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Holy (Maundy) Thursday: John 13:1-35

“Grace is revealed in suffering, power is displayed through weakness, glory is disguised in humiliation.”

Grace is revealed in suffering,
power is displayed through weakness,
glory is disguised in humiliation.

David Lose, “Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35, “Working Preacher” (April 21, 2011), Note that the word “Maundy” comes from the Latin word mandatum, meaning “mandate” or “commandment” (John 13:34).

Imagine the above words as a political slogan for an election campaign. Think about it for just a minute… you’ll probably laugh. It would be a doomed campaign before the ink dried on the poster. The general public would receive the assertions with utter and astonished incredulity. Party members would bury their heads in their hands, agonizing over how the campaign’s architects could have gone so wrong. The opposition would squeal in delight, knowing the enemy had been delivered into their hands. The media wouldn’t even know where to start. Late-night comedians would have a field day.


It shouldn’t surprise us that when polarizing, political regime changes happen, no one has ran campaigns on slogans referring to the glory of suffering, weakness or humiliation.

Think back to ancient empires. Imagine the mighty pharaohs with their vain displays of glory: splendorous temples, blazing obelisks, vast plazas for military display, and a multitude of subservient gods with various uber-human qualities and unassailable powers designed to subjugate the disposable underclasses from whom the empire’s wealth is ruthlessly and relentlessly extracted.

Think of Rome. Think of Caesar in a meeting with his advisors to discuss the imperial brand. What sorts of ideas would float around the room to put on display to sell his authority? I would assume the words ‘weak,’ ‘suffer’ and ‘humiliate’ would only be used, with blustering bravado, to describe the state and fate of his enemies.

Now compare these empires to the biblical witness of Jesus. At the very moment when his followers – full of messianic hope – were expecting a revolution, he lays out the fundamentals of the campaign and the DNA of God’s rule by taking a servant’s towel and basin and washing his follower’s feet.

Feet Washing Icon

My friend Rikk Watts and I once travelled through Egypt, Sinai and Israel together. As a New Testament scholar and professor, Rikk’s intended purpose was historical research. I was simply along for the ride to catch the spillover of his discoveries and thoughts. One night, in Tiberius, we were enjoying dinner while overlooking a serene Galilean sea. After witnessing the remnants of Egypt’s glory, the barren desolation of Sinai, and some of the chaos and agony that is Israel/Palestine, Rikk pensively put down his glass and asked, “What do you think is the greatest revelation of the glory of God in scriptures?” I was tempted to suggest the resurrection, but knowing Rikk’s penchant for revealing the unexpected, I knew better than to answer, and so I simply waited for him to continue. “It’s the servant’s towel,” he said. “All else – the humiliation, suffering, death and resurrection – are the logical outcomes of this revelation.”

Then he continued, “When Jesus picked up the towel and washed his friend’s feet… the penny dropped, and we saw for the first time God in God’s glory, fully revealed.” We then sat in silence for some time as we let this insight sink in.

The foot-washing scene in John’s Gospel is rich. It is profound to note that Jesus, according to the text, knew in advance that Judas would betray, Peter would deny and the rest of the disciples would scatter. Yet he showed them the “full extent of his love” anyway, and washed their feet before their disloyalties and treacheries. The message is clear: My love is simply much greater than all this.

After the foot washing, Jesus says (notice the word ‘now’), “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.”

Then it gets personal. He continues: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you….”

Silence is needed again. The implications of these words are staggering.

Years ago, I was reading the whole discourse that follows these opening verses in John 13, and the song below emerged in only a few minutes. John 13:17 is by far my favourite passage of scripture. I’ve read, and read, and read and reread it. Each time I become overwhelmed with hope and despair and joy. My hope is in this One whom the Church celebrates as Christ the King on the last Sunday of the Church year. I despair that I am such an unworthy subject of this kingdom. Yet I rejoice that, however unworthy, I am a welcome recipient of this great love nonetheless.

Christ have mercy on me, and on us.

music and lyrics by Steve Bell

Father just before the hour comes
That was set aside to glorify Your Son
With a glory from before the world began
With a glory given to no other man

Protect the ones You’ve given me to love
I so desire that none of them be lost
They’ve yet to understand the mystery
Why the Son of God would wash another’s feet

But this is not the same
It’s a different thing altogether
This is not the same
It’s another thing altogether
This is love

My prayer is not for only these alone
But for those who follow after they’re gone
May they understand the love You have for me
As the kind of love that changes everything

They argue who will sit next to the throne
And I cringe to hear them say Thy kingdom come
They think they know what they’re getting into
We both know that they haven’t got a clue

But this is not the same
It’s a different thing altogether
This is not the same
It’s a different thing altogether
This is love

Here’s something that they won’t like
Someone’s coming to take the life
No one has to look farther than me
For I am He

Some will trust in the things they think they know
They should think again and let them go
Put away the sword and get behind
And let me die
’cause this is not the same
It’s a different thing altogether
This is not the same
It’s a better thing altogether
This is love

Appears on the 1997 CD release: Steve Bell / Romantics and Mystics