Today we come again to the commandment about loving each other. We saw it on Maundy Thursday after Jesus was washing feet. And we get it again today. Commanding a ‘feeling’. We need to get our head round that notion. I’ve also got a thought about the towel and the bowl, used by Jesus at the washing of feet, which may challenge you.
We’re still in Easter Season and we’re still making sense of who Jesus is. In the last few weeks, we’ve been looking at what Jesus said before his crucifixion but in the light of his resurrection. We’re being wise after the event, with our 20/20 hindsight spectacles on.
Demonstrated before talking
Today’s passage builds on last weeks’ Scripture about the vine and the branches. And, really, we need to read the two parts together. Indeed, we would be better reading all of chapters 15 to 17 in one go. One author of a book about John imagines these words in the Gospel being said on-the-go by Jesus as he and the disciples walk late at night from the room where they’ve shared a meal, towards the Garden of Gethsemane.
It’s easy to lose track of time since we’re now 5 weeks or so after Easter – but in the passage that we’re looking at we’re only an hour or two after Jesus had got down on his knees, had that argument with Peter and then washed his feet – and those of Judas and the rest of the disciples. Knowing all that he did about their upcoming betrayal, denial and abandonment, Jesus still demonstrated love to them all before talking about it. He’d already forgiven them for what would happen in the next few hours. And the disciples would have had the recent memory of the foot-washing very firmly in mind.
Jesus tells the disciples that, just as a branch bears fruit by being connected to the vine, so we bear fruit by being connected to him. That connection is made by keeping his commandments. And, in John, Jesus only gives one commandment: to love each other just as he loved us. That is sacrificial, self-giving love.
So, what are the implications of all this for us?
Firstly, this isn’t a fuzzy, emotional love. Earlier in John we hear Jesus saying that he voluntarily lays his life down. So, this love that we’re called to mirror is a conscious, informed decision to put ourselves on the line and risk it all for someone else. It’s a gritty, no-nonsense, love where we step out of our sheep folds, out of our church community comfort zones, and into society. It’s the kind of love that seeks practical justice for all walks of life and all kinds of people.
Secondly, you may have missed this on the first read through but John’s description here focuses on Jesus dying as proof of God’s love for us – rather than the focus elsewhere of paying for people’s sins. It mirrors what happened at the meal earlier. The other Gospel’s focus on the institution of the Lord’s Supper. But in John it is replaced by the washing of the disciples’ feet – which was a sign, Jesus says, of his love.
And, of course, there is John 3:16 – ‘for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…’ Jesus died as proof of God’s love for us.
Towel and bowl
One commentator that I looked at wonders how different things would have been if the church had taken the towel and the bowl from the foot washing as its sign rather than the cross. If we’d focussed on the giving of oneself for the other rather than on redemptive suffering – that is, on Jesus freely giving his life rather than it being forcibly taken from him – then how much of history might have been different? Would the Crusades or the Holocaust have happened if one group of people hadn’t blamed another group for the death of Jesus?
Just think about that for a moment. What if instead of choosing the cross as a symbol, the church had picked the towel and the bowl?
Thirdly, Jesus calls us to be friends and co-disciples. Yes, Jesus is Lord, but he’s also the ideal disciple for us to emulate. He’s brought us into a community of friendship where we are, or should be, willing to sacrifice for each other. A community based on obedience to God’s commands and remaining in God’s love.
There will naturally be consequences in the way that such a community thinks about itself and its God and its role in society. And those thoughts should become actions. The Bible calls that ‘fruit’ – and we are appointed to go and bear it. Mahatma Gandhi once said: ‘Iwould believe in your Christ if his followers looked as though they did.’
Worshipping, growing and transforming
Manchester Diocese has a stated vision which is to be “a worshipping, growing and transforming Christian presence at the heart of every community”. Each of the churches on this call probably has their own equivalent of that vision and a plan to go with it.
Perhaps with all that’s happened in the last 12 months’ or so we need to dust off those mission action plans and look afresh at what a sacrificially loving group of people should be doing within the communities in which they’ve been placed. Are those plans looking outwards or inwards?
Maybe we need to remind ourselves of the 5 marks of mission. We are to:
- Proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
- Teach, baptise and nurture believers
- Respond to human need by loving service
- Transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
- Strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth
We will not keep silent
I think perhaps too that we should think about how we individually respond to God in all this. Psalm 98, our psalm for today, is a pretty good start. And I want to finish with a poem by Walter Brueggemann which is written in response to that psalm and which ties in nicely with our Gospel reading today. It’s called: We will not keep silent
We are people who must sing you,
For the sake of our very lives.
You are a God who must be sung by us,
For the sake of your majesty and honour.
And so we thank you,
For lyrics that push us past our reasons,
For melodies that break open our givens,
And for cadences that locate us home,
Beyond all our safe places,
For tones and tunes that open our lives beyond control
And our futures beyond despair.
We thank you for the long parade of mothers and fathers
Who have sung you deep and true;
We thank you for the good company
Of artists, poets, musicians, cantors, and instruments
That sing for us and with us, toward you.
We are witnesses to your mercy and splendour;
We will not keep silent… ever again. Amen
“Love, the towel and the bowl” was given by Ian Banks to an on-line congregation from Bury and Heywood on Sunday 9th May 2021. It was based on John 15:9-17 and Psalm 98.
- Ronning, J. (2010). The Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
- Card, M. (2014). John – The Gospel of Wisdom. Downers Grove: IVP
- Brueggemann, W. (2003). Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth. Minneapolis: Ausburg Fortress