“Behold the Man: A God Who Loves” (John 13:1-17, 31b-35)

Holy (Maundy) Thursday
April 18, 2019

“Behold the Man: A God Who Loves” (John 13:1-17, 31b-35)

If Jesus’ incarnation teaches us anything about love, it’s that love is not the stuff of mere sentimentality. Love is more than warm fuzzy feelings. On the night when he was betrayed, the one who had all the power of God, who, as the song goes, “has the whole world in his hands,” used his hands to pick up a bowl of water, wrap himself in a towel, and scrub the dirt from the feet of his disciples. And then he gives them–and us–a new commandment: Love like this. Love with hands. Love with actions. Love by dying. As I have loved you.

“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”

Jesus, the eternal Son of God, holds the whole world in his hands. And what will he do with those hands? He will remove the clothes with which he is clad. He will lay them aside, take a basin of water, and use his divine hands to remove the sandals from the dirty, dusty, travel-worn feet of his disciples. He will hold those feet in his holy hands. And wash those feet. He’s got the whole world in his hands, and he knows that the Father has given all things into his hands. So he takes in his hands the dirty feet of the men who have walked with him.

God has hands. This is not metaphorical language. In the person of Jesus, the very Son of God in human flesh, God has hands. And feet. And eyes, ears, arms, legs, fingers, and knees. And with these, he descends to take up the feet of sinful men into his holy hands.

You can understand Peter’s protest. His Lord should not wash his feet. This is unbecoming of a proper God. Gods should be far removed from their creations, distant from the creatures they created, especially if their creatures have rebelled and set themselves against the goodness and graciousness of God. Gods should not become men. They should not unite themselves with sinful humans. They should not have human flesh–and hands. And they should certainly not use those hands to take up and wash away the grime from between the toes of the sweaty, sandal-shod feet of those who purport to follow such an incarnate God. “You shall never wash my feet!” So we would also protest, given the opportunity.

But then Jesus’ words: “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” This frustrates Peter’s pious pretensions. He relents, but he must have known viscerally that this was all wrong. Washing feet is not what Messiah should do, not what my Lord should do. This is a servant’s task. If God descends to take human flesh and then stoops to the lowest position, to the foot-washing place, then the whole economy of human hierarchy is turned upside down.

As if that weren’t enough, Jesus then asks, “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.” And then he says, “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. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Good grief! As if Christianity weren’t hard enough to buy into! Now Jesus says, “Do as I have done to you.” And this “as I have done” is to take the lowest, most servile position of a foot-washing servant. Love one another like that?

This is painful. We’ll abide with the command to love others up to a point. “Love one another any way you wish”: that’s the creed of American popular religion. But, “Love as I have loved you”? With a foot-washing, self-deprecating kind of love? No thanks.

You know what it means to love others as you want to be loved. That’s hard enough. But to love as Jesus loves? To love that selflessly and sacrificially? That’s a tall order indeed. But Jesus gives what he calls his “new commandment”–in Latin, that’s “mandatum novum,” thus why we call this day “Maundy Thursday”–Jesus gives this new commandment on the night when he is betrayed, when he is given into the hands of sinful men. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you.” Simple. Do this, Jesus bids. Love like this. Like I do. Love those who will desert you and deny you. Love those who do not deserve it. Wash their feet. Assume the posture of a servant. Do the work of a servant. Or even harder, forgive their sins. Love like that. Okay? “By this all people will know that you are my disciples,” if you have love for one another like this.

This new commandment he gives to you: Love like this. Love incarnationally. Love with flesh on it. Love dirty, dusty sinners. Love those who do not deserve your love. Love and forgive those who hurt you. Love with your hands. Love on your knees. Love in order to remove the filth, the guilt, and the shame of your brothers and sisters, that they might be clean. Love them whether or not your love will ever be repaid. Love sacrificially. Love and do not expect anything in return. Yes, love as I have loved you, Jesus commands his disciples.

Okay, then. Who among us does that? Who does that with never a thought for oneself? None of us. And yet, “As I have loved you” is pretty absolute. Jesus loves perfectly. He doesn’t wait for you to show your love for others in order to show his love for you. He just loves. It’s who he is. It’s what he does. Behold the man, a God who loves, who loves you enough to get down on his knees and use his hands to wash the dirty feet of undeserving sinners.

Now if foot washing were the extent of Jesus’ love, that would be difficult enough to emulate. But he doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t have hands just to take up his disciples’ grimy feet. He who has the whole world in his hands intends those hands to be nailed to the cross. Those same hands Jesus used to wash the disciples’ feet he then let be nailed through to die for their sins. Your sins also. This is the extent of his magnificent love. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

Behold the man who loves those who are unlovable. Behold the man who loves those who later this night will abandon him, who will flee to save their own lives. Jesus is the one who loves the unlovable, the rebellious, the sinful. He loves those who do not deserve it. Behold the man who is God and who, in order to love his creatures completely, has become man. Behold the man who loves the world perfectly in his death on the cross.

If you want to love like this, like Jesus did, like he commands his disciples to love, you will never get there relying on your own deficient power to love. If you want to love like this, you’ve first got to be loved like this. “We love, because he first loved us.” Dear friends, Jesus’ “as I have loved you” you will find here, at this altar. The fruits of Jesus’ sacrificial love are pressed into his Holy Supper, for you to eat and to drink. Jesus gave himself in the perfect act of love. Behold the man who on the night when he was betrayed, took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples as his own body. Behold the man who poured his blood into the undeserving mouths of his disciples to forgive their sins. Behold the man, veiled in bread and wine, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins, for your eternal life and salvation.

Behold the man who will strengthen you with the power of his love, so that now we can begin to love one another with the Jesus kind of love. In this feast of love, the Lord’s Supper, Jesus gives us what we need to do his command to love one another. Here, as you are fed and nourished with the body and blood of Christ, the only one ever to love like this–here in this salutary gift we are strengthened in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another. Disciples who feed together on our Lord’s Supper are united together in his love. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

In order to love like Jesus, behold the man. Here at his altar, he will serve you. In the bread, behold the man. In the cup, behold the man. In this Holy Supper, behold the man who loves you enough to forgive you freely and fully and to strengthen you to love as he loves.

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Published in: on April 18, 2019 at 12:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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