A God Who Loves

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[Jesus said:] “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” (John 13:34-35).

“Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet” by Ford Madox Brown

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Children know the song “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” Every power is at His disposal. Every authority under heaven and earth is His. He has created everything. And He holds everything in His eternal hands. And now, “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 will He do with those hands? He will remove the clothes with which He, the eternal God, is garbed. He will lay them aside, take up a bowl of water, and use His divine hands to remove the sandals from the dirty, travel-worn feet of His disciples. And 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 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 the person of Jesus, God joined to human flesh, God has hands. And feet. And eyes, ears, fingers, lungs, nostrils, teeth, legs, fingernails, and cuticles. And with these, He descends to take up the feet of sinful men into His hands.

You can understand Peter’s protest. His God should not wash his feet. This is scandalous—conduct 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 with 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 purport to follow such an incarnate God. “You shall never wash my feet!” So 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 he must have known viscerally that this was all wrong. Washing feet is not what the Christ should do, not what a god should do. This is slave labor, a servant’s task. If God descends to take human flesh and then stoops to the lowest position, the foot-washing place, 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, “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 humiliating. You’ll abide 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.

This 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 man onto your own hands so that he 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, then. Who does that? No one. And yet, “As I have loved you,” is pretty absolute. Jesus loves perfectly and doesn’t wait for your love toward others 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, will flee to save their own lives. Behold the man who loves the unlovable, the rebellious, the sinful. Behold 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 man. 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 as His own body. Behold the man who poured His blood into the loveless 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 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 the man. 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.

Except for now. We find ourselves quarantined from one another and separated from the Lord’s Supper for a time. We are on a sort of forced “Lenten fast” from Holy Communion. I pray that you are getting hungry for the body and blood of our Savior, hungry for the table fellowship of your brothers and sisters in Christ. Take a rain check. Make sure to join us when we are able to gather again.

As we wait for that day, we are learning. We are learning to be patient, to wait on the Lord and His good timing. We are learning that we do not live by bread, or even The Bread, alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. God is extravagant with His Word, and He speaks to us in many ways—Baptism, Scripture, preaching, Absolution, Supper, and the mutual consolation and conversation of believers. Though we may be without one form, we are never without the Word.

We are learning that our idols have feet of clay and cannot withstand the Day of the Lord. Science may flatten a pandemic curve, but it cannot sustain an economy or a community, much less our spirits. Our leaders, whether in home, church, or society, are not our saviors; they are mere fallible morals who cannot save us from the ultimate threats of sin and death. Politicians and pastors are not omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent. Only God can ultimately save us and has, in the dying and rising of His Son.

We are learning that Christ is not only present in our gathering but also within us, in the very core of our beings, what the Scripture calls the “heart.” “I no longer live, but Christ lives within me,” wrote the apostle Paul. In the contemplative silence of social distancing, we find that Christ is truly “with us”—both among us and in us—now and always and unto the ages of ages.

We are learning to be Christ for others and to see Christ in others. The body of Christ in exile is the body of Christ in each of its members, a royal priesthood of believers. As Luther put it, we are to be Christ for one another and our neighbor, particularly our neighbor in need. And in our neighbor, we will also find Christ there to be served. “As often as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto Me,” Jesus said.

[Jesus said:] “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” (John 13:34-35).

There is a danger—the danger of assimilation, becoming comfortable with the new normal of exilic life. When the edict of Cyrus allowed the Israelites to go back and establish the walls of Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, the return was not a flood but a trickle. The Israelites had grown comfortable in their Babylonian neighborhood and no longer hungered for Jerusalem. This will be our test as well. Will we become comfortable on our living room couches in this time of exile, or will we devote ourselves, to the Word and prayer, longing to return to the gathering and the Supper we once took for granted?

The Lord has sustained His people in the past, and He will sustain us in the same way—by His Word and the gift of prayer. Even if we never again gather in this life around Word and Supper, we know that our scattering ends in a final great gathering of the marriage supper of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end.

Short of that Day, I hope to see you again soon, face to face. Amen.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen

The last portion of this sermon is adapted from a blog posted by William Cwirla. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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