“Love Received, Love to Give” (John 13:1-17, 31b-35)
“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Yes, Jesus did that. And he also tells his disciples: “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.” And so our message tonight is all about love: The love with which Jesus loved us, and then the love he would have us give to one another. “Love Received, Love to Give.”
First of all, love received. Love his disciples received in the foot-washing. Let’s set the scene. It’s the evening of the Passover. Time for the Passover meal. This is the meal that all Jews ate every year to commemorate the time when the Lord brought Israel out of bondage in Egypt. It was a special occasion, solemn and sacred. Jesus desired to eat this Passover with his disciples. They would have the meal in Jerusalem, and they would need to find a place where they could have it. Earlier that day, Jesus dispatched Peter and John to go to a certain house and get a large upper room all furnished and ready. And they made preparations for the meal.
So when they get to the upper room, the reclining couches for dinner are there, the meal is prepared, and somewhere in the room there was a jug of water, a wash basin, and a towel. This was nothing out of the ordinary. These items were for the purpose of washing feet. You see, in that culture it was customary that when you walked some distance to get to where you were going, and you entered a house, you would take off your sandals and have your dirty, dusty feet washed. Either the host would provide the water and towel and you would wash your feet yourself, or if the host was well-to-do enough to have a servant, the servant would do it.
But in this case there was no servant on hand to do the task. The water and basin and towel were there, but who would wash everybody’s feet? It may have been an awkward situation when they got there. “Is Jesus going to tell one of us to do the foot-washing, maybe the youngest of us?” No one seems to be sure what to do. And no one volunteers.
No one volunteers. This is the bunch, remember, that was concerned about status and pecking order and who’s the greatest. These guys are worried about who gets the best seat, the most prestige. They’re not thinking of how they can serve, especially when it comes to a lowly, menial task like washing people’s feet. No one volunteers. How slow of heart they are to “get it,” even after all this time with Jesus. Hey, you know, maybe they’re a little bit like us.
So they just sit down to dinner without anyone washing anyone’s feet. But at this point, Jesus does the unthinkable. He gets up, he takes off his outer garments, he rolls up his sleeves, wraps the towel around him, and he grabs the water and the wash basin. What? What is he doing? He can’t be serious. This is crazy, shocking! Jesus, the dinner’s host, the head guy, humbling himself like that, taking the place of a servant? Jesus, the master, the teacher, is actually going to wash his disciples’ feet! This can’t be! This is just not done! It’s beneath him!
So Peter objects: “Lord, do you wash my feet?” This is like when Jesus told Peter that the Son of Man was going up to Jerusalem to suffer and die, and Peter said, “Never, Lord! Not you!” Now it’s “You shall never wash my feet!” Peter still doesn’t get it. He still has in mind the things of men, not the things of God. And the things of God are that this Messiah will humble himself and serve. That is why Jesus came. Such is the love he now puts into action.
Christ’s love demonstrated in the foot-washing points to the love that will take him to the cross. That’s where his love will take him in just a few hours. The foot-washing points to the cross. Even the wording of our text points that way. Notice how John describes Jesus’ actions. It says, “He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.” Then afterward: “When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments. . . .” Notice that. John says that Jesus “laid aside” his garments and then “put them on” again. But he doesn’t use the common Greek words for taking off and putting on clothing. Instead, he says that Jesus “laid aside” or “laid down” his clothes and then “took them up” again. In fact, these same words occurred a couple of chapters earlier, where Jesus talked about “laying down” his life and “taking it up” again. The same words.
In the foot-washing, Jesus lays down his garments and takes them up again. In the crucifixion, Jesus lays down his life, and then in the resurrection, he will take it up again. The foot-washing points to the cross. And in both the foot-washing and at the cross, Jesus’ garments are taken off of him, showing how he humbled himself to serve, even to the point of death on a cross. Think of that tonight when we have the stripping of the altar. In a vivid way it will portray the shame, the humiliation, the actual stripping bare, that our Lord endured for us.
The foot-washing and the cross are of a piece. They both flow from Christ’s great love for us sinners–his love for us slow-of-heart, self-serving disciples. But because of Christ’s humble, self-giving love–love that serves and suffers, love that washes feet and washes sinners–it is by that cleansing love of his that we now have a share with him. We share in his righteousness and his life. We are washed clean by the blood and the water that flow from his pierced side. You and I have been bathed in the waters of Holy Baptism, and we are completely clean. Now our feet do get dirty and dusty from walking in this sinful world. But Christ washes our feet time and time again in Holy Absolution. When Christ washes you, you are clean indeed.
Jesus shows his love for his disciples by washing their feet, and that same love takes him to the cross. Love received. But now that means that his disciples will have love to give. Jesus tells them–and he tells us: “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.” “A new commandment”: OK, so what’s new about it? What makes it new is that it is love connected to Jesus. It is love that flows from faith in him and the new life we have in him.
Remember, when Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper, he said, “This is the new covenant in my blood.” And the new covenant, as Jeremiah says, is that God not only forgives our iniquity and remembers our sin no more but also that he writes his law on our heart. New covenant, new people, and thus the new commandment. Jesus makes all things new, including our love for one another. It’s love for one another “as I have loved you,” Jesus says. There is no love to speak of unless it’s love that comes from Jesus. We know his love, we have received it, and that’s what makes us in turn able to love others with that same kind of love. Servant love. Humble love. Self-giving, foot-washing love. “A new commandment I give to you.” But Jesus is more than just some big boss man, barking out orders, telling us what to do. No, our Lord gives us the very love we need to do what he commands.
Are there feet for you to wash? Are there people for you to serve? Well, just look around. The room is already furnished and ready, the opportunities are there. You have been furnished and made ready, furnished with the love of Christ, made ready to serve. You are disciples of Jesus, and Jesus gives you the love you need to put into practice. So is there a towel around here somewhere? What are some ways you can put love into action, in concrete ways? First of all, do we even know the needs of our fellow members? That takes spending some time with them, getting to know them. Are there fellow members to whom you can show love by forgiving them? What would it take to be proactive, to take the initiative in making peace with a brother or sister? To take the initiative in finding ways to serve in our congregation? I’d be happy to help with that, to go over some ideas with you. Love takes the initiative to serve.
But in order for you to love and serve, you yourself need to receive Christ’s love on an ongoing basis. Now the Lord’s Supper here tonight–the Lord’s Supper, the one he instituted on this very night–this Supper will strengthen you for your life of love and humble service. Jesus knew who he was and where he was going, and that made him secure enough to get up and serve. So also with you. You know who you are in Christ and where you are going. You are secure in God’s love. This will strengthen you for service. When you know your sins are forgiven–and this Supper assures you of that; Christ gives you his body and blood for that forgiveness–when you know who you are and whose you are and where you are going, then you will be free and secure enough to humble yourself and serve. God strengthens us through this salutary gift “in faith toward him and in fervent love toward one another.” Here at this altar is love for you to receive, and then you will be able to pass that love on to others.
“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” He loved them “to the end.” What does that mean? It could mean, he loved them “to the nth degree,” and one translation takes it that way, “he showed them the full extent of his love.” But I think it’s more likely that “he loved them to the end” means he loved them all the way to the end, to the goal he would reach on the cross. The Greek word “telos” that’s used here is the word for “a goal to be reached.” It’s related to the word that’s used later in John’s gospel when Jesus cries out on the cross, “Tetelestai!” “It is finished!” “The goal has been reached!” Jesus loved his disciples to the end, all the way to the “telos,” the goal he accomplished by dying for the sins of the world. Even as Jesus enters into that suffering, he is still thinking of his disciples. He is loving them and serving them and teaching them.
If you ever wonder if God really loves you, think back to the upper room. Think of the towel and the wash basin and the water and Jesus on his knees. Think of this Supper, the feast of love in which Christ blesses us even now. Think of the agony in the garden, the unjust trial, the beating, and the stripping bare. Think of the crown of thorns, the nails, the spear in the side. There you will see love. There you will find love. Love received. Love to give.