Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands....."
Revd Chris Moody, Maundy Thursday 29 April 2018
The solemn introduction which is given in John Chapter 13 to Jesus’s action in washing his disciples’ feet is an indication of how he sees it as being the sign of Jesus’s authority.
“Jesus, knowing that the Father had give all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from table, took of his outer robe….and began to wash his disciples’ feet”.
The question is, is this simply a sign of Jesus’s human self-emptying, obedience and self-abasement on the Cross; something that will, as it were, be overcome or contradicted when next he comes in glory. Or is it telling us something more profound about divine as well as human authority. Is it in the nature of divine authority that it is of a different kind to human authority and that it is experienced in an entirely different way? Elsewhere in the Gospels when his disciples are disputing among themselves who is the greatest, Jesus says ‘You know how it is with the Gentiles, how those they recognise as rulers, lord it over them and their great ones make them feel the weight of authority. It is not so with you, but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give up his life as a ransom for many.
The significant word here is ‘weight’. The authority which comes from God is entirely different from the human authority which we normally experience as a burden, weight or even threat - the sort of authority which keeps the wheels turning in government, industry and finance, that develops hierarchies and systems of working- all very necessary in themselves but potentially oppressive unless influenced by something else, by some vision of the greater good, something given and gracious, rather than withheld and wielded.
The authority that comes from God, which Christ embodies as he lays aside his garments and ascends the Cross in St John’s Gospel is of a different order. It is known most powerfully when it is most hidden from the world- hidden, but at the same time attractive and liberating. For example, when it is experienced in acts of compassion or loving service, in non-possessive love and ecstatic enjoyment of the world and of other people- the authority perhaps of a poem or a piece of music rather than an order or a threat. It is the charismatic authority of divine goodness that Jesus displays as he takes the path to the Cross - the sort of power that is always breaking through, and from time to time captures the imagination of whole communities and changes lives.
This divine power and authority is literally handed over to us in the self-sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. It is in the act of handing over that the nature of divine authority is revealed as inexhaustible, unconquerable love, which by its patient persistence will at last bring all things to itself. In the Eucharist Christ hands himself over to us in bread and wine. In his handing over into the hands of the temple police and of Pilate in his betrayal by Judas, he reaches down into the depths of our own weakness, the hurts we have sustained through life, and walks alongside the shamed and oppressed. On the cross he absorbs our pain and hands over to us healing and forgiveness in exchange. And this is not out of any human act of heroism, but through the Spirit of God and divine authority. It is at the very moment when in human terms he is displayed as most helpless, that the divine activity is most clearly exposed. Paul puts it succinctly in several passages in his letters. In these three nights beginning today as Christ goes into the Garden of Gethsemane and finishing as the women reach the empty tomb on Easter Day, we know, not only with our minds but in our hearts that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’; that ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men’ and that ‘God’s love for us was shown in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’.