavium), the blessing of the holy oils, and the reconciliation of penitents. It is not unusual to see images of the Roman bishop washing feet on this day each year. These ceremonies are also human inventions, well-intentioned though they may be. It is not a surprise that scholars trace the observance of Maundy Thursday to the late 4th century. When writers speak about “ancient hymns” or “ancient practices” many of them begin in the mid to late 4th century or after. It was in this period that the church began to lose her status as an alienated, persecuted minority and began (not all at once) to become part of the establishment. In this period worship began to become more elaborate and ministers, instead of dressing like pastors, began to dress like Roman civil officials—which explains some of the clerical dress in which one sees Roman bishops and popes conducting themselves.
What Did Jesus Say And Do?
Of course our Lord did wash the feet of his disciples but he instituted it as no sacrament nor even as a perpetual observance. He washed his disciples’ feet to make a point, one that is easily lost in all the pomp and hoopla surrounding “Holy Week.” After institution the Holy Supper, our Lord said:
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” (John 13:34-35; ESV).
What our Lord wanted believers to do was to respond to his saving grace by loving one another. By this we give witness to our mutual love. This is the pattern of Scripture. The Lord acts first, he saves, he is unconditionally gracious, he redeems, and then, afterward, calls us to live in light of his sovereign, unconditional saving grace. We do not keep the commandment to love one another in order to be saved nor in order to be justified or glorified, but because he has graciously saved us, he has graciously justified us, and he will graciously glorify us.
What Does It Mean For Christians?
Christians love one another because our Savior, to whom we are all united by one Holly Spirit, one baptism in the name of the Triune God, in one faith, first loved us. This is what the Apostle John said:
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10; ESV).
In this passage, the Apostle goes on to reflect on the mystery of our union with the risen Christ, by the Holy Spirit and what it means to be united to him who loved and loves us. It means that we love one another. Our love for one another flows out of Christ’s love for us and in us. It is in this love and union that we confess that Jesus is the Son of God (1 John 4:15) and it is in Christ’s love for us that we have confidence for the last day (1 John 4:17, 18). Perfect love casts out fear because, in love, Christ became our propitiation. He turned away the righteous wrath of God against our sin.
Now, in Christ, in love, we are free to love our brothers and sisters in Christ. It seems almost certain that the Apostle is reflecting on the very same passage in his gospel and on the events of Jesus’ last week on this earth:
We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:19-20; ESV).
If we did not know better, we might think that the Apostle James wrote those words, but he did not. This is John helping us to understand what Jesus said.
Indeed, there is nothing entirely new about the “new commandment.” After all, the same Holy Spirit who gave us the gospel of John also gave us the book of Leviticus: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lev 19:18; ESV).
What is new is that the Lamb of God has come into the world to take away the sins of the world. The new administration of the covenant of grace has been ratified in the blood of Christ. The Holy Spirit has been poured out upon all of Christ’s people and the gospel is going to the ends of the earth.
What Is Love?
In our culture and time it is easy to misunderstand our Lord’s words. This is why the explanations by the Apostles are so necessary and why it so-called “Red Letter” Christianity (i.e., the attempt to set Jesus against the Apostles and to try to interpret Jesus’ words apart from the Apostles) is so utterly foolish. After all, the Apostles were there. They were the authorized, delegated representatives of the Lord. They were at Pentecost. Their letters to the churches and the gospels, those were inspired by the Holy Spirit. The foolish opinions of those who would set the Apostles against our Lord are certainly not inspired by the Holy Spirit. They are more likely inspired by a rather different spirit—that of the ancient heretic Marcion or perhaps that of the equally heretical Gnostics but it is certainly not Spirit of Christ.
To love does not mean merely “to feel something,” nor “to sympathize with,” but rather it means actually to do something on behalf of those to whom we are united by Christ. It means to act locally within one’s congregation to alleviate suffering in the congregation. It means to comfort the lonely and the afflicted. We know because that is what our Lord did. He bound up our wounds and more than that, he raised us from the dead. He loved us when we were altogether unlovely.
As we are reminded of the events in Jerusalem so many years ago, it is good today to remember the Love of Christ for us sinners and to be reminded of the true nature of love, that it is not what we often make it out to be but something both more grand and more simple.