“Loving one another on Thursday evening”
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
And so we come to the end.
Jesus has spent three years traveling the length and breadth of Israel, preaching the kingdom of God. He has dined with tax collectors, forgiven prostitutes, and interceded for the condemned; disputed with priests and smashed up the temple. He has turned water into wine and a few hunks of dry bread into a feast for thousands. He has healed the lame, blessed the poor, and resurrected the dead. He has been revealed to his closest disciples as the divine Messiah, come to earth in human form to teach us, among other things, how to be human.
And now, when it’s time for him to go, we see him at his most human.
He sits in a room not unlike this one, preparing for one last meal with his closest friends and companions. It was probably a little later in the evening, and the room was softly lit by the orange glow of the setting sun. It is the last sunset Jesus will see with human eyes. By this time tomorrow, he’ll be dead.
Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. But he is also a man who knows he is about to die.
He must be weary to the point of exhaustion after three years’ ministry—three years of constant travel, of having nowhere to lay his head, of being hounded by crowds and patiently ministering to them, of being hassled by Pharisees and less patiently arguing with them—and yet now, at the end, he finds he isn’t quite ready to go. In a few hours he will ask God to take this cup from him, and hear in response only the silence of a father asked a question to which his child already knows the answer.
He looks around the room and sees these men he has known for three years, the ones he hand-picked to carry on his ministry. For three years he has walked everywhere with them, on dusty roads and over open fields, to great cities and miserable fishing villages. He has taught them, watched them grow, seen them fail, lifted them up again. He has eaten with them, lived with them. And he knows that tonight is the last time he will do any of those things.
Never again will he share a meal with his friends as a fellow human being, for whom dining is both a joy and a necessity—literally break bread in his cracked and calloused human fingers, taste it in his mouth, feel the relief of it in his empty belly. Never again will he look his friends in the eye when he teaches them or listens to them. Never again will he hear their stories and their jokes. Remember that time in Jericho when Bartholomew…? And everyone laughed. Never again will he have those casual, unguarded moments with them.
Never again will he touch them on the shoulder, or embrace them, or kiss them on the cheek.
God in heaven is present with us all always, but after tonight Jesus won’t be one of us anymore. He won’t be a fellow traveler.
And he feels, I think, the same depth of sorrow that any of us would feel in his place. He will see his disciples and talk with them and even eat with them after the Resurrection—and he will see them all again in the new kingdom—well, all but one of them. But things won’t be the same; he won’t be the same, and right now that future must seem worlds away. Something is ending—a human life in a broken world that is messy and imperfect, but beautiful all the same.
He looks around the room and he thinks about how much he loves these guys—not only in the manner of a god, though of course there is nothing “mere” about God’s love, but in a human way, the way of a friend who has shared their lives.
He knows, of course, that they’re all going to desert him in a few hours. The rock on which he means to build his church will deny he ever met him; the one to whom they entrusted their money is going to turn him over to the authorities to have him killed. The rest of them will run off and disappear. But he loves them anyway, even though they’re as much of a mess inside as out. He loves them, perhaps, in a way that only God could love them. But he also loves them in the way of a human being—and he feels himself, as we would, already missing them.
And so he does something deeply, wonderfully human. He looks at their dirty feet, sees the basin prepared for washing, and he says—let me do it.
The disciples of course respond in horror. You can’t do that, Lord! They know just how dirty their feet are. They’ve been walking the streets of Jerusalem all day in sandals that are little more than a piece of leather with a rope to hold them on. Those streets are not merely dusty. If the spring rains came late or stayed long, they would have turned the streets to mud, stirred up and deepened by the crowds in town for Passover. And not the clean sweet-smelling mud of springtime, but the mud of an ancient city that relies on animal power for work and transportation. Since there’s food on the table, I’ll be delicate: The ox and the ass are not known for their polite use of privies. That, too, is what’s all over these men’s feet.
The disciples’ feet are about as earthy as it gets.
But Jesus says, no—let me do it. Because he loves them. Because in that moment, he wants to do one last thing for them. One last simple, direct, concrete, earthy, human thing. Something he won’t be able to do again.
“You do not realize now what I am doing,” he tells Peter, “but later you will understand.”
It isn’t only that it’s the act of a servant, but that it’s the act of an embodied human being—of a man embracing his humanity and all the mess and filth and muck and mire that comes with it.
But he’s the good teacher to the end, and he knows a teachable moment when he sees one. You should do this too, he tells them. Wash one another’s feet. Serve one another. “Just as I have loved you,” he says, “you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.” He calls it a “new commandment,” so they’ll remember it—and it does neatly sum up everything he’s been telling them for three years. But it’s also a plea, a heartfelt plea, from one human being to his all too human friends. Love one another, as I have loved you, as I love you right now—because you don’t know when you won’t have another chance. Because this is your chance, right here, right now.
We can’t love one another as gods. We are constrained to love one another as what we are, which is human beings, men and women and children, embodied and imperfect. Loving us from afar, God wasn’t much of a role model: He had to become one of us in order to show us how to be human—how to love one another as human beings.
Tomorrow he will die, and complete that task. Two days after that, on Sunday morning, he will rise again and set everything right. But in the meantime, here and now, on Thursday evening, everything is not all right. Knowing what we know about Sunday morning we are not called to ignore the here and now. The world is still a mess. My feet and my soul are still covered in all the dirt and muck of the world… and I imagine yours are as well. But this is the moment we have. By all means, let’s keep our eye on Sunday morning—on the resurrection, on the redemption, once and for all, of everything that’s rotten and wrong and just plain screwed up in the world. But let’s keep the other eye on this mess we want redeemed—on the here and now, on Thursday evening.
Because what Jesus teaches us at the Last Supper—with the wisdom and understanding of God, but with the sorrow and sympathy of a human being—is that we don’t have to wait around for Sunday morning for God to fix everything. We have a role to play in that redemption, if we accept it—by loving one another, as he loved us, as he still loves us. We, as men and women and children, limited, imperfect, embodied, human. And then through us, God can get started fixing this mess right here, right now, on Thursday evening.
Not all of it. Not perfectly. Not yet. But it’s a start.
And when Sunday morning finally rolls around, we’ll be ready.