Hijacking the Mandate

By Paul Koch

Happy Maundy Thursday. This day in church history is rich in the themes of our faith and the proclamation of our hope as the children of God. After all, it is on this night that our Lord was betrayed with a kiss and that Peter cut off Malchus’ ear just for Jesus to simply put it back on again. On this night, he is taken to Caiaphas and is denied three times before the rooster crows. On this night, he gave his great Supper and delivered unmatched gifts to his beloved.

But the name of this day, Maundy, comes from the Latin of John 13:34, “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” or “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”) Maundy has to do with the mandate, the commandment that our Lord gives to his followers. The setting of this mandate is the upper room where our Lord laid aside his outer garments, tied a towel around his waist, and knelt down to wash the feet of his disciples.

Here, our Lord establishes a pattern for humility and service among the Church. Our Lord and teacher gets down on the ground and does the work of the lowly servant. This points toward and anticipates his service when he goes out to the garden, to Caiaphas, and to the cross on Golgotha’s hill. There, he serves us with the breaking of his body and the shedding of this blood, securing our redemption. This service then turns us in the end toward each other, to our love and service for one another as we speak the truth in love and bear each other’s burdens.

Maundy Thursday was a service of preparation leading worshippers into the events that unfold on Good Friday and Easter morning. The focus was on the washing of the feet and the mandate to serve one another.

That is, until the Lutherans got a hold of it.

You see, we’ve managed to hijack the mandate of this day by placing the emphasis on a different moment. The emphasis for us falls not on the washing of feet but on the giving of the feast. The mandate we focus on is “Take eat, this is my body” and “Take drink, this is the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

This, of course, isn’t a departure from the foot-washing, service-oriented theme but simply a difference in emphasis. Instead of hearing “Serve because you have been served” you hear something more along the lines of “Repent and believe.” Instead of a call to action, it is a call to reception. Take, eat; take, drink—because you are a sinner!

This is a delightful shift for the Church. In fact, we might say that this shift helps to interpret the actions of the foot washing in the first place. Before the disciples are called to serve, before they look for someone else’s feet to wash, they are washed by the Lord. They are first receivers and then servers. They have been loved so that they might love.

And so it is with you. You have been loved; you have been served. In fact, you have been washed, fed, forgiven, and embraced so that you might love and serve one another. And even when you fail to render that service, even when you withhold and hesitate, your Lord never does. He still says, “Take, eat; take, drink…”