John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Through Holy Week we gather as a community to remember through liturgy and ritual the last hours of Jesus life. On this night in particular we recall the last night he spent together with his friends. Depending on the lectionary, we hear either the story of the first Eucharist or the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples as we did this year.
Jesus and his disciples are gathered at supper. They are tired, dirty, carrying with them all the stuff of the day….literally. When people gathered for a meal, the typical custom was for someone to wash the feet of those gathered. It was a practical thing, it made gathering for dinner much more pleasant. Most often it was a slave who did this, sometimes a peer, but never the rabbi, the teacher. But Jesus takes it upon himself to wash their feet. No one else was doing this necessary act….so during supper Jesus does this act of servanthood, this act of love.
Having loved his own…he loved them to the end….he did indeed….and I think not simply in terms of loving them to the end of his life….but to the end….to the greatest extent they could be loved…..unconditionally. He loved them when he called them as disciples and they dropped everything and came. He loved them when they had faith and seemed to actually get what he was about. He also loved them when they were completely faithless and seemed to lack the most basic understanding of his message even after being with him day by day for three years. He loved them even when he knew that one of them would betray him.
Love. What passes for love for us so often is really a complex stew of so many other things! Want, greed and unmet need. The demands of our undifferentiated egos, the cries of our wounded inner children. The strident calls of the culture that tells us that our needs must be met and that “all we need is love” and that surely it can be purchased in some shiny packaged form of whatever they are hawking at the moment.
We are not talking about “love as a feeling” as we often think about it, but rather love as an action. Writer and theologian CS Lewis talks about this as “gift love.” He says that this is love born of fullness. The goal of gift love is to enrich and enhance the beloved. Gift love, Lewis says, is like a bountiful, artesian well that just overflows, arcing out to bless all it touches. Lewis says that God's love is gift love. And then he says, "We humans are made in the image of such everlasting and unconditional love."
Theologian the Rev. Dr. Brooks Ramsey has said the point of the incarnation was that “God became like us so we could become like God.” In our becoming more Godlike we are called to a love that becomes a particular kind of transformative act that changes and shapes us more and more into the kinds of persons who can love as God loves, who can indeed follow the commandment that Jesus gave his friends that night. Of course this isn’t easy. It means that we must stoop to serve and wash the feet of those who hurt or frustrate or betray us. It means we must continue to act in love and to serve in love. It means that we have to do the countercultural things, the difficult things….the things that require us to remember who and whose we are. John says that Jesus got up during supper to wash the feet of the disciples becasuse he knew that he had come from God and was going to God. Jesus sense of who and whose he was was clear and strong. His sense of his identity and of his mission was sure. Remember Ash Wednesday when we reflected on the idea that the "dust" that we are is the same as that of all the matter of the created universe, the same as that of the supernovas and the stars, the glaciers and the canyons, the earth and the air... and that really it is all really part of God? What I said that Ash Wednesday night was that as I marked the cross on each forehead, it seemed as if what I was really saying was "Remember that you are of God, and to God you will return." Jesus Knows with an unwavering certainly as C said on Sunday morning, that he is of God and it is to God he will return. And while he is still on earth for this short time with his friends, he wants to give this them last message, this last commandment so that there will be no mistake that they indeed are his friends, his followers…..Love one another in this way….as I love you….in this way. We are loved in this way. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that we too could know who we are, beloved of God, the God who loves us beyond belief who longs to grace us and transform us with His love into such lovers. In the ACTION of such loving we change…..become the gift lovers.
Lewis' depiction of gift love really is the foundation of the way Jesus loved. And the great good news for us is not only that we are loved by God, but also that this is our deepest identity as well. If we were not capable of this we would not have been created for it! Theologian Karl Barth once said, "Jesus is the name of our species, in relation to whom we are still subhuman but, nonetheless, called ultimately to become." Jesus would not have given us this new commandment if it had not been possible for us to accomplish it.
While we do not do a traditional foot washing service, the symbols of that act are here before you as a reminder of Jesus’ willingness to do whatever was needed in love, and his command to us to do the same. Over the next three days we will see just how far he was willing to take his love for us. We will see the gift of his willingness to undergo the loss of his earthly life by painful and humiliating crucifixion in order to defeat death for our redemption, giving us his ongoing gift of himself in the presence of his spirit among us forever. And we remember not just the end of his life, but the whole arc of it, as we hear again that final commandment “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”