Thursday, 21 April 2011
Holy Thursday, The New Commandment, Shaftesbury
Tonight I want to say a few words about the symbolism of the washing of feet, the washing of feet as done by Jesus as we heard in that gospel passage, which will be symbolically reenacted when I wash feet in a few moments time. And, I want in particular to explain the significance of this using the comments of Pope Benedict in his new book (Jesus of Nazareth, vol 2,p.63ff) [which I also cited in my Palm Sunday sermon].
Pope Benedict comments on the significance of the foot washing done by the Lord Jesus Christ in terms of the question of the "new commandment". The Lord Jesus, as we know, gave what He called a "new commandment": "love one another, as I have loved you" (Jn 13:34). While we didn't hear these words in tonight's gospel, these words, this commandment, was uttered by the Lord in the verses that followed Him giving this example of washing His disciples feet in profound humility. In washing those feet, as we just heard, He gave "an example so that you may copy what I have done to you" (Jn 13:15).
At a superficial glance therefore it would seem as if the "new commandment" was simply to follow the example of Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict, however, notes that the new commandment is about much more than just the example of Jesus.
Now, this is an important point, because there are many people throughout the world today who think that Christian morality is about nothing more than following the example of Jesus Christ. They think that Jesus was a great man, a great teacher, a great MORAL teacher. Many, however, mistakenly think He was ONLY a man and so they think that His new commandment consists ONLY in His example.
This notion, however, the notion that Jesus is just a good man, that all that Jesus gives us is an example, even if possibly a perfect example, this notion fails to understand the very “essence” of Christianity -and this is Pope Benedict's concern.
The "new commandment" says that we must love “as I have loved you", and it is possible to misread that in such a way that we think that loving as Jesus would have us love is simply about a more extreme moral EFFORT. That Jesus loved a huge amount, Jesus loved so much that He died for us, and that to love "as I have loved you" is to love with such a huge effort.
But, such a notion reduces the essence of Christianity to just being about external behaviour, it fails to grasp the type of INTERNAL change that Christianity involves.
To love "as I have loved you" includes a more extreme moral effort, but much more importantly it includes something else: it means loving IN and WITH Jesus, it means having Jesus inside of us doing the loving. It means the Spirit of Christ dwelling within us, forming us inside into the image and likeness of Christ, such that Christ is loving in us, such that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me”(Gal 2:20).
This is Pope Benedict’s point, this is what he refers to as concerning the "essence" of Christianity. And in saying this he is drawing on the wisdom of the saints and ancients who have gone before him: for example, the great St Thomas Aquinas, in explaining the nature of the "new law" teaches that “the New Law is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Spirit, which is given to those who believe in Christ” (St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II q106 a1 http://www.newadvent.org/summa/2106.htm).
But, there is an even deeper truth that penetrates to the core of this new commandment, that concerns the "essence" of Christianity, and this deeper truth indicates why Jesus gave the new commandment on the night before He died:
Possessing the new life of Jesus Christ within us consists in participating in the new life He won for us, consists in participating in His own suffering, death, and resurrection.
The only way that we can live the new commandment, the only way that we can receive His Holy Spirit and grace in faith, is by the All Man Adam dying within us and the New Man Christ coming to live within us. And so the giving of the new commandment looks ahead to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of His Holy Spirit that flows from it.
All of this is what the new commandment, the external manifestation of which is shown in the humble loving service of the washing of feet, all of this is what is on display for us tonight.