In my short time being a pastor, I have been around more than my fair share of people preparing for death. And when you think about it, we all, in one way or another, are preparing for death. I’ve seen people who know they are going to die (like with a diagnosis of one kind or another) and prepare one way versus those of us who know we’re going to die eventually and just like to have things in order (like wills, estates, etc…). Not once have I yet to meet someone who was preparing to die and chose to prepare by being of service towards his or her friends. And yet, that is the Jesus we get a glimpse of today.
We could have the Jesus who gives us long lectures reinforcing all the things we should know about life. Or, we could have the Jesus who just wants to be left alone (the introspective Jesus). Or, we could have the Jesus who wants to throw a big party because he wants to go out in style. But instead, we get the Jesus who has always been with us; the humble, unassuming Jesus, who just wants to serve his friends. And so he does what must seem very logical to Jesus but quite strange to us and even to those seated around the table: he rises, humbles himself, and kneels before his friends, washing their feet. And he did it for one simple reason: he wanted to show them that he loves them.
If you are married, have been married, or just have someone special in your life, you know that it’s not all rainbows and sunshine all the time. Hollywood is good to portray relationships as wonderful and amazing and never difficult. But, we all know the truth. When I started to think about love, the first person I thought of was Chris. He has seen me at my utmost worst and has seen me at my ultimate best. He has cared for me in ways that are very loving and nurturing and he has cared for me in ways that I find embarrassing (but only because I am horrible at asking for help). No matter how he cares for me, he does so out of immense love for me and out of respect for our marriage. I pray that all of you have a relationship like this no matter what you call it: friendship, marriage, etc…
Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine what the disciples must have felt that evening. They had just finished a very large Passover meal, most likely lamb, and they had come to that part of the evening where everyone leans back and sighs in satisfaction. If this were a Thanksgiving meal, naps would soon follow or at least the loosening of the belt notches. Jesus had tried to tell them several times that he would be departing from them and they don’t listen. And he knows it is almost time for his arrest, trial, and execution. Instead of being scared, as I would be, Jesus takes this opportunity to show and speak love to those around him. And I wondered if I would be able to ever do the same.
I’ve read this reading many times before and so often the focus is on the foot washing. And as I read through it again preparing for today I almost missed a wonderful sentence that gave me hope, it gave me peace, it gave me rest. Verse 3 (which could easily be overlooked) says “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God….” When we talk about the peace of God that passes all understanding, I think this is it. Jesus came from God and knew he was going to God. I once met a woman while on a trip to Milwaukee who had a son that chose a few wrong paths in life and at the time was locked up in a state penitentiary. She was sad at his choices, but her language caught me a bit off guard. “I’m just doing the best with what God gave me” she said. “That’s the way I look at it. God gave me my son to borrow, and eventually, I will give him back. He belongs to God.” It was a powerful reminder that none of us are in charge of our own lives.
Jesus knew the that his time had come. And Jesus could have said a lot of things, and he could have done a lot of things, but what he did was wash the feet of his friends. And he left them with this thought: love one another. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” It would have been easy to impart to them any other message or life lesson. But the Christ that loves us, and the Christ that loved the disciples, his friends, wants to leave them with just that one thought: I love you. Because I love you, you should love each other. As he prepares to be arrested, as he prepares for a trial he shouldn’t even have to endure, as he prepares for a gruesome death, he could have said many things. But instead, Jesus tells his disciples and us this: I love you. And if that wasn’t enough, Jesus tells them this “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples; if you have love for one another.”
Love one another. I don’t know about you, but this seems to be the simplest and yet most complicated commandment that Jesus gives us. I’ve had more than one occasion where I’ve said “I love you but I don’t like you right now.” Love is one of those words that often gets thrown around in our society but we really don’t know what it means. It has lost it’s punch. I love Chris. But I also love cheeseburgers. But I also love the Wizard of Oz. But none of that love can compare to the love that Jesus has for me and for you. In a time where flowers, chocolate, jewelry, cars, etc…can show someone you love them, our sign of love is a cross. It’s not fancy. It’s not flashy. It doesn’t sparkle. It certainly doesn’t come in a velvet box. But, I cannot think of anything else that has given me more life and freedom than the cross.
When I look at the cross, I see the pain and suffering of Jesus. When I look at the cross, I see the marks my sin inflicted on his hands and side. When I look at the cross, I see him crying out in pain and thirst. When I look at the cross, I hear the mocking of the bystanders knowing full well I would have been one to mock this labeled “king of the Jews.” When I look at the cross, I have to look inward at the ways I have been unloving, uncaring, uncompassionate, and quite un-Christ-like. That lack of love is my sin and it is what separates me and you from God. Jesus died on the cross because there was no other way for the disciples, for the Romans, for the emperor, and for us to see what love looks like. Jesus death showed us just how far love can go. Jesus death showed us that the law that he spoke of all those times was the law of love.
So when I’m asked “were you there when they crucified my Lord?” I usually respond with “yes.” While I wasn’t physically there, my lack of love crucifies him over and over again. Was I there? Yes. And while Jesus was the one who died; I ended up the one with life.