Love One Another

Maundy Thursday

Today’s Gospel reading, and indeed today’s service, is one of urgency, challenge, and action. Let’s trace through some of it if it doesn’t feel that way.

Urgency, because we’re told that “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world,” and we hear him tell the disciples, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.”

Challenge, because Jesus asks the people whom he loved to finally let go of their preconceived ideas, their notions of hierarchy and order, so that they may know what it means to serve and to lead. “You will never wash my feet,” says Peter, to which Jesus replies, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

Action, because Jesus knows that his relationship with the disciples is about to change fundamentally, and as a result, they must act differently. “Where I am going, you cannot come,” he tells the people who have left their old lives behind in order to follow him. He leaves them with a new commandment: that you love one another, just as he has loved them. It is in this new way of acting, this new way of being, that people will know them as Jesus’ disciples.

Urgency, challenge, and action. In other words, time is short, and we must begin to see things in new ways and put into practice a new way of being. This new way of being means adapting to, but not capitulating to, the world around us, the world as it is. Only by paying attention to the themes of urgency, challenge, and action can we truly make sense of and begin living into the commandment to love one another.

Versions of phrases like “love one another” and “love your neighbor” are ubiquitous in church bulletins and mission statements. They serve an important purpose in extending a welcome to the stranger. Yet they ring just a bit hollow when they’re not infused with urgency, challenge, and action. After all, it is easy to add an unspoken codicil to “love one another:” love one another, but later, love one another if they deserve it; love one another when it is convenient.

What does it mean to love one another right here and now?  What might it look like to love one another without preconditions or expectations, or limits? I think it looks something like what we are doing here tonight: gathering together to share an Agape feast and then washing each other ‘s feet. I wonder, not in a chiding way, but as an invitation and a way to break into this conversation, how many people are sitting with people whom they don’t know or don’t know well? How many of us have curated our tables to sit with friends? Again, this is not meant as a criticism – it is natural to want to be with the people we know and like – but it is perhaps a challenge. A challenge to acknowledge in word and action that time is indeed short, to strive to see things in new ways, and to live into a new way of being. After all, if not now, when? If not us, who? If not here, where?

We will wash each other’s feet in a few minutes, just as Jesus and the disciples washed each other’s feet. Cleaning and bathing another person is an intimate act, and I suspect that foot-washing makes some of us just a little bit squeamish. I know it does for me. Yet acknowledging feelings of discomfort and then pushing through them is a perfect metaphor for tonight. To love as God loves us requires us to overcome our squeamishness and cross the imagined borders of decorum so that we can encounter, recognize, and care for each other in ways that often feel uncomfortable in the moment.

Today’s Gospel reading also touches on a different kind of discomfort, something deeper than personal space and touch issues. Jesus sits at what he knows is his last supper, aware that his hour has come to depart from this world. He knows that he will soon be betrayed, and this is his final evening among friends. Yet he sits, and having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 

Who are Jesus’ own? Are they only the faithful disciples, the small group gathered together, minus Judas? Or are all of the people who turned out and witnessed the teaching and the miracles? Is it only the good whom Jesus loves? 

Jesus sits with Judas, aware of the urgency of the moment and knowing that time is short. In doing so, he challenges our notions of the limits of forgiveness and the boundaries of love. We’re told that Jesus got up from the table during supper and began to wash the disciples’ feet. There’s no qualification given: it’s not the faithful disciples, it’s not the good, nor the favored, but the disciples. Jesus acts upending hierarchical expectations by washing his disciples’ feet and modeling what it looks like to love one another. 

When we get up from our tables, I hope you seek out someone you haven’t spoken to before and ask to wash their feet. Internally acknowledge any feelings of discomfort while knowing that through this simple act, you embody the belief that no person is unworthy of welcome and care. In this act of welcome and care, of loving another, you affirm that there is no distance that we can create that separates us from God. Whatever the private aches and shrouds of shame that reside in our hearts, we are whole in God’s eyes. Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. It is the hardest and the most rewarding work we will ever be called to.