John 13: 1-20
Peter’s reaction to Jesus trying to wash his feet, shows us that though we all say we want love, we are not always ready for the love that Jesus is offering. The world isn’t ready for Real Love. The world isn’t ready for a love that is everlasting, a love that is better than wine, a love that inspires devotion and transformation, a love that came down from heaven and took on flesh to wash our dirty feet. I prefer the term Real Love than the popular term unconditional love. Because I feel the term unconditional love is not found in the Bible and there are a lot of practical problems with it.
When I say I want unconditional love, what I mean is I want a person who will never leave me no matter what I do. I want unconditional relationship without unconditional devotion on my part. I want a relationship that gives me everything and demands from me nothing. Anyone who is has been in a relationship knows that such a love is not workable in the long run. But we also know a rules based love, that is a harsh taskmaster, that rejects us when we fall short, that shames us to force us to do better, isn’t life giving either. We all want Real love. A love we can hold onto that will hold onto us. But as Peter shows us in today’s passage, when we encounter real love, we don’t always know how to handle it. We protest against real love. Sometimes our reaction to real love can be far more severe than Peter refusing to have his Master wash his feet.
This American Life, in the episode, Unconditional Love, tells the story of Daniel Solomon, a child who struggled to accept real love. Daniel grew up in a Romanian orphanage till the age of seven. He had to sleep standing up because he shared his crib with another child. Adults would come in to feed and clean Daniel, but in the seven years he lived in that orphanage he never knew any of their names. He was never held, he never went to school, he never went outside, and he had no real sense of the passage of time. Daniel wasn’t like the orphan Annie, in the famous musical who longed to see her real parents. Because Daniel never knew his real parents. To quote Daniel, “It’s like, a kid who never eats chocolate doesn’t know what chocolate tastes like. I didn’t know what a family was, and I didn’t think I really thought about it at all.”
Luckily, Heidi and Rick Solomon, from Ohio, adopted Daniel when he was seven years old. Heidi was a special education teacher by profession. And she felt certain even as a child that she wanted to adopt a child. Alix Spiegel the reporter for this story reports that the first few weeks with Daniel went well, “The family’s early weeks back in Ohio were full of firsts– the first time Daniel wore shoes, the first time Daniel slept alone in a bed. They played, and danced, and worked on English. And even though Daniel had some difficult moments, tantrums and fits of crying, both Heidi and Rick will tell you that, on the whole, the family had a good time.”
Daniel was not without his problems but they were manageable problems. And this honeymoon period went on for about six months. Then March came. Rich and Heidi celebrated Daniel’s birthday. But apparently, in Romania, no one had ever told Daniel when his birthday was or what it meant to have a birthday party. So when he discovered what he had been missing out on, and when his adopted parents explained to him the difference between biological and adopted parents, Daniel realized for the first time in his life that his biological parents had abandoned him and that he had never had a celebration that many other children enjoyed. From this point he began to violently resist that his parents offered him. Heidi became the particular focus of his hatred since his biological parents were no where to be found.
Daniel’s tantrums became seven hour rage marathons where he threw whatever he could get his hands on. He put over a thousand holes in the walls of their home. Heidi and Rick called in professional social workers and specialists several of whom left bleeding in need of medical profession. Daniel saved most of his rage for Heidi the person who loved him the most. Daniel took pleasure in Heidi’s pain. At one point he left her with a black eye. At another point he held a knife to her throat. They had to hire what equated to body guards to protect them from their son. At least two psychiatrists told Heidi that her son would never love her, that she should give him up to foster care. The situation with Daniel pushed Rick and Heidi’s marriage to the breaking point.
Daniel was suffering from what Psychologist would call attachment disorder. Luckily, Heidi found a Doctor in Virginia named Ronald Federici. According to this doctor mother and child had to spend at least three months together, side by side, no more than three feet apart. So Heidi and Daniel tried this strategy for eight weeks. They stopped all other activities and just had Daniel stay by his mother. Heidi was also told to force Daniel to make eye contact with her on a regular basis. Also, Daniel couldn’t ask for anything. He had to trust that his mother would provide for his needs without him asking. Every time Daniel resisted the program he was subject to time ins, where he would be forced to sit with his mother, rather than time outs, where he would be forced to sit by himself.
Around the third week Daniel’s behavior began to change. He began to realize for the first time that his mother loved him. After eight weeks Daniel was cured of his violent behavior. Some more intense attachment therapy was required before Daniel was able to fully integrate into society. This included being forced to sit in his mother’s lap for hours and being spoon fed ice cream. He was basically forced to be born again. He was forced to live the childhood he never had. And it worked. At the end of the story Daniel ended up wining an award at his local synagogue for acing his confirmation class. In his acceptance speech he said this,
“Before I finish, I’d like to thank two people, my mom and dad. The reason that I’m here today and the kind of person I am today is because of you. Mom, never thank you enough for all the places you have taken me to. Even when I absolutely refused to go, I somehow had fun when I got there. Dad, you’re one heck of a guy to put up with a crazy family like this. You guys are both amazing. I love you very much.”
“A new commandment I give you that you love one another as I have loved you. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Though Rick and Heidi do not share our Christian faith, I think their story demonstrates Jesus command to love one another in a commanding way, with real love. In one sense Heidi’s love was unconditional, in the way she pursued her adopted son. But in another it was very conditional in that she set boundaries for him, even forcing him to do things he rather not do. Hers was a discerning love. Hers was a commanding love. Hers was a real love. And because of that her adopted son changed.
Jesus gives this command to love one another in John 13:34, shortly after he washes his disciple’s feet. Indeed the word Maundy, means “commandment.” And thus we celebrate Maundy Thursday because Jesus commanded us to love one another as he loved us. This commandment seems strange on two different levels. First, that Jesus thinks he can command us to love one another in the first place. The second problem, is that the command to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves, while focused on in the New Testament, is not a new idea. It is deeply grounded in the Old Testament. The idea of loving others had been part of the Jewish faith for thousands of years. It wasn’t a new commandment. It was a very ancient one.
On the problem of how Jesus could command love I think Jesus could command love because his own love, like Heidi’s love for Daniel, is inspiring and thus it commands devotion. He does not command our devotion in the sense that he orders us around. Jesus’ love was commanding because he led by example. His love was commanding because his love was compelling. His love commands our attention and devotion because his love is real. His love has hands and feet. His love uses water, and bread, and wine. His love uses the rigid wood of the cross. His love makes holy use of everyday things. His love is real because his love breaks into our reality. To quote the 1 John 4:19, “ We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are lairs; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (1 John 4:19-21). Jesus is a good leader for he never asks us to do something he was not willing to do himself. Indeed, God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, he sent his only begotten son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins. His love is commanding because his love is compelling. His love is compelling because God saw our wretched state and gave us His only Son to stand in our place.
If Jesus’ death on the cross is the standard by which we are to love one another than we are all certain to fall short. Because it is an impossible standard. But his commandment is not for us to sacrifice as he sacrificed. His commandment is new because he has set a new example for us by washing his disciple’s feet. He doesn’t ask us to make a huge sacrifice. Instead, he asks us to humble ourselves and receive real love.
The Good News: When we humbly receive Real love we will no longer be orphans for our hearts will become homes for the fullness of God.
How do we receive real love?
- Through Humility
- Through Giving Love by the power of the Holy Spirit.
First, we receive God’s real love through humility. Feet washing was not an uncommon practice in Jesus’ day. If people wanted to get anywhere, they generally had to walk there. Foot ware wasn’t as protective as it was today so inevitably people’s feet would get dirty. It was common practice in that day for the host of a gathering to have a basin available to wash people’s feet. If the host had a servant the servant would do it. In a teacher/ disciple relationship the disciple would be expected to wash the master’s feet. In a society based on honor and status it was unthinkable that someone of a higher authority would was the feet of someone of lower authority. But in our passage tonight Jesus does the unthinkable. He throws away the honor of his status as a teacher to show the honor of the Kingdom that comes through humbling oneself. This intimate and rule shattering act was incredibly awkward for everyone involved, especially traditionally minded Peter. Perhaps that is why only John records this shockingly humble act. The other Gospel’s writers could describe Jesus being betrayed by his twelve closets friends. They could describe Jesus being spit on and mocked and beaten by his enemies. They could describe Jesus being nailed, naked to a cross, and suffocating to death. But in their honor based hierarchical culture they couldn’t describe this little yet shocking act of humility. No one but John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, could bring himself to record Jesus washing his disciple’s feet. You know sacrifice for sacrifices sake isn’t always a good thing. We have a word for that. We call that a Marty complex. And we don’t want to have Marty complexes. But Jesus shows us in little acts of humility can lead us to authentic sacrifice. Because that is what Philippians says, he humbled himself in every little decision, even unto the point of death, yes even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8). Why did he suffer? Why did he humble himself? For the joy set before him (Hebrews 12:2). For you and for me.
Finally, to have the power to give love from the heart we must be filled with the Holy Spirit. In the scriptures the Holy Spirit is the person of the Godhead by which God expresses his power in this world. If God is Love the Holy Spirit is God’s Love in action. And while we all receive the Holy Spirit when we come to believe in Christ, scripture suggests that we can let His love sink deeper into our being if we are willing to receive his love. Paul prays this prayer for the believers at the church at Ephesus, “ I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through His Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”(Ephesians 3:!6). I think Paul has to pray that Christ may dwell in our hearts richly and that we may be rooted and grounded in love because like Daniel sometimes we violently resist God’s real love. We have become content with imposter loves that practice the form of godliness without its power. We are beggars in the orphanage of the world content to eat porridge, even when the feast of the lamb lays on the other side of the door. Because at least in the land of beggars we get to rule our own lives. In the Kingdom of Christ we must trust and obey. For there is no other way to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey.
But God has given us the power to make the transition from porridge to finest wheat through the power of the Holy Spirit. He has given us the power not only to receive real love but to give real love through his Holy Spirit. This is what Ken Wilson says about the Holy Spirit’s power to love in decision to love.
“ Without the power of God’s Spirit, Christian love is just another unreachable goal: lovely to behold but impossible to attain. The Holy Spirit provides us with the power to practice Christian love. As Paul says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5)” Wilson goes on to say,
“ Love didn’t originate with us. WE can’t manufacture it. It comes from God alone. God’s Spirit within us provides this love, making God’s own love available to us. When we practice Christian love, we’re drawing on the power of God, through the action of the Holy Spirit….. In order to practice Christian love, we need to rely on the power of God. It is a matter of faith. We love because we are commanded to love. And he who requires love also provides it through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. If we refuse to believe this, it will be very difficult for us to actually receive God’s power to love; like everything else in the Christian life, it comes through faith.” (Wislon, pg 58-59.).
Many of us at some point in our lives may feel like orphans because horrible things happen to us. But if we obey the words of Jesus this is what he says, “ I will not leave you as orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (John 14).
One of his disciples named Judas, not the one who was to betray him asked Jesus, “ Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” What does it mean for the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, the fullness of the God of the universe to make His home in us? Words escape us Lord. But we are ready to lay down our knives that we may lay down our lives at your throne. We are ready to humble ourselves that we may be crucified with Christ that we may no longer live but Christ within us may live (Galatians 2:20). Give us the power we pray to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge that we may be filled with the fullness of God. That we may be filled with real love.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.