Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/WM0IF2XmTec.
24th March 2016
“Now before the festival of the Passover, 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 loves them, to ‘completion’”. Not, ‘to the end’ as the NRSV has it, but to completion. Jesus has finished his work- or at least he will have when he has died and risen and ascended to the Father. As far as the disciples, and their education, he is about to go through all his ideas at great length in the farewell discourse, but there is no more that he can do to love them and show them how much he loves them, and indeed, how much he likes them as well. Of course the two betrayals- Judas’ action that precipitates the end, and Peter’s action that is completely ineffectual except to cement Peter into his role as Apostle, are yet to come. They will both happen this evening. However, neither betrayal will change the way Jesus relates to the two men- he loves them, he calls them friends, even when they cannot live up to that.
And in the full knowledge of our frailty, as demonstrated by Judas and Peter, Jesus does an action and then gives a commandment, which are the showing and the telling of this evening summarised.
So how does Jesus demonstrate his love- he washes the disciples’ feet. Last Sunday we had the story of the meal that Jesus shared with Lazarus, Martha and Mary, and you will recall that Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with nard and wiped them with her hair. This, Jesus tells us, is for his burial and it was an act of amazing generosity. But it was not only an act of generosity, it was an act of intimacy as well. Here we have a very similar act- generous in its role reversal and intimate in its very nature.
When we think of the foot washing we usually see it in terms of humility- Jesus humbling himself to take on the role of the slave- and of course, that is true. But tonight I want to think about it in terms of Jesus sharing this with his friends. In just a few verses he will tell them that he no longer calls them servants, but now he calls them friends. In this action he has demonstrated this. In a gesture of intimate love, he washes the feet of his friends. He touches their feet and wipes them, just as Mary has done for him. The garb is that of a slave, the intimacy is that of a lover. Jesus tells Peter that he has to allow him this intimacy or he will have no part in the relationship- Peter is shocked at the thought, but then demands an even greater intimacy, which gives the narrator the opportunity to point to the uncleanness of Judas. It always amazes me that the foot washing and the meal both occur with Judas present- Jesus certainly loves him to the end, doesn’t he? He is included, not excluded, even though he is not clean.
Jesus tells the disciples that he has done this as an example of what they are to do for one another and just as it is an example of service, so too, it is an example of intimacy, of deep and abiding love, and of liking as well.
The meal, interrupted by the foot washing, goes on. And, here in John, we have no reference to the institution of the Last Supper but nevertheless the meal is significant- it is after Judas has received bread from Jesus that he is sent out to betray him.
Jesus then tells the disciples that this is the end- he is going and they cannot come with him, just yet! So he gives them a commandment to be going on with. And we all know it, so well!
“A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you. And by this, shall all people know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.” We will sing it in a minute. It is impressed into our memory, isn’t it? But have you ever though what a strange thing that is for Jesus to say? In what sense is this a new commandment? Hasn’t Jesus told them about loving their neighbours as themselves? Hasn’t he made a lot of statements about love? I think that the new thing is his example- Jesus has given them a new way of thinking about love. Jesus has made the love not just a conceptual thing- not just an aspirational thing, but a real and embodied thing. He has loved them with his own body. He has cared for them in the generosity of his spirit, he has fed them and will continue to feed them, he has washed them and will continue to wash them. The problem is that he is about to physically leave. So how is this love to continue? Jesus has loved them to completion – a love that will never end- and so he needs an ongoing way of showing it.
The only way that the disciples can continue to live in the love that they have experienced is if they love one another just as Jesus has loved them. Sacrificially, intimately and generously. Jesus tells them that they are friends, friends of his and by extension, friends with each other. He no longer calls them servants- in fact he never did, really. But now he calls them friends. And if this applies to us as well, in that new commandment that he gives us, what does it mean?
I think that it is not so much about serving one another- which is something we can do whether or not we actually love each other, but about being friends. About being intimate and generous friends. If we love one another as Jesus loves us we will be like Jesus to one another. Jesus will be present with us, in each other.
We all know that this is difficult. We are a diverse group of people, with different histories, different attitudes, different personality types, different standards and we find it hard to love each other, let alone like each other. But God loves us. And even more amazing, God likes us. When the Christians met together in small house churches with groups of a dozen or maybe twenty, it was a much easier proposition, and how they manage it in the mega churches with thousands I cannot imagine. But I think that perhaps for us the way that this kind of intimacy can be achieved is through a sort of a network- a bit like a spiders’ web. I think that we are all interconnected and while we cannot be intimate with everybody in our church we can perhaps be seeking to spread out and care for someone else. The danger is that a small group forms of like minded people, they are exclusive and a clique happens, others feel excluded, they maybe even talk unkindly about others in the church and then we have conflict. But if I can love you, and you can love another and that person loves someone else, we have a network of love forming.
Last night Pamela talked about the suspension of judgement and that is something we need to do as part of this love. I was talking to someone- not from this parish I hasten to add, who has been quite badly treated by the church over the last little while. This person was angry but I noticed that even so, they were trying to understand the motivations of the perpetrator. We have the example of Jesus who intimately washes the feet of both the cause of active harm, Judas, and the one who fails to support, Peter. And you know, all of the disciples run away- they are none of them perfect, so why do we expect perfection of ourselves and each other?
“I give you a new commandment, and by this shall all people know that you are my disciples, if you have love for each other.” May this Easter be the beginning of a new season of love in our church.