On the evening before He died, Jesus was aware of the shame and agony that awaited him. This night on which Jesus shared Passover with His friends, has come to be marked by the Christian world as “Mandatum/Mandate”, or “Maundy Thursday” because Jesus commanded his followers to remember Him and continue His teachings. In total love, Jesus wrapped a slave’s towel around his waist, dropped to his knees and began one of the most menial tasks of the culture at that time: washing the dirty feet of his friends. It was the humiliating work of a slave, not the dignified work of a Master, let alone the Son of God.
Jesus knew that he was dining with Judas, who would betray him, and Peter, who would deny him three times. Yet he knelt before them and gently washed their feet anyway, modeling for them and for us a radical love that goes far beyond one’s worthiness. In this kind of love there is not only a willingness, but a plea for reconciliation – for broken relationships to be made whole again. The creator of the universe, through Jesus, willingly humbled Himself to reach out to the hearts of those who have fallen away and become lost, who would deny and kill Him. This is the sacrificial love of service..
William Gladstone, a member of the British parliament in the mid-1800s, announced the death of Princess Alice to the House of Commons. With the announcement, he told this story. The little daughter of Princess Alice was seriously ill with diphtheria. The doctors told the princess not to kiss her little daughter because that would endanger her own life by breathing in the child’s breath. Once when the child was struggling to breathe, the mother, forgetting herself entirely, took the little one into her arms to keep her from choking to death. Gasping and struggling for her life, the child said, “Mumma, kiss me!” Only thinking about her dying child and without a thought for herself the mother tenderly kissed her daughter. She got diphtheria and soon after Princess Alice died.
Real love forgets self. Real love knows no danger. Real love does not count the cost.
The gospel text today is about this kind of love:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just like I have loved you; that you also love one another.” (John 13:34).
Take note that love is not an option for the followers of Jesus. He says,
“A new commandment I give to you”. (John 13:34)
Not a suggestion, not a recommendation. A COMMANDMENT! This is not just a command to love our families or those who love us, not to try to love others, but to love everyone the same way that Jesus loves us.
“Love one another, just like I have loved you;” (John 13:34)
There is no way around this commandment of Jesus,
“Love one another.” (John 13:34)
Why does Jesus command us to love? He gives this commandment because there is a part of every one of us that rebels against the idea of pure, unconditional love. Despite the example that we have in Jesus’ total and unconditional love for us – there is a part of us that says such love is out of place in the world in which we live. There is a part of us that says “sure, loving others is great – up to a point”
Isn’t that what we do all the time?
We draw a line and say, “That’s how much we are prepared to love the next person”. We draw a line and say, “That’s how far we are prepared to do a kind deed for someone else”. We draw a line and say, “Those are the people we are willing to love”.
We are happy to love a selective way. We are comfortable with love that doesn’t make us extend ourselves to strangers, unpleasant or funny-looking people, unkind or uncouth people, mean or vengeful people, people who make us feel uncomfortable.
But that is not the commandment! What Jesus says is quite plain. We should love others in the same way that Jesus loves us. He loved the unclean, the demented, the socially outcast; He loved the righteous and powerful who would kill Him, and the weak and fearful who could not even defend Him. His love is a complete giving of Himself as friend, teacher, Son, healer, and finally in His death. We see that on the cross.
He had no thought for His own safety, but put his own life at risk. He was prepared to risk pain and suffering, even death, because in His love for us, He would not deny the truth or the way to eternity He was showing us.
His love is a genuine, honest, compassionate love for everyone, all the time. His love is not turned off and on by fleeting passions, or emotional highs.
He drew no line and knew no limits.
And that is how he commanded us to love – totally and sacrificially.
Do you know why it is that we find it so difficult to love as Jesus commanded? This kind of love goes against our human nature; it goes against all human reasoning and logic. It is unreasonable to love those who are cruel, mean, arrogant and spiteful, murders and thieves, those who in no way deserve it. We may pity the poor, the lonely, the deranged, the unclean, but LOVE them. That is too much to ask!
To love totally and unconditionally requires us to become involved in other people’s live, to be bound up in the their needs and sorrows. It takes time, it takes commitment, it takes listening, it interrupts our schedules. Oh, we might manage it on the odd occasions but loving everyone unconditionally and sacrificially all the time, that is a tall order. But that is what we are commanded to do.
To love as Jesus commands us means that we need to immerse ourselves in His life example and teachings, and to let the love of Christ enter our lives and empower us to love, serve and work together. As we come to realize our place in God’s family and cast off everything that is opposed to love – the impatience, selfishness, greed, indifference, and fear that so often compel us – we, instead, will be led by His Spirit in everything we say and do.
There is a story about a man who had a huge boulder in his front yard. He grew tired of this big, unattractive stone in the center of his lawn, so he decided to turn it into an object of art. He went to work on it with hammer and chisel, and chipped away at the huge boulder until the ugly stone became a beautiful running deer. When he finished, it was gorgeous, breath-taking.
A neighbour asked, “How did you ever carve such a marvelous likeness of a deer?”
The man answered, “I just chipped away everything that didn’t look like a deer!”
Before we come to the Eucharist table tonight and every time, we are urged to go and resolve any bad feelings and arguments we may have with others. If you have anything in your life right now that doesn’t look like love, then, with the help of God, chip it away!
If you have anything in your life that doesn’t look like compassion or mercy or empathy, then, with the help of God, chip it away!
If you have hatred or prejudice or vengeance or envy in your heart, for God’s sake, and the for the other person’s sake, and for your sake, get rid of it!
Ask God to chip everything out of your life that doesn’t look like tender heartedness and love.
In John, we are told
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)
Do people see the light of Jesus shining through you?
To love as Jesus loves us seems way out of our reach. To let love rule everything we say and do, may seem impossible. We fail again and again, but we MUST never give up. Our failures mean that we need the love of Christ more than ever before. We need His unconditional, never-failing love to forgive us for our lack of love and create the potential for us to love unconditionally and totally all the time as we are loved totally and for eternity.
So, on this “Mandate” Thursday, let us re-dedicate ourselves to love – to loving one another, those near and far, friends and perceived enemies, as Christ has loved us – to love in sacrifice and service, in joy and thanksgiving that Jesus came to this Easter to show us Truth, Beauty, and Eternal Love.
Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington and Parts Adjacent, 13 April 2017