“Love One Another, as I Have Loved You” (John 13:1-17, 31b-35)
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” So said Jesus to his disciples on the night when he was betrayed. “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” So says Jesus to his disciples here on this night, as we are gathered in his name and he is here with us. Thus our theme for tonight, Jesus’ commandment to his disciples both then and now: “Love One Another, as I Have Loved You.”
“Love one another, as I have loved you.” Now if that is Christ’s command to us–and it is–then I suppose the place to start is with how Jesus has loved us. Yes, that is always the place to start, with what our Lord has done for us. Otherwise, we would not be able to carry out this command and to love in the new way that Jesus models, commands, and empowers. But starting with Jesus’ love for us, and abiding in that love, we will bear the good fruit of love in our lives.
So we ask: How has Jesus loved us? Well, we see it in our text. In John chapter 13, Jesus’ love is in full view. The chapter even starts with the words, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” What was the occasion? It was the Passover meal, that evening every year when Jews gathered to remember how the Lord had led Israel out of bondage in Egypt–how their lives were spared and saved through the blood of the Passover lamb. The Passover was commemorated every year with a special meal, and that is what Jesus is sharing with his disciples. They had traveled with Jesus for several years now, following him, learning from him, witnessing his works and hearing his wisdom–heavenly works and heavenly wisdom. Now they were in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover, and they had secured an upper room at which to have the Passover meal.
“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” How so? Well, first, in a very simple yet profound way. In a very humble, servant kind of way. You see, when Jews were invited to someone’s house for dinner, after walking in sandals over the dusty streets and roads, it was customary that the host would provide a servant to wash the feet of his guests as they came in, before they reclined at the table. But on this occasion, there was no servant to do that menial task. So who would do it? Certainly, one of the lesser-ranking disciples, perhaps the youngest, John. But no. Who should it be but none other than the master himself, Jesus! This was stunning. This was remarkable. Surely the master does not wash the feet of his disciples! This is beneath him! This is a servant’s task! Yet Jesus lays aside his outer garments and wraps a towel around his waist. He takes a wash basin and gets down on his knees and begins to wash his disciples’ feet.
Peter objects: “Lord, you shall never wash my feet!” Jesus replies: “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Peter, ever the one to go from one extreme to the other, says, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Peter realizes that as a sinner he needs a full washing, a mighty cleansing, done by the Lord himself, to have a share in the life that Jesus bestows.
So it is for us. We are sinners, we are sinful men like Peter. We need a cleansing, we need a washing, to stand before God in righteousness, to sit at table with our Lord in peace and fellowship. We cannot cleanse ourselves. The help must come from the Lord himself. And the amazing thing is that the Lord does this. He stoops to serve. He humbles himself to help. The Lord of glory lowers himself to wash and cleanse us of the dirt and the grime of sin. In the waters of Holy Baptism, you were washed, you were cleansed, in the blood of your Savior Jesus. That was your full-body bath. Then in Holy Absolution, your feet are washed clean as you accumulate the dust of sin in your day-to-day life. And in Holy Communion–the Blessed Sacrament that Christ instituted on this night–our Lord gives you his very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. Herein is the love of Jesus, that through his humble serving, we are washed and made clean and brought to sit at table with our Lord in peace and fellowship.
Yes, here is the love of Jesus. He, the master, washes the feet of his disciples. But should this be so surprising? Had not Jesus told them, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”? So now he is serving. And in a short while, in a matter of hours, he will give his life as a ransom, as the redemption, of the whole world.
“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” And Jesus will tell them, later that same night, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” That is what Jesus is doing on this night. That is where all this is going. It is going to the cross. Jesus himself will be the Passover Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. The sacrifice, the only sacrifice that works, that avails for all sin and for all sinners. Jesus’ blood on the doorpost of the cross is the sign, the mark, by which our lives are spared and saved. Death passes over. Satan’s domain is ruined. We are led out of bondage and set out on our way to the Promised Land of heaven. All this is accomplished by the blood of Christ. He is the greater Passover, the one the Passover of the Jews pointed ahead toward and now is fulfilled by. Greater love has no man than this, that Jesus, the very Son of God, lays down his life by being lifted up on the cross, for you.
So this is love, this is the new love, the greatest love, that only the followers of Jesus know. And we know it. We have received it. And so now, Jesus commands us to live that life of love and servanthood toward others. It’s only natural. It flows out of, it flows from, having received this wondrous love ourselves. This is why Jesus can command it, and he means it. He really wants and expects his disciples, his followers, to live this way: to love by serving. It may not take the form of a wash basin and a towel, but it could. Or something like that. A humble kind of serving, doing for others at the point of their need. It is an outward kind of looking and serving, being attentive to our brother or sister and asking ourselves–and maybe asking them–how we can help. Friends, this is what you have been washed to do. The way of the master is the way of his disciples. And you are his disciples.
“Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”
But come first and let Jesus serve you. This is how it always proceeds. First you are loved by Jesus. Then you go and love others. You can’t have one without the other.
“Love one another, as I have loved you.” Yes, behold and receive the wondrous love of Jesus. That is always the place to start. And that is always the place to end.