John 13:1-17, 31b-35
St Barbara’s; 24.03.16
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Tap into google “the secret of happiness” and it will come up with over 27 million results. I didn’t research them all you’ll be pleased to know, but a brief survey of some of the results revealed answers from the banal to the sensible to the ridiculous:
Let go of the need for specific outcomes
Forgo the good to pursue the best
Take more exercise
Throw away excess stuff
Have a solid core of friends
Do something every day that terrifies you
Not one of the websites I looked at mentioned “washing other people’s feet”
And yet after Jesus washed his disciples feet he said to them: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you… Now that you know these things, you will be blessed/ happy if you do them.”
Jesus’ message to his disciples at this most poignant of moments – the last meal he would eat with them before his death – was to love others. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
To a world besotted with the love of power, God reveals himself in the power of love.
But what does love look like? How are we to love? Jesus’ extraordinary action of washing the disciples’ feet gives us some very strong pointers.
Love is practical. The feet of the disciples, having walked through the streets of Jerusalem in sandals, would have been covered in dust, mud, animal dung, and worse. Their feet needed washing, especially as the traditional way to eat would have been to recline at the table, meaning your feet were not hidden under the table, but actually up at the same height as the table. Washing feet was a job that needed doing. Love is not just a matter of saying words – though we possibly don’t tell people we love that we love them as much as we could. Love is about service – seeing a need and responding.
Love is also sacrificial. If the job of washing feet had been pleasant – maybe just the squirt of some perfume or the handing out of warm, sanitised face cloths like you get on airplanes – no doubt there would have been no shortage of volunteers. But the job Jesus did was unpleasant, smelly – getting down on his knees to wash with his bare hands the dirt and muck off his disciples’ feet. A sign of love is when someone does the jobs no-one wants to do.
And love is humble. As we thought about at our Mothering Sunday service a few weeks ago, the job of washing feet was only ever done by the lowest of the low. Not even the poorest Jewish slave could be compelled to do it; only Gentile slaves. And yet here is Jesus, the one who before the beginning of time helped to fashion with his Father the universe and the heavens; the one who is King of heaven and earth; the one who is worshipped by myriads of angels and angelic hosts; here is he willingly choosing to to do a job so abhorrent that only the lowest of slaves could be compelled to do. Love does not insist on status or pull rank. It is not proud. It is humble – putting the needs of others before oneself.
Jesus’ action shows us who we are to love as well. Jesus bends down first to wash the feet of Peter. Peter was one of Jesus’ closest followers and yet Jesus knows that he will deny him in only a few hours time. Peter, who had always been so vehement and vocal in his support of Jesus; Peter, who spoke of standing by Jesus even unto death, even if everyone else deserted him; this Peter would deny Jesus, and walk away from him, at his moment of greatest need. Jesus knew that. The pain of that imminent desertion must have been immense for Jesus to bear. And yet he stoops down to wash his feet. It is hard to love others when they let us down, or fail to deliver on their promises – you can probably think of people like that now, people who have hurt you – but the example of Jesus is to love them still.
If Peter was hard, one wonders how much harder it must have been for Jesus to wash Judas’ feet too. As he would predict Peter’s denials, so he will predict Judas’ betrayal. How could someone he had shared his life with for the past three years, who he had eaten with almost every day, who he had shared with, prayed with – how could they not just deny him but actually betray him to the very people out to kill him? And yet Jesus shows to him too practical, sacrificial, humble love.
Some of you will have seen recently the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace or maybe you have read the book. Towards the end, one of the main characters Prince Andrei meets his bitter enemy Anatole Kuragin as they both lie dying, and finds within him the urge to forgive. In words that echo the life experience of the author Leo Tolstoy, he says: “It is possible to love someone dear to you with human love, but an enemy can only be loved with divine love. That is why I experienced such joy when I felt that I loved that man.” We are to pray for divine love that we may love our enemies, those who seek to undermine us, bring us down.
But such love sounds tough and at times unrewarding. How can it be the secret to happiness?
Because in loving, we become truly the person we were always intended by God to be. Some of you may know the story of Henri Nouwen, a prolific writer and popular speaker, who at one point in his life gave it all up to work in a home for people with severe physical and mental disabilities, people who needed 24 hour care, and help with the most basic of activities such as feeding and washing. As he spent time getting to know those he was caring for he discovered a profound truth: “What makes us human,” he said, “is not our mind, but our heart; not our ability to think but our ability to love.” The more we love, the more we come to be the people we were always meant to be.
In loving we transform not just ourselves but our relationships. Martin Luther King, who had more reasons than most to reject his enemies, chose the path of love. He said this: “Hatred paralyses life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonises it. Hatred darkens life; love illumines it.” And when we love one another as a community, as a church, that is when we truly come to know what it is to be the church, what it is to be the living, vibrant, alive body of Christ.
And in loving others, we come to understand more of God’s love for us. As we grow in love for others, we find ourselves becoming more receptive to God’s great love for us. We realise that we are divinely loved – loved abundantly, sacrificially, joyfully, freely.
The washing of the disciples’ feet is the pre-cursor of what is to come the following day – the greatest act of love of all. Few websites would suggest it, but true happiness is found in the love we find at the foot of the cross. Let us journey that road together.