It is the last night of Jesus’ earthly life, the last time he will have dinner with his friends. The specter of betrayal and death is hanging over him.
So how does he spend this last meal with his friends, this last time together? Does he rail against the forces that will soon arrest him and hand him over to be tortured and executed? Does he air a list of grievances, give his friends warnings about how they are to avenge what is about to happen?
No. On this last night of his life, Jesus acts and speaks of love.
First, he acts. He gets up from the table, gets a towel, basin, and pitcher, and without a word begins to wash the feet of his friends.
In Jesus’ day the feet were considered the most unclean part of the body. That was physically true – people wore sandals or walked barefooted on hot, dusty roads and their feet got very dirty.
But it was also symbolically true. Even today in many Asian and Middle Eastern countries it is considered an insult to point your feet at someone. And even more so to expect someone to touch your feet.
While it was considered polite and hospitable to offer one’s guests a chance to rinse their hot, dusty feet, the washing was the work of a servant or slave. It was certainly not the work of someone called Teacher or Lord.
In washing his friends’ feet, Jesus is showing them how to give of themselves, how to empty themselves to lovingly help another.
Just in case they didn’t get it, Jesus also put it in words.
“I give you a new commandment,” Jesus tells us this night, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
In just a few hours, Jesus will be betrayed by a kiss, and sent to his death. But what he wants us to remember is love.
Centuries later we gather to remember Jesus’ last night with the specter of betrayal and death hanging over us.
Who knows if an innocent kiss, or a handshake or hug has transmitted an unseen virus that could lead to illness or death?
Tonight we all fear that possibility, if not for ourselves, then for someone we love.
When faced with fear and the possibility of death, what should we do? Jesus says we should remember his command to love one another.
And so tonight I’d like to hold up some of the love I’ve seen in the midst of this pandemic – some small gestures, some grand, all examples of Jesus’ command to us.
I’ll start with the obvious. We’re not where we should be tonight. I’m sitting at my dining room table, not standing behind a lectern or altar. You’re sitting somewhere in your house instead of at church.
Some say this is an act of fear. I prefer to see it as an act of love. We are coming together by staying apart. We are protecting those we love by distancing ourselves from them. It is not easy; it’s not particularly fun. But it is a profound act of caring.
I see acts of love in our community when restaurant owners, wondering whether their businesses will survive, still take meals as a gift to show gratitude to first responders and hospital workers.
Those first responders, medical care workers, pharmacists, janitors, grocery store employees, and so many others continue to work throughout the pandemic – not just to get a paycheck, but to serve their community, even when their own lives are at risk. No matter what their religious beliefs may be, their actions show the love of God.
We’ve witnessed acts of love on a grand scale, too – like the morning this week that shoppers during the senior hour at 44 grocery stores in Atlanta and 29 in New Orleans found out their groceries were free, paid for by the Atlanta Angel, who turned out to be our local movie mogul Tyler Perry.
One of the greatest acts of love I’ve read about this week is in New York, where the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, is being turned into a field hospital in the fight against the coronavirus.
Chairs and pews have been removed from the 600 foot long nave and replaced with nine tents filled with hospital beds that will hold more than 200 people.
They may not be having services at the Cathedral this Holy Week, but they are living out Jesus’ commandment to love one another.
All of these acts – small and large – are a reflection of God’s love, a love that surrounds and cares for us without ceasing.
This week one of my musical heroes, songwriter and singer John Prine, died from the coronavirus. Many of his songs deal with issues of life, love, and death. I’m not sure what his religious beliefs were, but I see good theology in many of his songs.
I’d like to end with a verse and refrain from one of his songs, Boundless Love. I can picture Jesus’ approval as they sing it together.
If by chance I should find myself at risk A falling from this jagged cliff I look below, and I look above I’m surrounded by your boundless love. Surround me with your boundless love Confound me with your boundless love I was drowning in the sea, lost as I could be When you found me with your boundless love You dumbfound me with your boundless love You surround me with your boundless love. Amen.