April 18, 2019
John 13:1-7, 31b-35
For almost 30 years, I had a dear friend, Brenda. In spite of meeting, becoming friends, and only living in the same city, Nashville, for 2 years together, we maintained and grew our friendship for the rest of those 28- years by communicating with each other, in some form or fashion, just about every day.
In the 90s, we were old school. We wrote letters, mailed pictures, and talked on the phone. Years later, once we both had computers and AOL accounts, we emailed long notes every morning. And finally, as we each acquired ‘smart’ phones, we’d text – shorter bursts, but multiple times a day.
We talked about everything. Religion. Politics. Our growing families. Our purpose in the world. But admittedly, when you talk that much, most of our time was spent talking about inane and frivolous things; things like the weather, our weight, our hair, how far we ran that morning, what movie we had just seen and whether we had butter on our popcorn or not. Pretty boring stuff, really.
That changed one day when out of the blue Brenda was diagnosed with stage IV appendix cancer. Tragically, before it was ever detected, the cancer had spread to virtually all of her organs. The severity of her illness and her intense will to live meant that she took on a brutal schedule of weekly chemotherapy treatments. She endured this for over 3 years. She also survived major surgeries - a hysterectomy, the “whipple” procedure - and toward the very end of her life, she even braved a colectomy. Her suffering was unlike anything I’d ever witnessed before, though she rarely complained.
With all of that going on in her life, I became self-conscious any time I felt the urge to complain about a sore throat, a blister on my foot, or a bad hair day. So I started censuring what I would share with her. What I considered a problem in one minute seemed like nothing more than an annoyance, at most, when I held it up against her suffering.
One day, I admitted to Brenda that I was holding back. She shocked me with uncharacteristic anger, and fired back a text yelling at me. “No!” she yelled through her typing. “You cannot do that! We are friends. We love each other. And I NEED YOU to share with me or else I won’t be able to share with you.”
And she meant it. Her impassioned need for us to be a full and complete part of one another’s lives – in whatever form that took, no matter how trivial, no matter how deep – convicted me and taught me a lesson; a lesson about the fullness of love. That was the last time I held back sharing any part of my life with her, no matter how mundane, or boring, or trivial I thought it was.
On this Maundy Thursday, I noticed echoes of my friend Brenda’s words through Jesus’ words and actions with his disciples. His love, and life and ministry with them was built on their shared experiences and their sense of mission; but it was not just that which connected them. They were bound together by the fullest and deepest love, a love large and wild enough to not only encompass the author of all love – God; but it was also a love particular enough to dwell in the minute, day to day, dirty feet of the human existence.
Jesus was stern with Peter, who initially objected to Jesus washing his feet. You get the sense that Peter was embarrassed by Jesus in this moment. There was his leader doing a servant’s dirty work. But Jesus calls Peter out, and – like Brenda – says, “No! You cannot keep parts of yourself from me. When we love, you are in me and I am in you. But not if you hold back from me.”
Think, for a moment, about the incredible power of this message. Jesus, THE Son of God, is telling us that he wants to know us – all of us. And in order to do just that, Jesus emptied himself. Completely. He didn’t hold back. Jesus wasn’t Divine, pretending to be human. He became fully human so that he could completely enter our lives and be one with us.
That night with his disciples, Jesus showed us this truth as he washed the feet of his disciples – all 12 pairs of feet, including Judas’ feet, the one about to betray him in just a few hours. And then he went even further. Jesus offered them the bread and the wine, saying this is my body and blood. I am offering you ALL of myself. You are a part of me. I am a part of you. There is no holding back. That is the definition of love, Jesus shows them. And then, he commands his disciples to do the same. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you.”
Now, if washing one another’s feet isn’t necessarily an act or an image you can relate to, I want to offer up the image of how I learned to dance as a very young child. You might have danced this way too. I would place my feet completely on top of my dad’s feet, and resting on him, he would carry me off into the beat of the music. Poet and theologian, Padraig O' Tuama from West Kerry, Northern Ireland, uses this image to describe God’s love. 'Mo sheasamh ort lá na choise tine,' which translated says, 'You are the place where I stand on the day when my feet are sore.' That is love.
Jesus’ desire – and ultimately, God’s purpose for creating us – is for us to allow ourselves to be loved. That means offering the lofty, significant parts of ourselves up to God, as well as the seemingly less significant parts. Opening ourselves up this way is what enables us to obey Jesus’ commandment to love one another. Love which receives fully and completely, shares fully and completely.
Love one another. That is the message this night. It is our call as Christians; as the song goes, “They shall know we are Christians by our love.”