Get Out Your Towel
A Meditation on John 15: 9 – 17 and 1 John 5: 1 – 6
Did you ever go away to summer camp when you were a kid? Maybe you were a camp counselor. Or maybe, as a parent you have sent a kid off to camp? If so then you remember the list. I’m not talking about the “what to bring to camp list” sent to you to help you pack. I’m talking about every parent’s list of things they need to say to their child, multiple times…This list:
- I love you.
- Wear clean underwear every day.
- Brush your teeth! (more than once!)
- If you want to make a friend, be a friend.
- Swimming is not the same thing as showering.
- Wet clothes don’t go back in the suitcase. Ask for a garbage bag.
- Remember I love you.
- Remember I love you.
- Remember: I. Love. You.
As a child, you listen, with humiliation, as the list of items is ticked off one by one during the ride to camp. (Your friends are listening!) As a parent, you tick off the list with fierce determination. You turn it into a game of “20 Questions.” “What are you going to do every day?? Name three things!” You tuck a paper copy of the verbal list somewhere in their duffle bag, where you desperately hope they will find it – perhaps tucked among the clean underwear. If they don’t find it, maybe the counselor will see it and believe you aren’t a terrible parent…even though your child doesn’t seem to have a toothbrush or enough clean underwear to last the week.
By the time we head off to college, or send a child off to college, the list hasn’t changed that much; it’s just matured a little. “If you don’t call me, I’ll call you,” is usually added.
When faced with a separation, even if it is for a beneficial purpose, we try to say the vital things. “I love you” tops the list… and ends the list as well. Every item on the list is embedded with code. “Brush your teeth!” “Wear clean underwear,” or “call me!” are all code for “I love you.”
When faced with lengthier separations, we are pushed to boil things down to what really matters. Death does this to us. Whenever humanly possible, when faced with the separation that death will bring, we say the crucial things that need to be said. There aren’t very many variations. We say, “I forgive you,” “I’m sorry,” and “I love you.” We say, “I’ll remember you.” Even if we are not sure these words are being heard or understood, we speak them.
Today, as we approach the end of the Easter season, we go back in time to a pre-Easter scene in which Jesus gives the disciples their “camp list.” This conversation takes place in the upper room – yes, that upper room in which they share their last meal time together before Jesus is arrested and abused and executed. He knows what awaits, so He gives them the list of all the things he wants them to remember to do while he is apart from them. He knows the initial separation will be brief, though they still do not understand this truth. He also knows there will be a lengthier separation, and this grieves him. He has so much to say to them (and us!), and none of it is about personal hygiene. Remember, this is the guy who told them not to pack an extra cloak or sandals when they head out. Mary would be shaking her head…and wondering if he listened to anything she taught him! To which we can say to her, “yes, Mary, every time you told him to wash his face, he knew you were saying “I love you.”
Around their Passover table, Jesus drills one word into their heads: love. It’s about love, love, love, love. Jesus is as nervous sending these friends out into the world as a parent is when they send their child away to camp for the first time. Or off to the first day at a new school. Or away to college. So Jesus tells them over and over again to love. Nine times he says the word “love.”
If you happened to keep reading while we were sharing this passage from John together, you noticed the heading for the next passage of text: “if the world hates you.” Jesus speaks of love because he knows that in both the brief separation which is only a day away, and in the lengthier separation to come, the world will try to beat love out of them.
They will be tempted to hate those who take Jesus’ life. They will be tempted to despise the thief on the cross beside Jesus who ridicules their teacher and friend. They will be taunted by fear at every turn, and we know that fear causes one of two responses: fight or flight. Given the choices, they flee; fighting would be futile. They find a place to hide away after Jesus’ death and even in the hours and days after his resurrection. They bury themselves in a tomb of fear, preparing for the end.
They enter their own tomb, a place to hide from the world. Unlike Jesus’ body, their bodies were not anointed with perfumes and spices, with love’s kindnesses. They were bathed in shame and fear, doubt and deep grief. Had Jesus abandoned them? Had anything they had witnessed mattered? Was this all there was?
Until Jesus stepped through that door and resuscitated them, they had no idea what resurrection meant. Jesus literally breathed God’s Spirit over them, breathed God’s breath into them, and they were reborn. This was their first resurrection, as it is for us, when we inhale the breath of God. As no tomb could contain Jesus, no tomb can contain those who love him.
The disciples had to be resurrected in order to believe in resurrection. Having experienced how love’s power could transform their fear, they could then carry this love into the world. Not every disciple is required to be a martyr, although many would die a martyr’s death. But every disciple is commanded to love, and in that upper room, even before he allowed his life to be taken, Jesus demonstrated what God’s love looks like on a daily basis.
Remember this one? Here it is: foot washing.
You know he chose this on purpose! Sure it was a customary practice in the day, but Jesus could have chosen something else…something that doesn’t make us feel squeamish. There was a reason that the practice was that you visited someone’s house and they handed you a basin and towel to wash your own feet. Because it’s icky. Washing dirty, dusty feet.
But we don’t learn much about ourselves and how to love by washing our own feet. We learn about love when we wash the feet of others. Washing the feet of people who irritate us, people who frighten us, and people who might betray or turn against us. Washing the feet of people who don’t understand us and who question us. Washing the feet of people we like and dislike with equal attention and care. This is what love looks like. This is what Jesus demonstrated in that room, and then commanded them – and us – to do.
He took off his robe, wrapped a towel around himself, got down on his knees and washed feet. Clothed only in humility, vulnerability and hospitality. Exchanging power for powerlessness. Exchanging strength for weakness. Exchanging prestige for humility. The savior of the world became the servant of the world. Demonstrating for us all that what the world’s values are far removed from the values of God. With joy and gratitude we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, but that resurrection is meaningless if we do not live it out in love.
Theologian John Kavanaugh writes, “To have or not have rules can be easy. To keep or break commandments can be easy. We can set up our lives in such a manner that we allow no restraint or limit on our egos and desires. We can also legislate our lives so relentlessly that we delude ourselves into thinking that we have actually earned, produced, and now control the love that our scriptures speak of.
But the love revealed in Jesus, simple as it sounds, is terribly arduous. That is why the history of our faith so often reads like a history of our resistance to love.”[i]
“The history of our faith reads like a history of resistance to love”? Is that the legacy we want to leave behind? “Love is terribly arduous” Kavanaugh writes.
Truth. But here’s the beauty of that truth: when we are on our knees, washing the feet of someone in need, if we look over, we will see Jesus beside us, on his knees, washing the feet of another. If we look up, we will see that the feet we are washing belong to Jesus. And in those moments we learn so much about ourselves and the world becomes a gentler place.
Love is arduous.
I confess to watching “chick flicks,” “rom-coms.” You know, romantic comedies. Back in 1993 Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks co-starred in “Sleepless in Seattle.” Ryan’s character is falling in love with the Tom Hank’s character, even though she has only ever heard his voice on radio talk show and is already engaged to someone else. One night she’s watching An Affair to Remember (Cary Grant & Deborah Kerr) with her best friend, Becky. She’s weeping and talking about her love life, comparing it to the movie plot. Becky turns to her and says, “You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.” There’s a difference. One is a fairy tale, written by a poet. The other is the reality of real life, real loving.
Jesus has called us his friends, which is “love” (phileo) in the Greek. Let’s not just love like in a movie, let us love him in truth and action, and by washing lots of dirty feet. That is how we overcome the world’s darkness and brokenness…one pair of feet at time.
May God give us the grace to get down on our knees and scrub until there is no more scrubbing to be done. Amen and amen.
[i] Kavanaugh, John. http://liturgy.slu.edu/6EasterB050618/theword_kavanaugh.html