Exodus 12:1-4, (5-14); Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
What is Love
I believe Jesus was trying to teach us something profoundly different in his simple act of foot washing. Jesus 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 accept and empathize with, the unlikeable characteristics, brokenness, and sordid histories, dark secrets, and quirks found in those we are called to love. That is what makes being a disciple so difficult, because Jesus wants us to love those who are difficult to love. So, Jesus mandate that he gives us, this whole reason for Maundy Thursday, needs just a little clarification.
The English word for love does not capture the depth of the emotion, the action, and the way of life Jesus calls us to lead. 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 action of love that Jesus mandates his disciples aspire to love. Agape is the love that exists between people, even regardless of the changing circumstances of the relationship, and regardless of the other’s so-called, 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, but it is not an easy way of life for most of us. Could you imagine what would happen if the church, those loved by God, could love as Jesus loves? The world would be a much better place. Imagine loving 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) We see examples of that kind of love, found in the tireless work, unimaginable sacrifices, and endless hours by nurses, doctors, and other caregivers, who are risking their lives in the hospitals caring for the sick and dying, afflicted with the COVID virus. We can learn much about agape love in times like these.
Jesus taught us first what Agape love looks like, when he, before his death on the cross, washed his disciples’ feet. We 21st century Christians culturally do not connect with why that little act was so important. In Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, it was arid, dusty, sandy, and harsh. Transportation from home to work, from field to town, from village to village, was accomplished by walking. So, you can imagine what feet looked like by the end of the day, covered with sand, caked on with gunk, and you can only imagine the odor. So, here is why this act is so important.
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 accomplished this act, which in that culture was a sign of great hospitality and kindness. Through Jesus loving act of foot washing after the Last Supper, the event we commemorate on Maundy Thursday, Jesus demonstrated Agape Love as he became the lowly servant, who served his disciples. What we sometimes see as maybe a distasteful ritual, truly 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, with 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 us for a sister or brother, to remove the masks of power that we hide behind. When we are humbled to one another, we allow another person to see our real self. We reveal the muck, dirt, grime, and crusted over authenticity we all carry, and only then 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 newbies 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 as the church every week. However, we Christians must be willing to be vulnerable, as Jesus was vulnerable on the cross, and that is when we reveal to the world God’s agape for all of creation. Author Richard Hayes wrote, “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
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 now, 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 the weakest and dark recesses of our hearts. “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 this evening, commemorating the night at which, Jesus gave himself for us, we are still able to participate. Even though we cannot be together here in this place tonight, I invite each of you to consider washing the feet of those with whom you are quarantined at home as an act of humble, agape love. Take this opportunity to wash another’s feet, and then allow them to do the same, as a sign of humility, obedience, mutual commitment, and agape love for one another. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you, love one another.”
(4) Hays, Richard B. “An Emergency Directive.” The Christian Century, vol. 109, no. 14, Apr. 1992, p. 425.