We don’t know how to love well. None of us do. We often stunt our understanding of love and limit it to sentimental romanticism or sexual attraction. We treat it as a noun – as if it is a place or state of being with phrases like “falling in love” (as if it were a sinkhole … although at times this may be an apt metaphor!). This isn’t the kind of love that Jesus speaks of in John’s gospel. The love he speaks of is a verb and a willful act of giving oneself, even to death. It is a love which suffers – and great suffering always walks hand in hand with great love.
This night is one of both love and suffering. Jesus is gathered with his closest intimate friends. He knows that one of them is going to sell him out to the authorities – throw him under the bus. He knows he could run away to the Judean hill country and hide out. His followers would have likely applauded that move – “Way to stick it to the man, Jesus!” But he doesn’t run away … he stays right there – right in the middle of this mess. Why? Because real love does not cut and run when things go wrong. Real love presses through, suffers with, takes us into death and does not leave us.
This isn’t “touchy feely” stuff of sentiment. This is the hard road of the cross. Christ this night demands something from us – from you and me. That we love one another with the self-giving love he demonstrated. That we love to the point of losing ourselves – which is a kind of death. It is a death of ego, of selfishness, of wanting life on our terms and our terms alone. It is a death of grudge holding and score keeping that puts us in the sin accounting business instead of the loving business. It is the death of my small pathetic life on this earth so that God can do something so much bigger than anything this pea-brain can imagine. And you know what? I don’t like that idea any more than you do! That’s right. I fight it tooth and nail with a spiritual internal struggle that feels like Sisyphus eternally pushing that boulder up the hill only to have it roll down again … over and over and over.
And yet, like it or not, the way of love unto death is the only way out I have found. Because the truth is, death will come. We know this … and we deny this all the time. I’m not solely referring to physical death – I’m talking about all the kinds of death we experience around us. Death comes in many forms throughout our lives: death of dreams, of hopes, of careers, of our health, of security, of our abilities, of family and friends. Whether we choose to love others as Christ loved us or not, death will come – you can’t stop it.
The love that Christ commands us to show for one another is what transforms dying into something more than just a nihilistic end without meaning. It is dying so that something, or someone, might live and live abundantly. And on this day we not only hear of Jesus washing the disciples feet, but we also hearken to our other gospel accounts that this is the night where Jesus gave a new meaning to the Passover feast. Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples telling them “this is my Body which is given for you.” Jesus himself is the sacrifice who is broken for us and who we receive in the sacrament of the Eucharist. And it is this kind of brokenness to which he calls us – to be broken for a reason … to be broken for love’s sake.
Jesus tells us to love him, love God, love each other and he shows us how to do it. As we partake of his Body and Blood broken and poured out for us, may this be our invitation to also love through our brokenness and be given to others for Christ’s sake.