Devin, Nick, Denise, and Tom delivered a sermon during today’s Maundy Thursday service! As I listened to them meditate on what it meant for Jesus to wash his disciples’ feet and how to love unconditionally, I was reminded of all the work that each of the Marsh Associates put into writing it, as well as the courage and practice it took for Devin, Nick, Denise, and Tom to deliver it. I’d like to share their words here for you this week.
The Call to Love
Usually, when you are about to be betrayed by someone, your natural response is not to wash their feet. or buy them food, or care about their well-being in any way. If someone mocks you behind your back, your first thought is not to buy them froyo.. If someone steals your essay and says it is theirs, the last thing you look to do is offer to help them with another assignment..
If someone is about to sell you out to be executed on a cross, you likely won’t consider washing their feet.
And yet, here you see, in John 13, Jesus does that.
You might be able to brush it off if someone is being rude; there might be serious academic consequences if someone turns in the same assignment as you, but whether results are simply unpleasant or truly dire, we have an example from Jesus in John 13 that teaches us how to react to betrayal.
Both Jesus’s footwashing and the supper after creates the chance for renewal, the possibility for a fresh start. Jesus’s love and service extends even to those who are about to hand him over and deny him, and offers renewal even in the depths of betrayal.
In washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus appears to be in a position of little power even though he is the most powerful individual in the room. Through his service and dedication to others he evokes the power that makes Mary drop to her knees and use her hair to wash the feet of her savior. She sees that he is truly God. Jesus is The Word fulfilled. Jesus fulfills the purpose of the Law, and shows us God in action.
His action reflects the full manifestation of the Love of God, which seems weird and impossible for us to also reflect. Contemporary poet Jermaine Cole writes in his work “love is wanting more for someone than they want for themselves.” Taking this definition from Jermaine Cole, Jesus loves a lot. Jesus’s love wants more from us than we want from ourselves. Jesus wants us to be able to love even those we don’t want to love. Despite his impending death, Jesus wants those who are about to fail him to love more. Jesus wants that of us, too.
The odd thing about the way Jesus is portrayed in John is that his actions seem not only weird to us, but they seem impossible. It’s hard to live like Jesus.
I mean, like, can we do what He does? He’s Jesus. I am not Jesus.
This idea of being Christ-like seems impossible for anyone who is imperfect, and we as human beings are imperfect — at least I know I am. His actions seem unnatural, impossible, for us.
So I am left with this internal conflict. I am called to live like Jesus, but I am not Jesus. I am just a simple, imperfect human being.
But Jesus is also human. In this passage, he does very human things like spending time with friends, washing, and eating. He is a human being, and his actions tell a brighter, more beautiful tale about what it means to truly be human.
In making our beloved Christ more human in this passage, the author is not making a commentary by playing Jesus down. Rather, he is bringing all of humanity up. Despite all of this messiness and betrayal happening here, this passage is optimistic about humanity. It forces a tension about what is precisely impossible for humans. Is it really impossible? I mean, Jesus does say in John 14 “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” In believing in this optimism, we can genuinely attempt to live like Christ, and this is what the disciples are called to do.
Jesus washes the feet of everyone present of all the disciples. The footwashing is an act of love that breaks down the barriers between Jesus and his disciples. Peter is so human; he isn’t able to see the big picture, to see who Jesus is and what he’s doing. But Jesus breaks down this barrier of misunderstanding. Judas is so human, because he succumbs to the pressure and gives in to weakness, pursuing the temporary instead of the eternal. Jesus breaks down this barrier of betrayal, and he performs the same act of love for Judas.
As Jesus cleanses their feet, he recognizes their humanity and loves them despite their failures. In many ways this action seems unimaginable. However, this love, that Jesus exemplifies, is what he calls us to show to a flawed world.
Though the love Jesus Christ shows to his disciples is a high standard there are moments when ordinary people can exhibit this love. These moments can take many forms, but they typically include the radical choice to love despite the boundaries between them.
1.2 miles of Commonwealth Avenue divide the students who live in West and East campus here at BU. In fact, the opposite sides of campus encompass very different lifestyles. East campus enjoys delicacies served by The Late Night Kitchen while West settles for lukewarm pitas served until 2 am. An East Campus student’s workout usually consists of running to the Fitness and Recreation center while West campus students prefer using the treadmills provided inside the facility. West campus residents generally set their alarms 30 minutes early in order to make it to their classes in CAS on time, whereas East Campus students roll out of bed and find themselves just outside of their classroom doors. At times, it seems as though students in East and West campus only share the distinction of being sleep deprived scholars of Boston University. But it is here at Marsh Chapel, the midpoint of East and West campus, that we share a brief hour together on Sunday mornings. We meet in the middle of our differing residences, perspectives, and beliefs to share in love as a united body, just as Jesus did with his disciples.
But what exactly do we mean by love? It is a powerful word but it is also ambiguous. In English, the word “love” encompasses affection, admiration, appreciation, attraction, infatuation, care, passion, and even friendship. English puts a lot of ideas under that single umbrella term love, but Greek, the language of the New Testament, has four words to describe different types of love. From the tenderness you feel for your sister or brother, who may drive you crazy once in a while, to the way you feel toward the friend who has known you since birth, remembering that one story you’d rather forget. To the the physical and romantic attraction we feel for those we put a part of ourselves out there for. But the pinnacle of love is a term called agape. Agape refers to an unconditional love that flows between the Divine and humanity and transcends boundaries among people. When Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you, you should love one another,” he uses the word agape twice. The first time he uses it speaks to the unconditional love that Jesus has for his disciples, and by extension the love that the Divine has for all of humanity. The second time he uses agape, however, it takes on additional meaning. Now agape stands for an unconditional love between people as well, not just love from the Divine. When you think about it, Jesus’ last commandment to his disciples carries a difficult task with it: to love each other unconditionally, just as Jesus loved them. He is asking them to take something from their relationship with the Divine and apply it to their relationship with other people. This is difficult because human relationships are often messy. Each of us may love one another, but we also disagree with, misunderstand, and hurt each other. How can we love one another unconditionally, when the ones we are supposed to love might be people we don’t know, or even people who have hurt us?
This kind of love can be the most difficult to spot on a regular basis, because so often it appears in small acts of kindness. It comes with students who stand out on the plaza on Fridays to give hugs to anyone who would like one. It manifests in a stranger taking time out of their day to help you when you’re injured, lost, or when you’ve dropped all your belongings on the ground. At the same time, agape appears in moments of deeper connection with people. It emerges when you sit down and listen to someone you strongly disagree with to have a conversation, and you both walk away with increased respect and understanding for each other. And perhaps even a changed perspective. Agape is the love that arises if you come to terms with someone you’ve had a falling out with years ago, and you both are able to forgive each other.
Agape is a love that respects, a love that listens, and a love that heals rifts between people.
Loving one another unconditionally can start with small actions, actions that respect the light and humanity that exists within all people. This could be anything from acknowledging the complaints of a coworker who always just seems to get on your nerves to simply smiling at people as you pass by them (something that is difficult to do in New England, I realize). These small actions can build to larger ones, such as starting a conversation with someone you haven’t spoken to in years, because their comments or actions have deeply hurt you in the past. Importantly, showing agape toward each other does not mean you love others unconditionally without loving yourself, nor does it mean that you should ignore or forget the harm that others have done to you in the past. Agape involves recognizing the humanity that exists in all people (yourself included), and caring about that humanity through your actions, however small they may be.
Jesus gave his disciples a commandment, and with that commandment he gave them a challenge: how do you overcome potential conflict and pain that humans experience to show love for them? One tool that we have to overcome this challenge is our ability to understand one another’s emotions. Empathy helps us to take on someone else’s perspective, and in the process develop an understanding of what their experiences and emotions feel like. The word itself, when broken down, means “feeling in.” When you are empathizing with someone else’s experience, you are literally “feeling into” their perspective. In that process, you are attempting to acknowledge that they are a also a human being with just like you with thoughts, feelings, insecurities, cares, and desires. You are feeling into the common humanity you share and the different experiences they have had, and in the process you are validating both. This is the part of agape that can heal divides between different people, while acknowledging those differences.
This healing and transcending of divides was experienced by our colleague Kasey Shultz on her Alternative Spring Break trip this past March. She writes: Over spring break, I traveled with 8 other BU students and one staff member to Macon, GA to work with an organization that performs housing repairs for elderly and disabled residents of Macon. The trip was meaningful in many ways but the thing that stands out to me the most is the way in which this trip bridged divides–divides within BU but also larger divides in society: Personally, as a second-semester senior, I don’t interact with sophomores, like, ever but by the end of the trip, I had spent more time in close proximity to the seven sophomores on the trip than I had in close proximity to some of my BU friends that I’ve known for years. We had students from both west and east campus, from Questrom and the College of Arts and Sciences, from the west and east coast. We also bridged more contentious gaps, as a group of liberal millenials from the Northeast worked with conservative baby boomers from the South. In our evening reflections as a group, we talked about how our stereotypes were being challenged and marveled at the extreme hospitality that we were experiencing. Throughout the week, those boundaries that we had clung to so fastidiously were dismantled one by one This trip reminded me that life is never black and white and that it’s a lot easier to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’ when we never get to know exactly who ‘them’ is.
In this passage from John, Jesus does not call us to tolerate, he does not call us to surround ourselves with people we agree with, he does not call us to stay in our comfort zones, he does not call us to try to improve the people around us–he calls us to love. And he does not call us to love ‘them’—he calls us to love one another. Because when we truly love–deeply and without reservation or judgment–those boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ melt away.
As made apparent by walking down Commonwealth Avenue and crossing the BU bridge, or even looking around here in the Nave, we are not one homogenous group of people. We have different backgrounds both ethnically and religiously. How does that play into love? Does it matter? Quite frankly, in an interreligious setting: absolutely.
Our limited ability to conceptualize the magnitude of our reach inhibits us from realizing that our Christian neighbors are just one street in a collective of neighborhoods that create a global religious community.
In the soon to be published “Free Text to Life: Religious Resources for Interreligious Engagement” Jennifer Howe Peace writes: “Love is a profound and remarkable resource for interfaith work. It often clusters with a whole host of other dispositions that enable authentic engagement across lines of difference: humility, curiosity, forgiveness and hope to name a few. It allows us to say, as this story illustrates, ‘I may not agree with you, but I love you so I’m listening.’”
Love permeates the divide among groups. Loving someone selflessly does not mean you have to ignore or disregard past differences between you and them. You love them by acknowledging and taking on these differences in an attempt to understand them.
There are two extreme ways to deal with conflict or differences in understanding. There’s reacting with pure feeling — you know, where we love those for whom we feel love and we hate those for whom we don’t. Conflict and differences provoke strong emotions in us.
The other extreme is to just give up and not care at all. The differences between us and them are just too big and overwhelming, so why bother even acknowledging their existence? The conflict is too much, so it’s better to just avoid it.
These are the very human tendencies we have, and they both lead to stereotyping and stigmatization. But agape love, while extreme in it selflessness, is a happy medium between feeling everything and feeling nothing. This kind of love helps us overcome the pain of conflict and difference by acknowledging and bearing it. This kind of love is something in between, it’s about understanding the differences you have with someone else and loving them anyways.
If you were to engage with someone who has never met a Christian before, what would you want their immediate impression to be of you? Ignorant, indifferent, simply tolerant? No. That person should remember you for your love.
Our Marsh community tries to be a real, loving heart in the heart of the city, an inclusive center for all, including gay, straight, bi, trans, queer, or unsure. You hear this most Sundays and it is predicated on love. As your feet are washed today, or as you wash someone else’s feet today, recognize that these are acts of love for all who wish to follow the example Jesus sets for us. The motivation behind Jesus’ initial act? Agape. Love.