You probably all know John 3:16 by heart. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” And while you may not know John 3:17 by heart, it is just as memorable: “Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
Think about that. God was not and is not interested in condemning the world. And as miserable as you are—or (maybe you’re thinking) as miserable as that neighbor of yours is who is even worse than you!—God was not and is looking forward to condemning you or them. God loved the world. God sent the Son into the world so that the world might be saved through him.
A lot of us are or were teachers. Think about the work of teaching. If you teach, do you teach because you want to give “F”s to your students? Don’t you want your students to have more knowledge and skill when they leave your class than when they entered? All of us who teach want our students to succeed. Many of us say that we teach precisely for those moments when a student breaks through to a new insight or skill level. We are so proud at those times—not proud of ourselves but of the students—and thrilled that we got to be a part of it.
But when we think about God, we forget all of this. We think God would rather condemn us than rejoice with us. We often live as if we think God is a teacher who wants to flunk the whole class.
Last Sunday, we heard the passion story according to Luke. In response to that, a few people have told me that their favorite supporting character in the story is the second thief on the cross, the one who says to Jesus, “Remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” And there is a lot to like about him:
- He is a lone voice, testifying to the innocence of Jesus before he dies and when no one else is doing so.
- He is done defending himself or minimizing what he has done to end up as he has, and
- He asks for what he needs from Jesus.
You remember how Jesus responds, of course, but before we get to that, let’s consider what Jesus doesn’t say to the thief on the cross.
- Jesus does not listen to one thief say to the other, “We indeed have been condemned justly,” and say to the two of them, “You’re right, guys, you’re getting what you deserve, and it’s about time!”
- And Jesus doesn’t listen to the second thief say, “Remember me,” and reply, “Um… Look… it’s not a good time. I’m kind of in the middle of a big project right now—saving the world and all—I’ll get to you when I can.”
Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. True in general, but how much more vivid it is in particular.
The gospel reading for this evening offers another vivid, individual picture of God loving the world. In it Jesus realizes how short his time is with his friends. He kneels before them, and one by one, washes and dries their feet. John takes his time narrating the event, as Jesus took his time doing it. “Jesus,” John says, “knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe and tied a towel around himself. He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”
What is happening? Is it an object lesson about service? It is a reversal of master and servant toward some greater insight into the equality of all? All of our attempts to draw large and lasting significance here make this scene harder than it is.
When Jesus interprets his own actions to those in the room, he speaks of love. The foot washing is love. It is an act of devotion from someone who loved the people he had spent so much time with, and who was about to be separated from them by death.
Maybe Jesus did it because he just wanted to touch each of them one last time. Whenever I hear people reminisce about a loss, everyone comments on how much they miss touching their loved one. They want to hold her hand again, to snuggle into him, to get a hug, and give one. They may also want to talk, to hear his laugh, or to see her when she is engrossed in something she loved. But they always want to touch and be touched.
The foot washing pushes us to imagine Jesus loving like that. This is disorienting. We do not imagine Jesus needing anything, and we know enough about love to know it never shows up without need. It is easier to imagine Jesus as a teacher than a lover, or even as a servant rather than a lover. Lovers are vulnerable. They put themselves out there, and when someone refuses their affection, or leaves, or betrays them, or dies, or they die—well then, there’s heartbreak. God loved the world, John says, and then, John shows us how the “world” God loved became individual, personal, local, and specific. The picture makes us nervous.
Some of us get nervous because we want to protect Jesus from heartbreak. Think about how you might warn your children away from friends or lovers who were not worthy of them. We watch the foot washing scene and think, “Really, Jesus, are you sure you want to do that? I mean, Judas is still in the room. I’m telling you, that one is trouble! And Peter is there; you know Peter, you could tell him 15 different ways that you love him and still, Peter wouldn’t get it!” You just know there is humiliation and heartbreak on the other side of so much love offered with such abandon.
Some of us get nervous at this wildly public display of affection, because well, love in general makes us nervous. We have a different kind of relationship with Jesus, more like a transaction than… love: “I’ll do my best, and you will help me, like a coach, or a teacher, or a master with an apprentice. Together, we will do lots of good.” But love—love is unpredictable; it is difficult to figure Return on Investment. And when you are in love, you are inclined to do things you would not consider in a more rational state. And then there’s the problem that if you love me, I’ll disappoint you. You’ll disappoint me. Better to keep the relationship strictly professional.
Still, Jesus loves. Our betrayals, denials, misunderstandings, fear, negotiations aside, Jesus loves. He takes hold of one foot at a time, dips it in the water, lifts it out again, and dries it off. He moves to the next foot.
As you travel through this Holy Week and weekend, as you consider the cross and the resurrection, as you imagine yourself in various places in the story we are sharing through all these services, consider that God’s love for the world shown in Christ is actually love. It is something scary and beautiful, and always it brings into focus the intense vulnerability of the one who just puts it all out there. Jesus loves that way. Jesus loves us that way.
“Love one another, as I have loved you,” he says. What is he thinking?
Pastor Mary Hinkle Shore
Maundy Thursday 2016