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Love on his last night

A sermon on John 13:1-17, 31b-35

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Art: Lavement des pieds de Saint Pierre par Jésus; Artist unknown. PD]

“Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world.”

Most of us have probably considered at some point what we would do if we knew it was our last night on earth.

I imagine our answers vary, depending on our relationships and the things that bring us the most pleasure and meaning… but Jesus’s choice to share a deeply meaningful meal with his closest friends is the kind of thing that many of us might choose as well.

What is probably less common is the decision to wash their feet.

Although foot washing has since become a meaningful ritual in Christian communities, there were no sentimental associations with the practice in the 1st century.

The seder meal involved ritual handwashing, but feet… that task was reserved for servants, if done at all.

And it’s not the kind of thing you would interrupt a meal to do.

No one would want to dirty the hands they are using to eat with the dust and worse that sandal-clad feet pick up from the road.

And regardless, we usually just don’t touch each other’s feet.

Feet are stinky. And calloused. And it feels weirdly intimate to touch another person’s feet.

Recently, however, I have gained a new perspective about touching unappealing feet.

Because, when your 16-year-old son, who is not generally a cuddly person, and who will be leaving for college in less than a year and a half, regularly sits down next to you, drapes his legs across your lap and asks, “Mom, will you rub my feet?”… you rub his feet.

Because it’s a chance to connect.

And because he is asking you to nurture him in a way you don’t often get to do anymore.

And because it’s a way to say, “I love you” that won’t result in hunched shoulders and a gruff, “OK.”

And it occurred to me this past week, as I meditated on tonight’s gospel, that if I knew that tonight was going to be my last night, one of the things I would want to do would be to rub Quinn’s feet.

I have never before considered that Jesus might genuinely have wanted to care for his friends in this intimate, care-giving way on his last night with them.

I have focused on the example he was intentionally setting, and the teaching that he was doing about what it means to love.

Without really thinking about it, I have always assumed the act of kneeling before his friends, cradling their feet gently in his hands as he scrubbed the dirt and weariness of travel from their skin, had been a primarily pragmatic task… a task done to achieve an end.

To be fair… the story is told with this subtext.

“If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

“I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”

“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.”

He is talking about love, the most transformative force in the universe, the impulse that is the very identity of God… but somehow it is being presented – or at least I have always heard it – from a transactional perspective.

The point doesn’t seem to be about the act of foot washing. It’s about the lesson.

And, of course, it is about the lesson. But the lesson is love.

That’s what Jesus was doing when he stood up from the table, wrapped a towel around his waist, and carried a basin of water to the feet of each of his friends in turn.

When he loosened the sweat-crusted leather straps of their sandals, eased their feet out, and bathed them in cool water.

When he rested their newly cleaned feet on the towel in his lap as he dried them.

When he touched a hard-used and neglected part of their bodies with tender care.

He was loving them.

Because in his last night on earth, Jesus wanted to give his love to his friends.

It’s not that the lesson he was teaching wasn’t important. Of course it was! But the lesson loses its power if it becomes transactional.

Because love cannot be transactional.

It can’t be a service provided in order to achieve a desired result...

an example enacted in order to teach a lesson…

a command obeyed in order to convince others that we are Christ’s disciples.

If we are acting out love in order to achieve some other goal, then we are just imitating behavior. We are not actually loving anyone.

The lesson Jesus was teaching was not a lesson of how to “be like Jesus,” or how to “show other people that we are his followers.” He was teaching us what love looks like.

And what love looks like is this:

when Jesus knew that it was his last night on earth…

when he was about to face his greatest challenge, and pain, and betrayal, and abandonment…

What mattered to him was making sure his friends could feel how much he cared about them.

How neither the ritual significance of their meal…

nor the distastefulness of touching their dirty feet…

nor the low-status association with the task he was undertaking…

none of it mattered.

What mattered was them being able to physically, tangibly, tenderly experience his love for them.

Because that is the kind of love they could still believe in after everything that was to come next.

If Jesus had just talked to them about love, I wonder if it would have sunk in.

I wonder if, after they had all run away, after Peter had denied him, and then after the women had brought the news that he was risen… I wonder if they would have trusted his love enough to come back?

If Jesus had only told them, with words, to follow his command to love, I wonder if that would have made it harder for them to come back from their failure.

Because they had so clearly failed to love him the moment things got hard.

But what Jesus did was to show them that – to him – love wasn’t about a negotiated give and take. It wasn’t conditional. It wasn’t focused on what he wanted from them.

It was about meeting them in their need and giving them care because he wanted to care for them… on his last night.

I suspect that it is this demonstration of love that gave his friends the courage to come back to him after their failure.

Because how do you not trust a friend who loves you like that?

“Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

Jesus set us an example of what love looks like.

If I’m honest, I’m not sure that I can do it. Not the way he did.

But I do know that this is how he loves me. And how he loves you.

And I can’t think of a better place to start than the assurance that this is how we are loved.

Thanks be to God


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