I love you. How often do we say that to our spouse, or our child, or a parent, a friend, a sibling, a beloved one? Or even a cat or dog or other pet? And when we say those words we know we mean them on several different levels, depending on who we are speaking to. Our love for our friend is not the same as love for a parent, or a husband or wife; but it is all love, just the same – it all springs from the same source: an affection, a regard for, a commitment to another who delights us and enlarges our world. These are all close, intimate relationships where there is give and take, and much is shared: sometimes the little details and trivia of daily life, and sometimes the grand visions and longings of our hearts.
For most of us, the circle of our loving relationships is pretty small; it’s hard to be “up close and personal” with a large group of people; after all, for all the “friends” you may have on Facebook, how many of them do you really follow on a consistent basis? How many can you actually keep track of, all at one time?
There is a classic poster featuring the “Peanuts” comic strip character Lucy – you know, Linus’ bossy older sister? In the poster Lucy is saying “I love mankind – it’s people I can’t stand!” For the crabby, critical Lucy it is far easier to claim affection for a nameless, faceless humanity that she will never meet - let alone have to work with and get along with - than it is to love real, individual flesh-and-blood people – and I suspect that many of us would echo Lucy’s sentiments. Loving real people can be hard work, after all. And so our circle of love and affection is fairly small.
But what about Jesus? Who did he love? We know he had a family – Mary (his mother), Joseph, his brothers – but only rarely in the Gospels do we hear what his relationship with them was like: when he was twelve years old and causing his parents anxiety for staying behind in the Temple on a family trip to Jerusalem; being at odds publically with his mother when they were guests at a wedding; at the Crucifixion when Jesus commended Mary to the care of his friend and disciple John. We don’t know too much about the love that Jesus had for his family.
But we know a great deal about the love that Jesus had for his disciples. On the last night of his life Jesus gathered with his friends to share a festive seder meal, celebrating the Israelites’ freedom from slavery in Egypt by the goodness and power of God. Jesus took the wine and the bread of the Passover feast and transformed them for all time, to be his Body and Blood, the Real Presence of Christ for his people, the members of his Body. That’s the way we hear it told in Matthew, Mark and Luke; that’s the way that Paul relates the Last Supper to the church in Corinth.
But John tells the story in a different way, from a different angle, and for a different purpose. John tells the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, taking on the role of a servant, a household slave - doing for his friends what Middle Eastern hospitality required; but Jesus as the host of the meal should not have been the one to take up the servant’s towel and bowl of water. Yet, it was exactly what he did.
And washing their feet was an invitation for the disciples to experience Jesus’ love for them more fully, to see a new aspect of love and service, to know that they were being invited to draw closer, to be more connected to Jesus, to share fully with him the same intimate relationship he has with God. John tells us that Jesus, “having loved his own who were in the world…loved them to the end”; Jesus loved the disciples fully, completely, with persistence, with steadfast endurance, to the end. And the picture and action that Jesus offered to the disciples that expressed this love was washing their feet – a gesture of hospitality, and an invitation to deeper relationship.
Jesus went on to say: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” He was commanding them to love beyond their natural circle – beyond their families or friends or sweethearts; to love in ways that include humility and service, as well as affection, kindly regard and warm feelings. And Jesus was not just talking about the Twelve loving only each other, the inner circle; he was talking about loving all those who would be drawn into relationship with Jesus, loving all Christians, loving the Church, loving the community – and, by extension, loving the world.
As Jesus’ followers, as the descendants of the Twelve, we are also loved by Jesus – not just as individuals¸ but as the Church, as the community of faith – and our call is to love one another in the same way Jesus did during his life and work on earth, and in the same way that Jesus loves each one of us now. We are to move beyond our own family circle of loving relationships to embrace with humility and spiritual intimacy all those God calls into our community. And as we do that, as we live our real-life, flesh-and-blood, day-to-day relationships with one another in ways that are rooted and grounded and marked by the deep love of Christ, we will be living symbols and sign-bearers of the name of Jesus. People who are curious about God, and want to know more of Jesus will look at us and the way we love one another, and no that they have seen God at work, a glimpse of divine truth and reality in our midst.
That is, at least, what we are called to do and to be. It is a big job, an impossible task – when seen from a purely human perspective; thank God we are not relying on our own strength and resources, or we would never be able to do it. But we have the love of God in our hearts - given to us at baptism, strengthened every time we receive Christ’s Body and Blood, practiced day-in and day-out in the midst of all the challenges life brings our way.
This love is God’s gift, and the best way we can use and honor this gift is by giving it away – to one another, to the Church, and to the world. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
April 5, 2012