"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Paul to the persecuted at Philippi (2:5-11)

11 April 2009

Maundy Thursday Sermon (moved)

Jesus, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

The Gospel of John has a way with words. There in that tiny phrase, is the totality of the Gospel. Really, if you know nothing else, if you dig into no other words of Scripture, dig here. John himself says it would be impossible to write a complete biography of Jesus, that all the libraries of the world could not contain the volumes that could be written. Yet in those words, John writes the biography. Jesus, having loved his own who were in this world, he loved them to the end.

Let’s break down John’s statement. First Jesus loved his own. We use a similar term all the time, we say we look after our own. But the concept is a remarkable one here because Jesus is laying claim to the disciples. They’re not his biological family, they weren’t chosen based on any prior relationship. There really is nothing other than Jesus that would bring this ragtag band together from so many walks of life, from fishermen to a tax collector. What binds them together is only that they are no longer their own men, they are claimed by another, bought with a price. Jesus takes responsibility for this band of disciples, loves them with a sacrificial love.

Jesus does not wait until this band of followers is perfected in the kingdom, for he loves them while they were still in this world of sin and filth. Jesus loves a group of people who are essentially defined by their membership in a fallen world. But that phrase conveys more than just a definition of who these are who Jesus claims a his own. Jesus loves his own who are in this world at time when Jesus knows his hour is coming to depart out of this world. He returns to the father, to the glories of heaven. But he does not do so without looking back on those who remain in this world. These are men who are still grabbed at by sin, and a fallen nature. John tells us a few chapters later of Jesus’ prayer for these disciples, a passionate prayer that they may be guarded by God, bound together in God’s love, and be kept from evil.

And Jesus loved them to the end. There’s an ambiguity in the Greek text that is worth examining here. The words are "

eiV teloV agaphsen autouV ." To the end he loved them. In Greek, usually the first words in the sentence are where the emphasis is. The emphasis here is on "to the end." It’s not as important to know that Jesus loved the disciples. We know that, anyway. What is important is to know the extent of his love. Jesus loved them to the very end, not only of his life, but to the ends of the earth. He loved them to the cross. He loves them to the end of ages. He loves them to the end of everything. That sounds pretty clear, right? And I said there was an ambiguity. The ambiguity is this; "eiV teloV " not only means "to the end"… it has a secondary meaning of "to completion" or totally. Jesus loved the disciples with a perfect love. The writer of the gospel surely chose his words carefully, for Jesus does love the disciples with a perfect love which endures to the end. There is no conflict in the meanings, one adds to the other.
So what does that love look like? The remainder of the reading today is the description of how that love is put into action. The remainder of Holy Week is the description of that love at work, but we’re given one example today, the washing of the feet, so let us take a look in that direction.

First we see that Jesus loves them such that he casts off the glory of heaven to serve them. At the point of his incarnation, Jesus emptied himself of all the glories of heaven. No longer was he surrounded by angels and archangels, the glories of the infinite realm. Instead he was surrounded by sinners and sickness, taking on the limited nature of humanity. And he does not come even as a great and powerful human, for he does not choose to be incarnated as a king. Instead he is a seemingly common man. And yet, he comes to meet their needs, not to be served but to serve.

Jesus sees a need here. The disciples must learn to serve one another, even to die to themselves in order to serve the world. These men who so recently had argued with one another about which of them would take the places of honor in Jesus’ kingdom needed to learn to practice humility and service. They didn’t understand Jesus’ message to them when he said he the last would be first, and so Jesus demonstrated this in a powerful way.

As you know, the washing of feet was the work of the lowest slave in a household. And not Jewish slaves, but Gentile slaves were given this work. Jewish slaves were above footwashing. On a more intimate, familial level, a child might wash his father’s feet as a duty and token of intimate love and humility, or a wife might likewise wash her husband’s feet. The master, the father, the rabbi, would never wash the feet of the servants, the children and the disciples. And yet, Jesus loves them such that he casts off the titles of "Rabbi" and "Lord" as he casts off his outer garments to wash their feet.

Jesus has taught the disciples that they must be willing to die to themselves, to cast off their own needs and desires, in order to serve him. Here he begins to demonstrate for them what he means. They cannot fathom what it was for Jesus to abandon heaven for their salvation, but the can see him take on the humiliation of lowly service for their benefit. Later they will see him take on the humiliation of the cross and the agony of death for their benefit, but on this night, they are given only a glimpse of the whole.

There is another need here. They need to be washed. Jesus loves his own who are in the world, and those in the world are tainted by it. Jesus brings cleansing and healing. Yet one, despite physical washing, remains unclean. That brings us to what is for me, the most remarkable aspect of this passage: Jesus loves them such that serves his betrayer.

Betrayal is perhaps the worst thing a person can experience. Someone we love, someone who has shown love to us, turns against us and sets his heart on our destruction. How many of you have been betrayed? We all understand a little of this. And we all understand the struggle to forgive the ones who betray us. When someone has betrayed us, even on a small scale, it is almost impossible to be in a room with that person, to look at them and not be angry. And yet Jesus, in his perfect love, loves enough to kneel down in humility and take his betrayer’s feet lovingly in his hands, and wash him knowing that the washing still will not make Judas clean. Judas will not turn his heart from his plan and Jesus knows it. Yet he washes him anyway.

That’s a lot! And yet, there is more. This passage does not exist by itself; it points to the Crucifixion which would happen the following day. Jesus demonstrates that he loves them such that he follows through this course of events, not happily but nonetheless willingly, so that they may understand all mysteries and be brought at last into the Kingdom of God. He knows what events have been set in motion. He knows that Judas is to betray him. He knows that Peter, who he also washes, is to deny him. He knows that the others to whom he offers such intimate and humble service, will abandon him. He knows he will be tried, mocked, tortured, crucified and killed. He knows that he could call on legions of angels to stop these events, and yet, he sets his face towards the cross and proceeds forward. Greater love has no man than this.

This is an amazing love and an awesome service. But this is not a new thing. Jesus only does what he sees God the Father doing. The almighty creator of the universe, loves in this way. God, who is unchanging and holy, loves in this way now, as he did at the beginning of time and will forever more. Do you want evidence? Think of the Hebrews who railed against God in the wilderness, who denied God’s authority and holiness, "rebelling in the desert against the Most High." This is a betrayal, too. "They tested God in their hearts," says Psalm 78. They made demands. They railed against God. They doubted his ability to provide for them, though he had consistently filled their needs in miraculous ways. And in response? "He commanded the clouds above and opened the doors of heaven. He rained down manna upon them to eat and gave them grain from heaven. So mortals ate the bread of angels. He provided for them food enough."

Again, God is weaving a wonderful image here. Not only is Jesus providing the bread of heaven for his people in the Eucharist as God provided the manna in the wilderness, but he is providing for them in their sin and abandonment and betrayal, also as God did in the wilderness. Jesus is doing exactly as the Father does; he gives the bread of life (even eternal life) to those who are his own, though they continue to rebel against him.

And thus God loved the people of Israel. And thus Jesus loved the disciples. And God is unchanging, and Jesus does only as he sees God the Father doing. So it is clear that there is something in here for us. We who could never imagine forgiving a betrayer, see Jesus forgiving us for our betrayals and rebellion against him. Despite our sin and uncleanness, our broken-ness and rebellion, he takes us intimately in his hands and washes us. Then he sets us at his own table and offers us the bread of life. Yes, he makes a demand on us, that we should do as we see him doing; "If I, then, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet." But he also equips us for the task, prays for us, casts off heaven and glory and honor… for us. Jesus offers us cleansing and the bread of life, without regard to what our past looks like. He doesn’t offer to wash what is already clean. He comes to us, in our filth, to take us intimately in his hands and offer us cleansing so that we may have a part in him, a seat at his table, and a share in his kingdom. Will you, like Peter and the other disciples, submit to be washed?

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