Sermon for Easter 4B (Good Shepherd Sunday)

John 10:11-18

Last year right after Good Shepherd Sunday, someone posted a video on Facebook depicting an experiment: do sheep really listen to and obey only their master, as Jesus speaks about in chapter 10 of the Gospel of John? I made a mental note to myself to remember that video for use this year on Good Shepherd Sunday, and thankfully the Holy Spirit reminded me to search for that video again and use it today. Some of you who have been around sheep will not be surprised at the results of this experiment, but even though I’ve seen it already, I find myself still amazed at what happens here. So, let’s take a look.

So, this dramatic result of what happens when the farmer calls his sheep helps me to understand what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel when he says that he knows his sheep and his sheep know him, and that they will listen to his voice. But, what struck me this year as I read this text was Jesus talking about other sheep that “do not belong to this fold,” and how he must “bring them also,” and there will be “one flock, one shepherd”. And the questions that I ask are these: How will there be one flock and one shepherd when we Christians are so divided? We all think that we’re listening to Jesus’ voice, and if that is so, why does one person hear Jesus saying one thing, and another hears Jesus saying the exact opposite? Why is it so hard for us Christians to hear the voice of Jesus? And, more than that, why is it so hard for us Christians to agree on what Jesus is saying to the church? And why do we feel the need to condemn those who do not hear Jesus’ voice in the same way that we do? These are questions that I’m not sure have any answers, or at least any good ones, but today I would like to offer my thoughts on them.

The first thought I offer is this: disputes among Christians are not new. Our Thursday morning Bible study has taken up the study of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. And we have re-learned that Christianity, when it started out, was a movement within Judaism. Jesus was Jewish, and the first Christians were Jewish Christians who continued following Jewish laws even after Jesus died and was raised from the dead. Those Jewish laws included keeping kosher, that is, following Jewish dietary laws, and circumcising males. But then, the Holy Spirit began driving them to preach the good news to the Gentiles, that is, those people who were not Jewish. And this question arose: Was it necessary for Gentiles to become Jewish first in order for them to follow Jesus? This was a huge argument, and it was just as divisive to the church as the question of homosexuality is today. It was eventually decided that it was not necessary for Gentiles to first become Jewish, and Christianity became a Gentile faith. Christianity survived that dispute, but at the cost of largely leaving behind the Jewish version of itself, forgetting its Jewish roots, and, over the years, becoming anti-Semitic. And while the church has, in recent years, been working to correct this attitude, it still has a long way to go. So, while Christianity survived this first dispute, it was not without a cost. Just so, the Christian church today will survive whatever disputes divide it, but it will not be without a cost.

So, why do all of these disputes exist? My second thought is this: I have heard a theory, and I believe it largely to be true, that disputes in the church come down to two threads that exist throughout all of Scripture, and those two voices are the voices of Jesus that Christians hear: the command to do what is right and to be holy and pure on the one hand, and on the other the command of Jesus to love one another. While these two things can be done at the same time, more often than not, as we look at the big questions that divide us today, they come into tension with one another, and we end up choosing one side over the other. Some Christians hear Jesus more strongly affirming the moral law and continuing in line with what is taught in the Old Testament, and they follow that voice. Other Christians hear Jesus more strongly giving the morality laws secondary status under the new command to love one another as he has loved us, and that is the voice of Jesus that they follow. So we Christians today divide ourselves up into different sheep folds depending on which voice of Jesus we listen to.

With this being the case, how can we be one flock with one shepherd? And here is my third thought: It’s not up to us to declare who is in and who is out, but rather, it is up to the shepherd. If a person says that he is a Christian, we should provide him the benefit of the doubt. If a person says that she is a Christian, but has a completely different viewpoint from us on whatever issue is dividing us today, then we give her the benefit of the doubt. It should not be up to us to draw lines in the sand over issues that are unclear. The one thing that we should all agree to is this: Jesus Christ is God’s Son, who came to earth as one of us, who loved us enough to die for us on the cross, who rose again on the third day, who still loves us who live 2000 years later, who still shepherds us today, and who will one day come to take us to be with him forever. When other things divide us, we should agree to disagree, and let Jesus sort it out when he comes again.

And here is my fourth thought: There is a difference between the phrases “Christian community” and “Christians in community”. Now, you might think I’m being the academic and splitting hairs on this, but hear me out, please. If I say, “We are a Christian community,” that brings certain images to people’s minds. Perhaps this Christian community doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, dresses modestly, is happy all the time because they think this is what the Bible says that Christians should be, and agrees on everything that their pastor says that the Bible says. Have you ever seen the movie, “The Stepford Wives”? If you have, then you know what I’m getting at. This is the image that comes to mind for me when I hear the phrase “Christian community”. In contrast, if I say, “We are Christians in community,” that gives room for people to be individuals. It gives us room to forgive one another when we mess up. It gives us room to welcome a wandering sheep back into the fold, just as Jesus would do. It gives us room to hear different interpretations of Scripture, and it gives us room to discuss where we think Jesus is calling us. And most importantly, it gives us room to disagree on divisive issues and still agree on what unites us, and to be a part of one flock, with one shepherd.

And, my fifth and final thought: we need one another in community to be able to hear the voice of Jesus. The more liberal folks among us need to have the more conservative voices, so that the community doesn’t get so much into loving one another and serving one another that we forget that we are also called to worship God and to be holy. And the conservative folks among us need the liberal folks to remind us to get outside of our shells, and that loving one another doesn’t mean just loving the folks in our congregations, but also those who are outside of the church. For Jesus has sheep that are outside of the church, too, and he will gather them in as well. And when I say liberal and conservative, I’m not talking simply about the people here at Hope Lutheran. I’m also talking about the different congregations within Powell. Sometimes, our congregations don’t talk to one another very much, which is a shame, since we really are all one flock under one shepherd. The issues that are divisive often prove to be too much for us to bridge. And although we should keep trying to build those bridges, sometimes our sinfulness will be too much to get past. In the end, we have faith that Jesus will come again and bring us all into one flock.

Even though we in our sinfulness divide ourselves into different sheep folds, we are, somehow, mysteriously, all one flock under one shepherd. We need each other to help us hear the voice of our shepherd calling to us and showing us where to go as we tell others about him. So let’s treat one another with kindness. We think we’re on the right side of an issue, but so do they. Let’s hear one another and pray for discernment. And if we can’t resolve the issue, then let us agree to disagree, to remain in different sheep folds for now, but to continue to work together for the good of the community. And let us pray for the day to come when Jesus will return, will utter his call to us, and, like the sheep that we saw in the video, we would all lift up our heads and run to be near him. Amen.


Sermon for Easter 3B

Sermon for Easter 3B

Luke 24:36b-48

Today, the third Sunday of Easter, we have another account of the risen Jesus appearing to his disciples. We who have been Christians for a long time can sometimes take resurrection for granted. We hear about it every year on Easter Sunday itself, and usually for a few Sundays afterward. We joyfully say, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” each week during the Easter season, which lasts for 50 days, by the way. But do we ever think about what resurrection really means? As I was thinking about that this week, this clip from Disney’s 1992 movie “Aladdin” popped into my head. In this scene, the genie tells Aladdin that there are a few wishes he cannot grant. I’d like us to pay attention to the last one, where the genie says he can’t bring people back from the dead. Let’s watch.

And I’d like to ask, “Is this what our culture really thinks resurrection looks like?” Because if so, then perhaps this might explain some of our difficulty in witnessing to other people about Jesus being raised from the dead.

Today’s Gospel text gives us a hint as to what resurrection is going to look like. Jesus comes in to the room where the disciples are sitting and greets them with peace, and they think they’re seeing a ghost. Well, naturally, right? Because the only time we think we see people after they die is as a disembodied spirit. But Jesus offers proof that he is not a ghost—he shows them his hands and his feet, and says, “Touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” This is what resurrection looks like: a body that we can touch. When God raises us from the dead, we will not be disembodied spirits floating from cloud to cloud. We will also have bodies that everyone can see and can touch. And even after this, the disciples are still not believing their own senses, even as a growing sense of joy is overcoming them. And so Jesus offers another proof: he eats a piece of fish. Ghosts don’t eat, after all. And, once Jesus has them convinced that it really is he, he tells the disciples two things—two things that are important still for us to remember today. First, that everything that happened to him had to happen in this way, for all of the Scriptures pointed to Jesus. And second, that the disciples then, and by extension, we today, are all witnesses to Jesus, and that we are to be those witnesses both in our immediate area, and in whatever places God sends us to. And I think that both of these things are interrelated, as we ponder how we are to be witnesses to the people around us of what Jesus has done, and of what resurrection really means.

I’d like to get at this idea today by telling a story. A few days ago, I encountered a woman who told me about her conversion to Christianity from atheism. And as I listened to her, I had this rather unfortunate thought cross my mind: I think I would have liked this person better when she was an atheist than I like her now as a Christian. And here’s why: upon her conversion to Christianity, she seemed to have left her brain at the door. She told me that she felt compelled to witness to people at her place of work whether the people there wanted to hear her or not, and that it didn’t matter to her whether she lost her job or not, because she just knew that the Lord would take care of her. Now, don’t get me wrong, I find her faith and her passion commendable. But I question whether her witness to Jesus is really an effective witness to others. If you were here last week, you heard our bishop’s associate, Jason Asselstine, tell a joke about a priest, a Pentecostal minister, and a rabbi each going out to convert a bear, and what the bear’s response to each method of conversion was. His point in telling that joke is that we have to think about the way in which we witness to others about Jesus, and not simply cling to what we think is the right way. Going back to this lady who was telling me her conversion story, I felt like she had lost touch with the real world, that she had joined a cult, and that she could no longer think for herself. Had I not already been a Christian, her witness would not have compelled me to find out more: I would have shaken my head, gained a bad impression of what Christianity was all about, and gone on my way.

Now, to be fair, since she had just met me, and since she knew nothing about me other than that I was a pastor, she could not have known how her witnessing would turn me off. She was simply excited about her faith and wanted to share it with me. And again, that is commendable. I wish more of us would be that excited about sharing our faith stories! But in order to be good and effective witnesses, we need to know the audience to whom we are speaking. Do they have knowledge of the Scriptures, for instance? If they do, and if they want to discuss Bible verses with us, then great—let’s sit down and talk about the Scriptures! But if they don’t, then hitting them over the head with verses from Scripture that we believe point to Jesus may not be the most effective witness. It is then that we have to find other ways to show them who Jesus is.

As Lutherans, we tend to be shy about telling other people our faith. We are turned off by people like the woman who I encountered this week, and while we may want to witness to other people, we become too afraid that we are going to turn people off. So we go back to this saying that is attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words.” That’s great, but it gives us an excuse to not use words at all to tell people about Jesus. And sometimes, words are necessary. So, how, exactly, are we supposed to do this?

One of my favorite verses from Scripture comes from 1 Peter 3:15-16: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.” Tell people about the hope that you have in Jesus. Tell people that because you have faith that Jesus died and rose again on the third day, you too will one day rise to new life with Jesus. But more than that: tell people that through baptism, you already have begun to walk in that newness of life with him. But don’t hit people over the head with it. Be gentle and reverent, respecting the integrity of the other person, and truly listen to him or her. Answer the person’s questions, and if you don’t know an answer, be honest and say that you don’t know.

Which might be the case when we try to answer what resurrection is going to look like. Our pop culture likes to scare us with pictures like the one from Aladdin, about why the genie doesn’t like to raise people from the dead, or zombies, or any other host of what we call “undead monsters”. But whatever we might not know about what resurrection looks like, we can say with confidence that it will not be like any of those things. Jesus appeared to his disciples not as a disembodied spirit, but as a person with a human body that not only could they see, but also touch; a human body that could eat and digest a piece of fish; a human body that still bore the scars from his crucifixion. It is this hope that we witness to: that one day, we too will be resurrected, and be whole and complete human beings, as God intended for us from the beginning.

“You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells us. This may seem like a daunting task to us as we go out to witness to others about the hope we have in Jesus’ resurrection. But we are not alone as we go out to witness. For some reason today, the lectionary did not include Jesus’ next sentence in the Gospel reading, “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father has promised.” Jesus is speaking of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who is with us and who will give us the words to say when we are presented with a situation in which we are to witness to another person. So let’s not be afraid. Let’s get out there and joyfully, passionately, and intelligently tell other people about the hope that we have in Jesus. Amen.

Sermon for Easter Sunday

Year B, Mark 16:1-8

“When is an ending not the end? When a dead man rises from the tomb—and when a Gospel ends in the middle of a sentence” (Interpretation Commentary: Mark, Lamar Williamson, Jr., 283). Gar. That’s how Mark’s story of Jesus’ resurrection ends, with the Greek word gar, which is a particle meaning “for”. It sounds to us like someone clearing their throat or making a sound of frustration. And the ending of Mark’s Gospel is indeed frustrating for us. We want to find the author, shake him, and say, “What? Did you run out of scroll to write on? Did you just get tired of writing the story? How could you end the story with the women running out of the tomb and not saying anything to anyone about what they had seen? They had to have told someone—otherwise we wouldn’t be here 2000 years after the fact.” But, as much as we would like to think that perhaps someone ripped off the end of the scroll and Mark’s original ending was lost to the sands of time, I believe that Mark actually did mean to end the story the way he did. For he is asking those who are hearing and reading the story a question. And that question is: How will you, disciple of Jesus, end this story? Will you remain silent as these women did? Or will you follow the directions of the young man sitting in the tomb to go and tell others this wondrous news?

So, let’s take a moment and put ourselves in the place of these women. They have just watched their Lord, Jesus, die a horrible death by crucifixion. No one comes back to life after such a death. No one. And because Jesus died on the day before the Sabbath, when no work was allowed, his body had been hurriedly taken down from the cross, wrapped in a linen cloth, and laid in the tomb. The women had not had the opportunity to show their love for Jesus one last time by lovingly anointing Jesus’ body with spices and saying goodbye to him, as well as saying goodbye to their lost hopes and expectations. They were so deep in their grief and so devoted to doing this one last act of love for Jesus that they did not think about the obstacle of rolling the stone away from the tomb until they were already on their way there.

All the women wanted was to say goodbye. Can you imagine the fear when they saw that the stone had already been rolled back from the tomb? Can you imagine the utter amazement and sheer terror when they found a living being in a place where they only expected death? And then, to hear a message that their beloved teacher was not dead, but was instead alive? I would imagine that, if this happened to any one of us after seeing one of our loved ones die, our brains would shut down and not be able to process what we had just seen. We would most likely run screaming out of the tomb and be questioning our sanity. And we would be afraid to tell anyone, too, because we would be afraid that, at best, we would not be believed, and at worst, they would lock us up in a hospital for patients with mental illness.

The idea of resurrection is a frightening thing. We know, deep down, that death is final. And that is the gift that the Gospel of Mark gives us by ending the gospel in the way that he does. With that final gar, that final “dot dot dot” at the end of the sentence, Mark gives us space to confront the idea of what rising from the dead means. He tells us that even though death is not final, the idea of life after death can be even more frightening than death itself. We are so used to hearing the idea that rising from the dead is joyful, we have forgotten what it must have been like to encounter the news that someone had been raised from the dead for the first time. Mark asks us, before we start praising the Lord and singing our Alleluias again, first to put ourselves in the place of these women and ask what we would do if we had encountered a young man in white robes telling us that someone we knew was dead was actually alive.

But that’s not all that Mark asks us to do. He challenges us to get over our fear, our terror, and our amazement, and to understand that the resurrection is wonderful, joyous news. He challenges us to go one better than the women and to do what they did not. He challenges us to follow the young man’s instructions and go out to spread the news that at last, death does not have the final word on our lives: God does. God, who created us and who loves us so much that he sent Jesus to die for us and then to raise him from the dead, so that we might have that promise and that hope that one day, we too will be raised from the dead. One day we, too, will be alive with Christ and with all of our family and friends who have gone before us.

Resurrection is a game changer. Without the resurrection, Jesus would have only been a good rabbi, whose teachings we would strive to follow and whose miracles we would either ponder or discount completely. And there are people today who think that this is all Jesus was. We don’t have this section of 1 Corinthians 15 in our second lesson today, but I think it’s powerful enough to quote it here: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. . . . If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. . . . If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” If the only reason that we do good things in this life is because we are simply trying to do what Jesus told us to, then what hope is there in that?

But resurrection is a game changer. Paul goes on to write, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” We follow in the Way of Jesus Christ because we have hope in the resurrection. We have hope that, no matter what happens to us in this world, we will one day be raised to new life in the new creation where all things will be well, where there will be no more mourning or crying or pain, where God will wipe away all the tears from our eyes, and where death will be no more.

With such a great hope and with such great news to share with the world, we need not be afraid to go out and tell everyone about Jesus and about what he has done for us, and about the hope that we have. Death does not have the final word! We will live again, even after death! Nothing can separate us from the love of God! But, if we need more reassurance even than this, we can look at the angel’s message for us once more. “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Just as Jesus went ahead of his disciples to Galilee, so he goes ahead of us, his present-day disciples, into whatever places and situations he has called us to be present in. And whatever those situations are, we will see Jesus there, for he is there waiting for us, to reassure us of his presence and to bring comfort.

So, what are we waiting for? What are we afraid of? Yes, we can have space to be afraid and to grieve. But we have been issued a challenge. We need to do what the first women at the tomb could not do. We need to get over our fear and to joyfully and boldly spread the news that Jesus is risen, and that we, too, will one day rise from the dead to new life. We need to trust that Jesus has gone ahead of us and will be present in every place we go in life, and that he will be present when we die, as well. That frustrating gar at the end of Mark’s story can now be transformed into the phrase “to be continued”. Death is not the end, after all, but simply a doorway into a new beginning. How will we, Jesus’ disciples 2000 years later, continue the resurrection story? Dot, dot, dot. Amen.

Sermon for Good Friday

I saw a picture on Facebook this week that grabbed my attention. The reason I noticed it was that it was a picture of a Nativity scene, which I thought was out of place at this time of year. And the caption read, “We know how to prepare for a birth. But do we know how to prepare for a death?” And I think that is a fitting question for us to ponder on this Good Friday evening.

On the one hand, there are some things that we do to prepare for death. We write wills, so we can be sure that what money we have left is used to pay off debts and can go to provide for our family members who outlive us. We make sure that, if we die before our children are grown, there is someone that we trust who will care for them. And with the advance of medical technology, we are starting to make sure that we have living wills as well, so that our families know how best to care for us if we are incapable of making those decisions. Some of us even plan out our funerals before we die—which, as a pastor, I highly recommend that you do.

But, does that make us any more prepared for a death when it comes? Jesus’ disciples thought that Jesus was the Messiah who would liberate the people of Israel from Roman oppression. That may have been why Judas had decided to betray Jesus to the officials—perhaps he thought he could get a rebellion started that way. No one was prepared for Jesus to actually die, and even as he was dying, they may perhaps have been expecting him to perform a miracle, come down from the cross, and demonstrate that he was, in fact, God’s Son. No one thought he would actually die.

And even when we, today, prepare ourselves for death by making a will, a living will, planning our funerals, and all the rest of it, we are never prepared for it when it comes. Every death around us means that we have to confront our own mortality and admit that one day we, too, will die. And we don’t like to do that. We like to live with the illusion that we will live forever, that things will go on as they have always gone on, that the people we have around us will always be there, for good or ill. We cannot imagine, and we don’t want to imagine, the possibility of no longer existing in this world.

We have built a culture around denying death. Instead of naming it a “funeral,” we call it a “celebration of life”. Despite the fact that at most funerals, there are joyous moments as we remember fun times with the deceased person, there is plenty of sadness and tears, too, so I personally would not characterize this event as a “celebration”. I think “celebration of life” is a euphemism we use to try to soften the word “funeral,” and everything else that goes along with the word “death”. What’s even worse, I think, is those who do not want any kind of funeral or memorial service at all, for I think that is, again, not only denying the living the opportunity to remember the good times and to mourn the loss, but also denying the living the necessary opportunity to confront their own mortality.

Good Friday is about confronting death. Good Friday is about remembering those first disciples, who did not know that there would be more to the story. Despite what Jesus had said in his life here on earth, the disciples did not understand that he would rise from the dead. They saw Jesus being crucified. They testified that he was, indeed, dead. They thought that, with the death of their rabbi, it was all over for their fledgling movement. Their hopes, their dreams, their expectations were completely shattered.

But the good news is this: God is still present in death, and God will not let death have the last word. So, this evening, I invite you to reflect on those whom you have loved who have died, and to remember them this night. I invite you to bring all of your shattered hopes, dreams, and expectations and lay them at the foot of the cross. I invite you to experience that feeling of, “What will we do now?” that those first disciples felt. I invite you to argue with God and to rage at God. But most of all, I invite you to experience God’s great love for you and for each person on this earth, the love that sent Jesus to the cross to die for us. And I invite you to let God have the last word in your lives—that, even though one day each one of us will die, God and God’s love for us will have the last word. Amen.

Maundy Thursday Sermon

Note: This sermon is reworked from one that I preached several years ago at my teaching parish in Pennsylvania.

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Have any of you ever participated in the rite of foot washing, at this church or another church? It’s not without some controversy in Lutheran circles. After all, foot washing doesn’t have quite the same meaning in 21st century America as it did in 1st century Palestine. Some congregations have substituted washing one another’s hands instead of washing feet, but I don’t think that carries the same kind of meaning as washing feet. After all, we see one another’s hands all the time. Most of us keep our hands clean, because it’s been drilled into us that that is the best way to prevent the spread of disease. Feet, on the other hand, are a different matter entirely. Most people keep their feet covered up against the cold and for protection from hard sidewalks, roads, and bumpy, dirty fields. Feet have calluses, corns, dry skin, and possibly ingrown toenails. If a person wears sandals during the summer, feet can get dirty, and if a person wears socks and shoes, feet can smell bad when those shoes and socks are removed. While it doesn’t carry the same meaning today as it did in 1st century Palestine, washing feet today is still, generally speaking, a private act, something that a person does when he or she is alone.

Several years ago, at my home congregation, Grace Lutheran in Waynesboro, Virginia, I was asked to help out with our Maundy Thursday foot washing rite. The pastor who was there at the time was a man, and he thought it would be better to have both a man and a woman washing feet, so people would feel as comfortable with this as possible. Not only was this the very first time that I had ever had my feet washed, this was also the very first time that I had washed anyone else’s feet. And while I was eager to help and to experience this, I was also very nervous about the whole thing. I was nervous about having my own feet washed. I was worried that my feet, while relatively clean, would smell bad. Had I remembered to cut my toenails? There was no dirt lodged under the nails or in between my toes, was there? My feet are also extremely ticklish. What happened if, when pastor washed my feet, I started laughing in the middle of this solemn rite? And if I was worried about these things, imagine the people who would come forward to have this done. Wouldn’t they be nervous about the same things? It would be a wonder if anyone would come forward to participate in this rite, I thought.

In Jesus’ time, washing feet was a lot messier than our enactment of it during worship is. For us, foot washing is a rite or remembrance. When we allow someone else to do this for us during worship, we usually try to wash our feet beforehand with soap that smells like lavender, vanilla, citrus, or any other kinds of sweet smells. In Jesus’ time, foot washing was a lot more serious. People would walk on the dusty roads in sandals along with animals being driven to market or to sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem. If you think our feet smell bad today, just imagine how bad they would have smelled after walking along the roads in sandals and stumbling into some kind of animal droppings. No wonder this job was left to the lowest of the servants in a household! Who would want to handle the feet of a stranger who had been only God knows where?

And yet Jesus does this menial, messy job for his disciples on the night in which he will be handed over to the authorities to ultimately be crucified. This foot washing was not only an act of service. Through this one act, Jesus was again trying to teach the disciples who he was and what he had come to earth to do. Verse 4 of this text says that Jesus “took off” his outer robe, and verse 12 says he “put on” his robe. A better translation of the Greek would be that Jesus laid his robe down and took his robe up again, just as he would lay his life down in a few short hours and take it up again three days later. Through washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus was telling them once more that he would be willingly laying down his life for his friends, but that he would take it up again once more.

But there is something in between the laying down of Jesus’ robe—his life—and his taking it up again that he must do. He must do this act of washing the disciples’ feet. The disciples’ smelly, dirty feet that may have some kind of ingrown toenails going on. This is a messy, dirty act. So appalled is Peter that his Lord and Master, Jesus, is going to do this to him, that he protests that Jesus will never wash his feet. In this messy, dirty act of foot washing, Jesus is showing his disciples what kind of messy, dirty act he will undertake in just a few short hours to save them and the entire world. The cross looms close for Jesus now. He would be forced to drag the instrument of his own death through the streets of Jerusalem. He would have nails driven through his hands and his feet to hold him to the cross, and the physical cause of his death would be either severe loss of blood or asphyxiation, or both. Our salvation came through a messy, dirty act of sweat-ridden, blood-ridden torture. And through washing the disciples’ feet, another menial, messy, dirty act, Jesus was showing his disciples what he would go through out of the love he bore for them and for the entire world.

After Jesus has finished this messy, dirty act, and has “taken up” his robe again, he gives the disciples two related commandments. First, he says, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Later, Jesus tells them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” What does this kind of love look like for us today? Is it simply the act of physically washing one another’s feet? Or is it something more than that? The suffering that Jesus undergoes for us is called his Passion. When we hear the word “passion” in a secular context, we often think about the physical love between two people that is peddled on Valentine’s Day. But Jesus’ Passion is something completely different, and it is something that we will never be able to quite duplicate. Can we imagine the passionate love that would give itself up to a death by excruciating torture for the sake of the beloved? And yet, this is the type of passionate love that Jesus calls his disciples to, then and now. This is not the type of love that secular culture promotes on Valentine’s Day. This is the type of love that keeps a woman caring for her husband of 65 years who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, who no longer knows who the woman is who’s caring for him. This woman should have given him up to the care of a nursing home long ago, but she unselfishly continues to care for him out of the love she still has for the man he once was. This is the type of love that a mother has who watches as her child slowly dies from a disease that the doctors can do nothing to stop, as she holds the child and suffers with her, wishing that she could take the child’s place so that her child could live. It is the type of love that keeps a devoted son at the bedside of his father day in and day out as his father dies from cancer. And it is the type of love that a man showed once to me when I was in a place of despair, as he sat with me and reassured me that I was loved by God and beautiful in God’s eyes. There is nothing pretty about this type of love. It is messy, it is dirty, it suffers—and this is the type of love that Jesus calls us to have for one another.

All of this Jesus conveys to us in the seemingly simple act of washing his disciples’ feet, and the seemingly simple command to love one another. Should we Christians continue to have a foot washing rite 2000 years after Jesus first did this for his disciples? When I did this for the first time back in Virginia, it was extremely meaningful for me. I think when the pastor washed my feet, I felt very vulnerable and humbled that he would do that. When I washed his feet and the feet of those in the congregation who came to me that evening, I felt a sense of love and gratitude for each of those people and their unique personalities. It may not have been the type of passionate love that Jesus calls us to have for one another, but I pray that it was a start. So in other words, I think the rite of foot washing has a lot to recommend it, even in 21st century North America. But more important is the meaning behind this washing of feet—to remember the sacrificial, passionate love of Jesus that sent him to the cross for the sake of his beloved—us. And then to find ways to show that kind of love to our brothers and sisters in Christ, even in the messiest and dirtiest of situations. Amen.