Putting the Chairs Away (Maundy Thursday): John 13:1-5


My eldest son loves putting chairs away. Give him a church full of chairs that need stacking and he’s happy as Larry, giggling and bossing people around as he tidies up. And while I love his enthusiasm, sometimes I just want to get home for lunch, you know? I mean, surely he can leave some chairs for someone else?

And that’s when I realise that my lanky autistic 13 year old has a greater servant heart than me. Because when he gets to the end of an act of worship, he doesn’t just want to drink his cup of tea before escaping to the comfort of the living room sofa, he wants to help put things away, to collect hymn books, to wash up.

I’m reminded of this here on Maundy Thursday, when we commemorate Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. The King stoops to do the job of a servant out of grace and compassion, even though the disciples don’t understand, even though he’s washing the feet of a traitor. The power of this moment extends beyond our squeamishness and our repulsion at washing another; it reveals the heart of God and as such it isn’t a ritual, it’s a fact of life.

Some churches latch on to this, making their Maundy Thursday events an act of service. Trinity on the Green in Connecticut holds a foot washing and examination service where they provide podiatric support for homeless people who, on average, walk 8.5 miles a day. There’s something of the original power of the story reflected through this – I doubt Peter ever had a pedicure. The heart of service reflected here isn’t a mere ritual, it’s genuinely showing the love of Christ to people in dire situations, a pair of socks becoming a blessing. Maundy Thursday becomes an act of remembrance of those who are too easily forgotten. In that sense we should also be convicted.

We also remember those carers who embody this every day, when they wash a child or a parent or a spouse who can’t wash themselves, when they clean up after visits to the toilet, when they stay up all night making sure that their loved ones are safe until the morning. And this brings with it stresses and strains, but it’s done out of love, as a way of showing a loved one that they are precious and protected and cared for. And those being washed are made in the Image of God and we also remember that, even when they’re persecuted, dehumanised, neglected. Maundy Thursday is a singularity of compassion; we turn it into an annual ritual at our peril.

Last Sunday I was out preaching, and eldest was with me, and at the end of the service while I’m shaking hands, he starts collecting books and washing cups and charming old ladies just by being helpful. And he’ll never be asked to preach, he’ll never lead worship, but he’s embodying the heart of Jesus and that’s far more powerful.

Many will go to foot washing services tonight. Maybe during those services there’s an opportunity to remember those who wash and clothe others, to take our rituals and turn them into practice. And as we remember Jesus washing feet, maybe the lasting power isn’t just about remembrance and sacrament, maybe it lies in the grace of putting chairs away at the end, of doing the washing up, the grace of showing up, of a clean pair of socks.


Reclaiming Easter 1: Maundy Thursday


(This is one post in four parts… Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.)

I’m worried. I’m worried I’ve lost Easter. I’m worried we’ve lost Easter.

Today, apparently, as it’s Maundy Thursday, the Pope is going to wash the feet of refugees. I was moved by that –  think about where those feet have walked, think about what those people have seen. There can’t be many more groups as dehumanised and othered as refugees, and do I’m glad the Pope is going to be their servant. It’s a Christlike attitude, one I need to take root in my own hard heart.

But our churches are now so big. The contemporary Christian book deals and recording contracts are so lucrative. Look at our lighting rigs, our sound system, the artisan coffee bars in our foyers. Excellence is something to strive for, but are we using Maundy Thursday metrics? Do we kneel and wash feet every day, or as part of a one-day ritual.

There was a lot of heat a few months ago about “the War on Christmas”. I’m not sure there’s a comparable secular assault on Easter, but maybe that’s because we’re looking for the wrong battle. If Easter is about servanthood and compassion, grace and sacrifice, then the battle is against anything that works counter to those. The desire for power and the promotion of prejudice, the chains of legalism and a willingness to exploit the weak… These are some of the sins that worm their way into the church. These are the things from which we need to reclaim Easter.

Maybe we need to save Easter from ourselves.

(Continued tomorrow)

Maundy Thursday 2014: Treason (John 13:18-30)


When did Jesus know that Judas had turned traitor?

It’s hard to discern from the gospels, partly because it’s hard to get a grip on Judas’s motivations. Was he in it for the money? Was he a nationalist who wanted to force a confrontation between Jesus and the authorities? Did he finally get tired of listening to teachings he disagreed with? We don’t know, and a thousand and one theories and apocryphal texts don’t make things any clearer.

But Jesus knew, and that puts a scandalous slant on the story of the Last a Supper and washing the feet of the disciples. It’s not just the fact that a king kneels to serve his servants, controversial as that may be; no, here we have a king serving his betrayer, which is far more tragic and horrifying.

Our ideas of grace and love sometimes only extend so far. Embracing the broken and the lost is one thing; extending that to those actively plotting against us is something else entirely. What are you doing Jesus? At least tie Judas to a chair so he can’t go and sell you out.

But no; he washes Judas’s feet. He shares the Passover meal with him, and the implication is that Judas had a place of honour – it sounds like he’s sitting next to Jesus, which means that the Son of God is intentionally sharing a meal with a traitor.jesus said love your enemies – this is him living that out. It may even be the greatest example of that philosophy – after all, this betrayal came from within. This betrayal was personal.

This is not how we live. It’s alien, the idea that Judas should be here, among the Twelve, among all the other disciples who went out and performed miracles in the name of Christ. It’s not right. It’s not fair.

But this is Easter, and at Easter the rules lie broken in the shadow of the cross. The king rides a donkey. The traitor receives fellowship. ‘Tis mystery all, the immortal dies. And death? Death no longer has the last word. There are moments throughout the Easter story when we have to push aside our instinctive human reactions and see things like the washing of Judas’s feet not as crazy or tragic but as the coming of God’s kingdom.

Amid the blood and horror of Gethsemane and Golgotha, the kingdom comes; the Son takes his throne. And this is expressed through strange moments we struggle to understand. But that’s why grace is a scandal – it offends our sensibilities, yes, but is that because our sensibilities are forged by Earth more than they are by Heaven?

Judas walks away from the Last Supper and John makes it clear that the night has come. But this is not the end – a new day starts at nightfall; a new order is being born. A traitor is loved and, In this, the kingdom comes ever closer.

Maundy Thursday 2013 (John 12:1-8)


It’s Maundy Thursday, on which we remember the Last Supper, so obviously we’re not going to talk about the Last Supper. Call me unconventional if you want, but that’s just how I roll, and today I’m rolling towards John 12.

It’s not entirely unconnected to today’s commemoration though, as in the UK we have the tradition of Maundy Money, by which the Queen makes presentations of money to deserving senior citizens. She apparently considers it an important part of her devotional life, and it has interesting links to a dinner party held a couple of thousand years earlier…

So Jesus and the disciples are at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus (and the facetious part of me wants to know how the after-dinner conversation went – “Lazarus, hi! How you doing? Still alive?”), when Mary anoints Jesus’s feet with an expensive perfume. Fair enough, but this raises some hackles – Judas in particular complains that she’d have been better off selling the money and giving it to the poor.

Now, we immediately side against Judas because, well, he’s Judas, but on the surface it’s a fair question – after all, there’d be no shortage of neighbours sitting on or near the poverty line. And while this story is often used as an example of extravagant worship, that has its own dangers – look at how Jesus warned about making great shows of piety. Look at how the prophets warned against making holy sacrifices while ignoring the earthly poor. Judas has a point.

No, wait, come back. It’s not that simple. Because while Judas’s outrage forces us to look at our motives when it comes to worship, it’s really just a mask – while he sounds very noble and sacrificial, John tells us what’s really going on – he’s a thief and he’s looking for a chance to embezzle Jesus and the others. His words sound great, but his heart… Well, it’s not long before he’ll be earning thirty pieces of silver.

And that’s the danger, isn’t it? It’s not about actions, because in another world Judas could have been right and Mary was doing this for show. It’s about what’s in the heart.

Am I writing this blog because I want to learn about God or am I in it for the site hits?

Am I preaching because I want to tell people about Jesus or because it gives me power and authority and attention?

Am I composing this worship song to express something of the beauty and majesty of faith or because it’ll make s good closing track for the CD?

Am I doing the church accounts to support the Kingdom, or because it’s a nice little earner and I’ll never get caught?

What’s in the heart? That’s the question that matters, after all the mock concern for social justice and the smell of expensive perfume has faded. Jesus knows this, and it’s a question he returns to, in one form or another, over and over again. And he affirms Mary’s actions, not because there’s anything wrong with caring for the poor, but because it was a genuine, heartfelt act of worship.

Outside, people are gathering because they know Lazarus was raised from the dead and they want to see what Jesus can do for them. Inside, a disciple says he wants to help those in poverty but is really only in it for himself. And in the middle of all this, only one person seems to see beyond the activity and crowds and opportunism to recognise that the Messiah is here and that he’s deserving of worship. Mary does what she can to honour that and it costs her; economically, yes, but also her heart. Selfishness is no longer an option because Jesus is here.

I don’t have that heart.

Maybe, this Easter, I need to get praying that I would.


More thoughts on Maundy Thursday here and here