Finding Love in the Gaps
Sermon on John 13:1-17, 31b-35.
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.]
A friend of mine, Pastor AnneMarie Cook, recently started a new podcast with another clergy colleague called Mind the Gap.
Their tagline describes it as “a commentary podcast about all those verses that get left out of the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary.”
This topic is one on which I have mellowed over the course of my time as a weekly preacher.
I used to be, maybe, a little self-righteous about adding back in the important context verses that the lectionary authorities had deigned to exclude… but with a little more experience I have come to understand that it really is impossible to say all the things in one sermon, and it is sometimes wise to narrow down the focus a bit, even if you lose some of the context.
Nevertheless, for tonight’s gospel reading I really think we do need to “mind the gap,” and consider the parts of the narrative that get left out of the readings. Specifically, we need to be conscious of two vital elements of context:
First, verses 18-31, which describe Jesus’ interaction with Judas in which Jesus predicts his disciple’s imminent betrayal, a prediction which Judas does not deny, accepting Jesus’ instruction to go do what he is going to do and leaving immediately.
Second, the final three verses of the chapter that continue past our reading and include Jeus’s prediction – against Peter’s assertion of his faithfulness – that the disciple will betray him three times that very night.
These are important parts of the story for understanding Jesus’ action of washing his disciples’ feet – ALL of his disciples’ feet.
And they are important framing for Jesus’s words about the command to love each other.
Greek translator and commentator D. Mark Davis makes the point that, “Lifting vv. 31-35 out of the context of betrayal and denial seems to make it just a morality piece, an injunction to love with sweet feelings and kind sentiments. Keeping these verses in this context makes it a call to a radical kind of love.”
In other words, without the uncomfortable parts of this story, Jesus’s command to love is just about words and pretty ideas, but what we need to truly understand those words is Jesus’ actions in the midst of painful human stories.
Love is not an intellectual commitment…. It’s something we need to DO.
It is possible that our Lenten focus on the senses this year has me primed to tune into the physicality of this scene, but it is clearly there in the text:
The details about Jesus tying a towel around himself, pouring water into the basin, washing feet and then drying them.
They are such embodied details about the way that Jesus is demonstrating love in a practical, intimate, physical way.
Even the language in the passage around the repeated theme of “knowing” pushes us toward an active, engaged way of hearing this story if we look at the original language.
In English, we get 6 different references to what is “known”:
Jesus knows what God is about to do.
He tells his disciples that they do NOT know what he is doing in the action of washing their feet, but that they will understand later.
John tells us that Jesus knew who has going to betray him, even as he performed the act of service.
He opens his post-washing teaching by asking them if the know what he has done to them, and then tells them if the know these things they are blessed if they do them.
And finally, after giving the command to love, Jesus says that others will know they are his disciples if they love one another.
In English, the word “know” might pull us into a more abstract, cognitive space because we generally think of knowing as something that we do with our minds....
But in Greek, we get a different feeling.
In four of these repetitions John uses the word εἴδω (eídō), which is connected to seeing – an experiential form of knowing.
In the other two cases – when Jesus asks if the disciples know what he has done for them, and when he declares everyone will know they are his disciples – the word is γινώσκω (ginṓskō), which expresses a coming to know, through some level of personal experience.
The call is to open our eyes and to actively experience what Jesus is trying to teach his followers: to know and then be blessed by doing.
But what is it that Jesus wants us to know?
What does his strange action of washing his disciples’ feet as if he were their servant teach?
What actions of love will allow other people to recognize us as the ones who follow Jesus’ example?
What are we supposed to see and come to know?
This is where we need to fill-in the gaps in the reading.
We need to see Jesus’ act of foot-washing not just as an abstract example of servanthood, but as a deliberate choice to care for and make himself vulnerable to two friends who are about to betray and deny him.
Because Jesus already knew.
He knew what Judas and Peter were about to do,
AND he knew exactly what he was doing when he knelt at their feet anyway;
when he gently cradled their dusty, calloused feet, scrubbing off the grime of the day;
when he rested their feet in the towel in his lap and wiped away the clinging drops of cleansing water.
He KNEW that they were about to HURT him, and he decided that this what how he could teach his friends what love really means.
There are at least two ways that we can respond to this story:
One (very reasonable) response is to conclude that this presents an impossible standard.
We could maybe get on board with “servant-like love” in the abstract sense. It would feel pretty good to see ourselves as the kinds of selfless, humble people who are willing to wash our friends’ feet.
But when it gets this real?! When it’s not an abstract idea but a visceral story of cradling the foot that’s about to step on your neck?!
That sounds dangerously close to a permissive, enabling attitude toward abuse.
And boundaries are important (that’s not rhetorical… they really are! I don’t want anyone leaving tonight thinking that Jesus requires us to care for the people who abuse us and “save them with love.” That’s dangerous and it doesn’t work.)
But the thing that helps me to back off from that knee-jerk reaction to Jesus’ impossible example is the realization that there is another angle from which to view this story… the position of Judas and Peter.
In the podcast I mentioned at this beginning of this sermon, my friend Annemarie makes the observation that the Judas we encounter in the “gap” verses is “relatable in a way that we almost don’t want to hear.”
She is talking about how the church tends to build up a caricature of Judas as a one-dimensional figure whose only purpose in the story is to betray Jesus, and that the result is that we miss the reality of his story:
That he was one of Jesus’ closest friends.
That he abandoned his life before and travelled, and learned, and served with Jesus.
That most of his life of faith would probably put most of us to shame… until the forces of evil got their claws in him.
In other words, he’s not really any different from us. We try to do right most of the time, and sometimes we fail miserably.
Just like Peter.
And from the perspective of Judas and Peter, the example of Jesus is not a impossible standard of love… it is the embodiment of grace; it is the kind of love that they NEED to receive.
It’s the kind of love I need to receive too.
It feels impossible if I only think about giving this kind of love… but when we read the whole story, we remember that Jesus is teaching his disciples as a group.
He is not issuing commands about individual morality. He is showing them the community that they CAN be TOGETHER… a community where everyone needs to practice self-giving love because everyone is going to need that kind of love some of the time.
In her first book, Pastrix, Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber shares about the standard way she would end her “new members classes” at the faith community she founded House for All Sinners and Saints.
She makes a point of telling each potential new member of the community “I will disappoint you. And we, as a church, will disappoint you.”
It’s not a truth that she celebrates, but she knows it is true, because human beings are imperfect, and we often have contradictory and unrealistic expectations, and there is no way to have an honest, vulnerable, loving community without hurting each other sometimes.
But when we own that truth… when we admit that our feet might just be the feet that need washing sometimes… we discover the good news of Jesus’s command to love each other the way that he modeled for us.
It is the good news that we can only know in an imperfect human community that will sometimes disappoint us, where we can experience the love that we need when we are imperfect, and where we know that our imperfect love is needed too.
Thanks be to God.