Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 ; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
What is Love
Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another.” The church I first grew up in was situated in a little rural community where at least on Sunday mornings, we all played sweet and nice with one another, but the rest of the week things were different. It was as if folks in my old church thought Jesus’ mandate to “love one another” meant that we are to merely putting on a happy face on Sundays, and play nice during coffee hour, but don’t worry about Monday through Friday.
I believe Jesus was tryng to teach us something profoundly different. I believe he was telling us that we need to be real with one another, and try and accept one another as sisters and brothers, despite our many faults and failures. When Jesus said to love one another, he meant we should try and empathize with our unlikeable characteristics, brokenness, and our sordid histories, dark secrets, and quirks. Maybe that is why being a disciple is so difficult, because he wants us to love those who are difficult to love. So, Jesus mandate may need a little clarification.
The English word for love does not capture the depth of this emotion. In scripture we hear about the following types of love: “Philia,” the kind bond we share with a friend, “Eros,” an erotic bond we share with a spouse, and finally “Agape: an unconditional bond we have with “God” and other Christians. Agape is the kind of love Jesus mandates his we disciples share. Agape is the love that exists between us, regardless of changing circumstances, regardless of our unloveableness.
Mandatum – Love one Another
In Holy Week, the first day of the Triduum or the great three days is Maundy Thursday. “In Latin, the word for a commandment is mandatum.”(3) Love one another is a mandate, not a suggestion. Imagine what would happen if the church, those loved by God were able to love as Jesus loves. The world would be a much better place today, if we loved beyond ourselves like Jesus, who “went to the cross to show in word and deed that God is love and that we, as God’s children, are loved.” (2)
Jesus also taught his disciples what that kind of love looks like, when before his death on the cross, he washed his disciples’ feet, but why is that little act so important, you may ask. Where they journeyed together, the land was arid, dusty, sandy, and harsh. Transportation from home to work, from field to town, from village to village, was accomplished by walking. You can imagine what feet looked like by the end of the day, covered with sand, caked on with gunk, and you might imagine the odor. The cleaning of feet had both a practical and social significance in those days.
When traveling guests stopped for a respite at a friend’s home, the homeowner directed his or her lowliest servants to take fresh water to the entrance of the home, and wash each guest’s feet prior to entry. A servant of very low status and not the homeowner did this act of great hospitality and kindness.
Through the foot washing after the Last Supper, the event we commemorate in our liturgy tonight, Jesus demonstrated Agape Love by becoming the lowly servant who served his disciples. What we sometimes see as maybe a distasteful ritual, speaks volumes about the very character of God, who through the mystery of the Incarnation, sent not a mere servant to reconcile us, He did it himself in Christ, in humility and vulnerability. God invites us to be served and loved by God, and to be served and love by one another.
We allow another person to wash our feet, as a sign of how we should interact with one another; allowing a sister or brother to remove the masks of power that we hide behind. Allowing another person see your real self, with the muck, dirt, grime, and crusted over authenticity, we are able to love one another, as servants of one another. This is critical for the church, because “Jesus (was) not just urging the church to be merely a friendly place with a big parking lot where folks greet you with a smile. His parting command that (we) love one another is a call for (us) to hang together, to present a united front against the world’s hatred.” (4)
Humbling ourselves and being real with one another is how we begin to live into that kind of agape love every week, but we Christians must be willing to be vulnerable, as Jesus was vulnerable on the cross, and thus we can reveal to the world God’s agape for all of creation. “If outsiders do not see in the Christian community love of another kind, there is no reason for them to attend to the message that God loved the world so much that he sent his Son to rescue it. “ (4)
Wash My Feet Lord
So, why participate in the footwashing? Following Jesus means we must walk behind him and do what he does, and love how he loves. We have to traverse the mud and muck of life, and get into the deep reality of who we are so that we might be able to participate in that agape love Jesus commands us to share.
Like the masks we sometimes hide behind, we are afraid to be vulnerable and release the false power we wield in life. We would rather not allow Jesus (or someone else) to touch our weakest depths. “A deeper reason we don’t want Jesus handling our feet is because to allow Jesus to touch our feet is to allow him to touch our will.” (5) “To allow Jesus to cleanse our feet is to remove all that prevents us from using our feet to follow him.” (5)
On the eve before he offered himself to death on the cross, as the humbled, self-giving servant, agape loving savior, Our Lord used this very significant moment, this significant act to teach us, to encourage us, and to command us to love one another. As we gather on the eve on which Our Lord gave himself for us, I invite each of you to come forward this evening, and wash each other’s feet as a sign of humility, obedience, mutual commitment, and agape love for one another.
(4) Hays, Richard B. “An Emergency Directive.” The Christian Century, vol. 109, no. 14, Apr. 1992, p. 425.