Sermon from the Series “Behold the Man,” edited for use at Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer.
John 13:1–17, 31b–35 (Holy Thursday—Behold the Man!)
“A God Who Loves”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
April 18, 2019
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
You probably know the song “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” Every power is at the Lord’s disposal. Every authority under heaven and earth is His. He has created everything. And He holds everything in His eternal hands. And then we read in John 13 that “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 holds the whole world in His hands. And what does He do with those hands? He removes the clothes with which He, the eternal God, is garbed. He lays them aside, wraps a towel around His waist, takes up a bowl of water, and uses His divine hands to remove the sandals from the scummy, dirty, travel-worn feet of His disciples. He holds those feet in His holy hands and washes those feet. He’s got the whole world in His hands. And He knows that the Father has given all things into His hands. Yet, He takes into His hands the dirty feet of the men who have walked with Him day after day.
God has hands. This is not metaphorical language in this case. In the person of Jesus, God joined to human flesh, God has hands. And feet. And eyes, ears, fingers, lungs, nostrils, teeth, and legs. And with these, He humbly takes up the feet of sinful men into His hands.
You can understand Peter’s protest, “You shall never wash my feet!” His God 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 the god. Gods should not become men, should not unite themselves alongside sinful humans, should not have human flesh—and hands—and should certainly not use those hands to take up and wash the grime away from between the toes of the sweaty, sandal-shod feet of those men who claim to follow such an incarnate God. “You shall never wash my feet!” You would also protest, given the opportunity.
But then Jesus’ words, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with Me,” frustrate Peter’s pious pretensions. He relents, but Peter must have known deep down that this was all wrong. Washing feet is not what the Christ should do. It’s certainly not what a god should do. This is a servant’s task. If God descends to take human flesh and then stoops to the lowest position, the servant’s foot-washing place, the whole human hierarchy is turned upside down.
And, as if that weren’t enough, Jesus then asks the Twelve, “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.” Then the Savior speaks, “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 in to. Now, “Do as I have done to you.” And “as I have done” is taking the lowest, most servile position of the foot-washing servant. Love one another like that?
This is painful. You’ll live with the command to love others to a point. “Love one another any way you wish” is 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 wish to be loved. But to love as Jesus loves you? To love selflessly and sacrificially? That’s a tall order. But Jesus gives this new commandment, this mandatum novum—the reason we call today “Maundy Thursday”—on the night when He is betrayed, 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 can never deserve it, those who hate you, who reject you, who are inclined toward your destruction. Wash their feet. Assume the posture of a servant. Or worse, absolve their sins. Give them forgiveness for sins, forgiveness they could never deserve. Love like that. Okay? “By this all people will know that you are My disciples,” if you have love for one another like this.
The new commandment He gives you: love like this. Love incarnationally. Love as flesh among flesh. Love as sinners among sinners. Love those who cannot and will not ever deserve your love. Love to forgive those who are completely unforgiveable. Love with your hands. Love in order to remove the filth, the guilt, the shame of your brothers and sisters. Love in order to get the dirt of your fellow humanity onto your own hands so that the person might be clean. Love because your love will never be repaid. Love sacrificially. Love and never expect anything in return. Love as I have loved you, Jesus commands.
Okay, who does that? No one. And yet, “As I have loved you,” is pretty absolute. Jesus loves perfectly and didn’t wait for your love toward others in order to show His love for you. He loves. If foot washing were the extent of Jesus’ love, that would be difficult enough to emulate. But He doesn’t have hands just to take up His disciples’ grimy feet. He doesn’t have fingers merely as instruments to scrub between their toes. He has the whole world in His hands. And He intends those hands to be nailed to the cross. This is His love.
Behold the man who loves those who are completely unlovable. Behold the man who loves those who, in just a few minutes, will abandon Him, and will flee to save their own lives. Behold the man who loves the unlovable, the rebellious, the sinful; the man who loves those who could never deserve it. Behold the man who is God and who, in order to love His creatures perfectly and completely, has become fully human. Behold the man who loves the world completely and 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, selfish love. If you want to love like this, you’ve got to be loved like this. “As I have loved you” is here, on the altar. The fruits of Jesus’ sacrificial love are in His Holy Supper for you to eat and to drink. Behold the man who 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, saying, “This is My body, given for you.” Behold the man who poured His blood into the loveless mouths of His disciples to forgive their sins, “This cup is the new testament in My blood, shed for you.” Behold Jesus, true God and true man, veiled in bread and wine, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins, for life and salvation.
This feast of love fulfills Jesus’ command to love one another. Here, as you are fed and nourished with the body and blood of the only One ever to love like this, you are strengthened, as the liturgy says, “in fervent love toward one another.” Disciples who feed together on the same loving Lord are united together in 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. On His altar, behold Him. On the paten, behold the man. In the chalice, behold the man. In the Supper, behold the man who loves you enough to forgive you freely, fully, week after week. Amen.