April 1, 2021: Maundy Thursday
One of the many books that we read with Hazel is a book called “What is love, Biscuit?” Now, Biscuit is a little yellow puppy who belongs to this little girl; the two of them are the main characters of the story. And this early reader’s book repeats the same question on each page: “what is love, Biscuit?” And a reply is always there: it’s the soft blanket the cat uses to warm its kittens. It’s the crunchy cookies we bake with Dad. It’s the warm woolen blanket Grandma knits. It’s the sweet kisses Biscuit shares with the little girl. Love is this nice, warm thing that makes everyone feel nice.
We explore the idea of love a lot in our culture. It’s a feeling between two people that makes a relationship last, the kind of love that gets repeated in weddings and in romantic movies and shows up on Hallmark cards. Love is the warmth of a truly supportive friendship, the trust you build with a person who’ll be with you through thick and thin and always has your back. Love is the constant bedrock of family, even when you don’t like everyone all the time. Love gets thousands of songs and poems and movies, all trying to present a particular way of understanding love. But what happens when we ask Jesus what love is?
Because that’s what he’s talking about to his disciples tonight. Not just talking though; he’s showing first. We know this scene: he takes off his outer robe, wraps a towel around himself, and washes his disciples’ feet. That’s love. That’s the love that Jesus calls his disciples to have. Jesus humbled himself in a way that would have embarrassed—not just shocked—his disciples. It’s not a warm, fuzzy love, but a bold, shocking, world-changing love. But what does that mean to us, when we don’t do this foot washing thing—and in fact, we don’t have a ready example of something we all agree is utterly beneath our dignity to do for someone else? How can we really grasp just how completely offensive the love that Jesus calls on us to embody actually is?
That love, Jesus’ own love, commands us to see whole people. And while that may seem easy enough, it’s far too easy for us to turn people into ideas, or stereotypes, or lists of qualities, or statistics that are much easier to ignore or dismiss. It’s easier to ignore the humanity of people if we label them criminals and shut them away in prisons. It’s easier to pretend it’s justifiable to have school lunch debt if we paint it as the parents’ fault for failing to provide. It’s easier to dismiss systemic racism if we assert that history has no effect on a person. It’s harder to see the hurt and pain and struggle of each individual human being, and ask what love is calling you to do about it.
It’s all part of what Jesus said about the new commandment. “Love one another, just as I have loved you.” How Jesus loved us. How Jesus loves us. Jesus’ love isn’t just a sentimental warm feeling. The love that he embodies, how God so loved the world, is terrifying in its scope. It’s the kind of love that takes centuries-long hatreds between Jews and Samaritans and erases them in a moment, centering the dignity of other people before the pride of old grudges. It’s the kind of love that flips tables and damages merchandise because the greed of the few is killing the needy many. It’s the kind of love that feeds thousands without fretting over encouraging dependency or taking any consideration of whether they are worthy of such charity or not. It’s the kind of love that looks into the eyes of the one he knows for a fact will betray him, and washes his feet anyway. It’s the kind of love that will so fundamentally change the world that it must be killed, now, brutally, so no one gets any ideas.
The love Jesus commands of us is a challenge, because sentimental love is so much easier. It’s easier to share love with people who are likeable, who are near us, who are in our circle of people, who agree with our worldview or share our values. That sentimental love doesn’t expect us to do anything. If I can say I love my neighbor, but am never asked to do anything for them, what does love mean, exactly? How is that answering Jesus’ commandment that he embodied in washing his disciples’ feet? Sentimental love doesn’t change anything. But the love Jesus commands changes everything.
And that kind of love—the kind of love that makes an impact on the world, that makes us ask the question of who are these human beings we are called to love—that kind of love is dangerous. Because we may not like change much as individuals (this past year reminded us of that), but the Powers are existentially threatened by it. If we loved the way Jesus loves, then suddenly the Powers can no longer justify violence against others. The Powers can no longer get us to hate. The Powers can no longer harness our fears so we won’t argue when the poor, the marginalized, the demonized, and the broken are targeted because at least they’re not the ones we love.
But that is the love that Jesus commands of us. He commands us to love like he loves, to see the people who are hurting, who are striving, who are groaning under the weight of the world. He commands us to take off our outer robe of sentimentality, of valuing respectability over dignity, of the freedom to generalize that lets us do nothing for our neighbor, and put on the robe of servant love that asks something of us.
So as you contemplate the Passion of our Lord this week, consider how his actions call you to act out the love he’s given you, and do it. Share hope. Humanize the other. Fight for justice. Weep with the weeping. Rejoice with the joyful. And see others.
Thanks be to God. Amen.