Doing love - becoming love

It is not magic.  It is not a miracle.  It is a model that Jesus shows us how to be servants of one another

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Doing love – becoming love

March 16, 2014 – John 13:1-17

 

            In the gospel of John, there is no Last Supper, at least, not a supper that is narrated for us, like there is in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  They are indeed eating a meal together, but Jesus does not offer either the bread or the cup to them in a special way.

            What we have at the end instead is this:  On the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus got up from the table, took off his robe and wrapped a towel around his waist.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and wipe them with the towel.

            With the end very near, on his final night with them, as an act of love, he performed the act of a servant.  Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. 

            Foot-washing is a very mundane act.  Our feet are, literally, the lowest part of the body and they are the part of our body that is most in contact with the earth.  If you wear sandals most of the time, your feet will spend most of their time being dirty, even if you run around all the time on grass.  There wasn’t much grass where Jesus lived.  So, foot-washing in his time was very common.

Foot-washing is a very mundane act.  It is also a very intimate act. It is intimate because our feet are full of nerves, they are full of feeling.  That’s so they give us a good sense of the ground on which we walk.  They are able to feel clearly the contours of the ground and to adjust to any irregularities.  They give us stability.  Foot-washing is intimate because they are so sensitive.  They are more vulnerable.  We don’t show our feet to just anyone.   

Foot-washing is very mundane.  It is very intimate.  It is a humble act.  It is the act of a slave.  It is not the act of a host.  It is not the act of a free man.  It is the act of a slave.

So, on Jesus’ last night with the disciples, he performs the act of a servant. 

            What struck me in watching this scene from, “The Gospel of John,” this week was Peter’s reaction.  I don’t know if it was the actor’s portrayal or if it was just me.  When Jesus first kneels at his feet, Peter is very uncomfortable.  This is not the role he wants his Lord to perform.  He does not want his revered Lord to stoop before him. When Jesus insists, however, then Peter wants to be washed all over, like it is some sort of honored religious act, or even magic. 

            But Jesus is not doing magic.  He is not doing miracle.  He is only modeling what he wants them all to do – what they can all do.  “I am giving you an example,” he tells them.

            Not that it is easy – Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, yes, those who have been with him the longest, those who have been the closest to him.  Yet, Jesus knows how they will act in the coming hours.  Peter, who is so eager to be completely bathed by Jesus, will protest that he has never even heard of him just to save his own skin.  Judas will provide the information to those who want to kill Jesus about when and where to capture him.  No one else can even show their face.  They completely abandon him.

            These are the feet that he washes.  And he knows what they will do, even Judas, who stabs him in the back.  Still he washes their feet.  He washed Peter’s feet.  He washes Judas’s feet.  He washes the feet of all of his disciples.

            This is what Jesus does on his last night with them, as his final act with them.

            If there were any mistaking of his meaning, toward the end of this chapter, Jesus says to them:  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.

I find it striking that these are the words Jesus’ leaves with his disciples. I mean, he could have said, “Go out and die with me.” Or, “Keep the faith.” Or, “When I am gone, go out and teach and preach to all the world.” Or, any number of things.

But instead he offered this simple and challenging word, “Love another.” Why? Because this kind of love is the hallmark not just of God and Jesus but also of the Christian church. As in the old camp song, Jesus agrees that the whole world will know we are Christians not by our sermons or our sacraments or our festivals or our buildings or our crucifixes or our family values … but by our love. It’s just that important.

 

The challenge, of course, is to love those we disagree with or, wish to do us harm, or worse, who have done us harm.

I am reminded of a documentary I saw some years ago on CNN, in which reporter Christiane Amanpour interviewed a woman in Rwanda named Iphigenia. She was from the Tutsi tribe, and during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, her husband and five children were clubbed and hacked to death by a mob of Hutus, including one of her neighbors.

The neighbor who had participated in the massacre spent seven years in prison and then went before a tribal court, where he asked for forgiveness from Iphigenia and the whole community. Iphigenia opened her heart and forgave her neighbor. But it did not end there. Iphigenia, a master weaver, also taught her neighbor’s wife how to weave baskets. The two became friends and business partners.

On the day that Christiane Amanpour was interviewing her, Iphigenia had invited these same neighbors into her home and was serving them dinner. That’s right -- she was serving dinner to the man who killed her husband and children. When asked how she found it in her heart to forgive, Iphigenia said simply, “I am a Christian, and I pray a lot."

We might think that this kind of love is impossible.  Jesus wasn’t commanding us to feel loving.  He was commanding us to be loving, to act in a loving way toward others.  With some people that is easy – with those whom we love naturally.  There are some who are not as easy – perhaps strangers, those whom we do not know.  Above all, the hardest, though, are those we might consider our enemies – those who have harmed us, or opposed us.

We cannot do it by ourselves.  So, we begin with prayer.  Jesus intimated as much in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  If that is still too hard, then ask someone else to pray for that person for you. Or even pray to God that you can’t pray for that person.  But whatever you do, begin with prayer.

Then keep praying.  And see what happens.  Perhaps you cannot feel loving toward that person, but perhaps you can at least refrain from doing anything that might harm that person.  Then perhaps you can regard them, not with your own eyes but with the eyes of God – as a brother or sister in Christ, or as someone who is also made in God’s image. 

This is what Jesus shows us to do.  This is what Jesus does for us.  He lays down his life for his friends.  He commands us to be servants and shows us how – that the world may know that we are his disciples and that that world may know that he is their Messiah.