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. The full readings for today can be found here.)
In the name of the living God, who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us. Good evening, good evening. And thank you and Father John for inviting me to spend this Holy Week with you at St. Christopher by the Sea. And as we go through these holy days we call the Triduum, I want us to view these days, these sacred days, not as isolated worship services, but as a week-long single service that began last week with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It was a day of joy, a day of laughter, a day when the crowds proclaimed that Jesus was the king. And things would end up so very differently.
One of my favorite theologians, a man named Jürgen Moltmann, said that all theology must be conducted within earshot of the dying Christ. We’re going to come back to that again over the next several days, but it’s worth repeating: all of our thinking about God, especially that which concerns our hope for ourselves and humanity, must take place within earshot of the Cross. Well, in our readings for this evening, the shadow of the Cross looms very large.
So, we’ve all heard the question before, and maybe we’ve even thought about the answer for ourselves: “What would you do if you knew it was your last night on earth?” In this passage from John’s gospel, we see Jesus’ answer to that question. He has a final meal with his closest friends, even those who will betray and deny him. And John tells us, “he loved them to the end.”
And then, Jesus does something astonishing. He washes the feet of his disciples. In that culture, a culture that placed tremendous importance on honor and shame, that was considered the work of a servant, a slave. And this scene is in stark contrast with the entry into Jerusalem in which the crowd proclaimed him a king. This shocking lack of dignity is not the work of a rabbi, let alone the task of a king. But this loss of dignity is nothing compared to that which will come just a few hours later. After all, we are, as Moltmann observed, within earshot of the Cross.
And so, it’s no wonder that Peter suffers from a bit of cognitive dissonance because these two things just can’t go together. Or maybe this scene involves a level of vulnerability that Peter just isn’t comfortable with. Jesus tells Peter that unless he washes his feet, Peter will have no share in him. It’s an unusual phrase. But I think Jesus is telling Peter that we, as disciples, must learn not only to care for each other recklessly, but also to allow others to care for us without regard to our dignity or theirs. We have to learn vulnerability if our love is going to mean anything at all.
You see, I think Jesus came to live among us to show us what God was like. That’s part of the mystery of the Incarnation. And Jesus shows us an image of a God who is willing to take the risk of looking foolish in order to show us what love looks like. We like to think that love is all soft, and cuddly, covered in glitter and bathed in golden light. But if you’ve been around a while, you know that love is more often about taking risks, sometimes terrible risks. And tomorrow, we’ll find out just how high a price God is willing to pay for loving us.
Now comes the lynchpin of this gospel passage. Jesus tells his disciples: “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” That’s what he said to the disciples; that’s what he’s still saying to you and me. Tonight, we’ll symbolically enact that teaching when we wash each other’s feet. But, when we leave and go into the world, we’ll have a chance to embody, to incarnate that teaching when we show God’s people—especially those who aren’t particularly loveable—that we love them.
That may mean working at a food bank, or offering a meal to a homeless family, or visiting someone who’s terribly ill. It might mean backing away from a party to look for someone who’s left out, who’s friendless, who’s lonely. It might mean going on a medical mission, or working with the water ministry. Through God’s grace, we are offered thousands of chances every day to show God’s people that we love them. Love them when it’s hard, love them when it hurts, love them until the end.
Jesus tells us: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” It’s not a difficult rule to understand, but it’s hard to live out. It’s as hard as the nails of the Cross. Martin Luther King once explained the purpose of this commandment:
“the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
Love is a powerful force. It is the only force that has ever brought about real change in our world. Genuine love does not ask how much this will cost, or what people will think, or whether this person deserves our love.
Jesus tells us that by that kind of love, people will know that we are his disciples. So, it turns out that our identity as Christians has very little to do with sticking a fish decal on our car, or dressing in our Sunday best, or which political party we support. And it isn’t really about feet at all, except that it is. The last thing Jesus wanted his disciples to know, the most important thing he wants us to know, is that love defines our common life, defines our humanity. Tonight, we will strip the altar bare, take away all the finery, remove all the trappings. And if anything remains here in this Church, if anything remains in your heart, let it be love. Amen.
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022