“He Loved Them to the End”/The Circle of Service

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Maundy Thursday + April 13, 2017

Reading: John 13:1-17, 31b-35

“Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.”

“…Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world…”

What would you do if you knew this was your last night in this world? It’s a question people ask to understand themselves better: What’s really important to you? What would you wish you would have done? What brings you the most joy? What truly has value? When we answer these questions, it can help us get our priorities in line. What would you do if you knew this was your last night in this world?

Today we remember how Jesus answered that question. The Gospel of John says: “…Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” He gathered his close friends together, and they ate a good meal. In the other gospels their dinner together was the celebration of the important Jewish holiday of Passover, and it was also the time when Jesus established a new ritual for his followers, which we now call Holy Communion. The Gospel of John instead tells of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and then teaching them his last and greatest lesson: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

The Lord's Supper - Matthew 26:17-30

JESUS MAFA. The Lord’s Supper, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

One of the greatest privileges of being a pastor is to spend time with people when they know that their hour is coming. Sometimes they, like Jesus, know their time will come in a matter of hours or days; most of the time death could still be years away, but people just realize they are much closer to that hour than they ever have been before. Death feels like a more real possibility than it did when they were in their teens or their 30s or their 60s.

And yes, I know I haven’t been at this work long, but I think I’ve been at it long enough to say that I have seen the pattern. When people know that their hour is coming, they talk about people. About relationships. They tell the story of how they met their spouse, and the story is well-crafted with detail and humor and surprises, and their eyes sparkle when they tell it — even if it’s the fifth time they’ve told me. They tell stories about their friends and their inside jokes and all the support they’ve provided over the years. They share news about their children and grandchildren.

And let me add another detail, just to emphasize that point: a lot of our people have had really interesting careers. They’ve done innovative work for major corporations; they’ve started and saved companies; they’ve lived all around the world. But most people I talk to barely mention those things. Even Mac Sweazey, who worked in the secret service and will regale you with some really great stories, reminds me every time I see him that I shouldn’t forget about the important things; that I should be out making friends and seeing family. And when you ask him who was his favorite president to work for and why, the answer is Eisenhower, and he’ll usually mention in his list of reasons why: “because he threw a party at the White House for all of our wives.”

We humans make meaning of our lives in a lot of ways: through work, through volunteering, through hobbies and time alone and study and play. We need all of these things. But in the end, we tend to tell our life story as the story of relationships.

This is what we see in today’s gospel story. “Having loved his own who were in the world, [Jesus] loved them to the end.” And the great commandment that gets its own holy day calls Jesus’s followers to remember that relationship is the most important part of his legacy: “…love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And so with the last hours before his arrest and execution, Jesus called together his friends, and even included the one whom he knew was in the process of betraying him. And yet again he set them an example of true relationship. He, the “Lord and Teacher,” tied a towel around himself and took each of his disciple’s dusty, calloused feet in his hands and washed them.

We often think of this as a “selfless” act. And Jesus was showing us an act of relationship without ego or self-importance, where the Lord connects directly with the people, where the devoted leader serves the devoted followers.

But so often when we think of “selfless” acts, we think of something so much less relationship-oriented. We think of a person who has something selflessly giving to someone who needs something. This has become the pattern for how we talk about serving and charity: “we give to help the poor” or “those people need our help.” We end up dividing people into categories of givers and receivers, or of “haves” and “have-nots” — and that’s not relationship. It’s more like a one-way transaction, and that’s not good for either side. The people who give can end up feeling like vending machines, constantly receiving calls for another donation or another three hours of their time. The people who receive can end up feeling pitied or not good enough, and they may feel dependent rather than empowered.

Jesus did not model this one-way-street sort of serving; instead he modeled relationship without self-importance. He did not say to us, “Well, I’m actually fully man AND fully God, so I’m only going to spend my time on earth with the very best of you mortals,” but he also didn’t say, “Well, I’m fully man AND fully God, so just sit back and receive from my greatness.” He formed real relationships with people, relationships where both sides gave and received, relationships where sometimes there was no service agenda, and they could just share a good meal and good conversation (ex. Matt. 11:19).

Jesus formed relationships with people who would have been considered wealthy either in money or in social standing — like some of the Pharisees, or like Zacchaeus the rich tax collector. Jesus also formed relationships with those who would have been considered needy — ranging from people in poverty to people with illnesses to children. And he involved all those people — across the whole spectrum — in his mission for the Kingdom of God. When Jesus fed thousands with just a few fish and loaves of bread, that food came from the disciples, or, in one version of the story, from a boy in the crowd (John 6). Some of the women followers of Jesus helped to financially support Jesus and the twelve disciples (Luke 8:1-3).

There was no “us” giving to “them” — there was just “us, doing God’s work: loving one another and the world.” And today we continue in that legacy, that circle of service.

In our society the church is one of few places where people of different backgrounds and skills and careers and viewpoints come together just to be in community, to be in relationship with one another. And out of that diversity we give to one another according to our skills and resources, and we receive from one another according to our needs. I see it here at St. Andrew all the time: when someone needs a job done, we point them towards someone who has the skills and could use the work, or we volunteer our own time to go change a lightbulb or rake some leaves. We cook meals for people who are going through hard times. We visit each other in the hospital. We share books and trade furniture and drive other people’s kids home from youth group. And we do all this service for one another best when we know one another, when we know what’s going on in one another’s lives, when we know what people actually need or what skills or resources other people have. We do it best when we are all part of that circle of giving and receiving.

How can we extend this pattern of a circle of service beyond our church? How can we get to know more of the people we give to or serve? How can we meet more people who are outside of our usual group — to understand people who are from different backgrounds or going through different things, so that we can better serve them, and so that we can also be served in new ways?

Today we gather to remember that Jesus chose to spend his last night with the people he loved and who loved him. We remember how he washed their feet, modeling a life of service that was humble and intimately relational. With the last hours before his arrest and the last night before his crucifixion, Jesus showed his disciples exactly what he wanted his legacy to be. This is the legacy we have inherited through generations and generations of followers of Jesus: “…love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”