Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
We as a culture can’t get enough of two types of movies. We love our action flicks, like Die Hard, the Avengers, anything by Michael Bay or starring Steven Segal, Jean Claude Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone or John Wayne. The kind of movie that gets our blood pumping, gets us all revved up, that surprises and shocks us with just how awesome they are.
Then, there’s the other type we can’t get enough of. We love our romances and loves stories. Stories of overcoming impossible odds to find the perfect man or woman, finding our one true love among the 7 billion people on the planet, and living happily ever after.
The secret to movie success, of course, is to combine the two. To make an action movie with a powerful love story woven in, maybe as the motivation for the hero’s incredible actions. To make a romantic movie with a suspenseful, action-filled climactic scene that really hammers home just how incredible this love is.
In our storytelling, the two are often combined. What makes a hero, if not love? Whether it is love for a partner, lover, or simply the human race, the deeds done by our action heroes are, for the most part, motivated by a devotion that far surpasses what we ourselves think we are capable of.
And why love at all, if one is not willing to go the extra mile, to beat the impossible odds, to rescue him or her when they are in distress, to sweep them off their feet, and to be their hero? The truest love, it seems, is forged in the heat of conflict, when life and death are on the line. If love can survive that, it can survive anything.
I confess that, while I am usually a sucker for these movies, they do make real life feel a little… inadequate. I try to imagine myself in some of the situations action heroes find themselves in. Not counting the situations that are clearly over-embellished for dramatic effect, I look at those situations, and I’m pretty sure I’d be dead. I couldn’t leap from a building to a helicopter, or swing on a rope across a fiery gorge, or beat up two dozen bad guys with just my fists, all to get to the person I love and save the day.
With such high expectations prominently displayed in our entertainment fantasies, it’s not too hard to understand why love and marriage can be disappointing for some people. Rarely does our romantic, movie-induced idea of love and what it can go through match up to the reality. We expect perfection, the ability to know perfectly what the people we love are thinking, and to be able, literally, to move mountains for love.
Love is connected to these grand ideas. Love is big. Flashy. Exciting. Dramatic. It is bold, catchy, larger-than-life. And yet, at the same time, this idea of love is entirely unrealistic. If love is to be defined in this way, by its glory and grandeur, then I suspect that most of us are in big trouble.
I like Jesus’s idea better. John says, “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1 NRSV).
This is the day before the crucifixion. Arguably, that event is one of the greatest ways God has shown love for all of creation. After all, doesn’t Jesus say a little later in John’s Gospel: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NRSV). That certainly is the case with the crucifixion.
The crucifixion is the centerpoint, the fulcrum of God’s action in the world. A good chunk of the Gospels is devoted to this very event. Hardly anyone familiar with the tiniest bits of Christianity does not know about the crucifixion. In some accounts, it was literally an earth-shattering event. Just like an action movie, it captures our imagination, wrenches at our hearts and emotions, and makes us really feel. Lots of movies have produced dramatic, glorious interpretations of this great act of love.
But that’s not our story for tonight. This is the first day of the Triduum, the Three Days, the most holy days in the Christian calendar. Our story is still about love, but about a very, very different type of love. Our love story tonight isn’t flashy. It isn’t glorious. It doesn’t get our hearts pumping or our adrenaline flowing. It’s not very big or exciting.
And it’s about feet.
For being such an important part of our body, we seem to be, as a general rule, really opposed to feet. We don’t like see them, we don’t like to touch them, and we certainly don’t like to smell them. Feet are relegated to the category of “Things that make you go, blegh”, better left hidden and out of sight.
So when Jesus gets down on his hands and knees with a basin of water and starts to wash the dirty, grimy feet of twelve men, the reaction for many is, “ewww”. I can’t say that’s an unreasonable reaction, given the time and place how those feet must have been.
I also think, though, that that reaction is part of what makes the story so moving. Jesus is about to die, be hung on a cross, and he decides to show his love for his disciples by getting down on the ground, in the dirt, in a humiliating and vulnerable position. He shows his love by degrading himself, touching people’s feet, providing a necessary, but unsavory service that would have most of us cringing.
The true love of Jesus is shown not with bells, whistles, trumpets, Oscars and Emmies, but through the simple acts of compassion that others feel are below them.
How often do we as Christians seek to emulate Jesus on the cross? We want to be the center of attention, to have our deeds shown before others, to go out in a blaze of glory that has onlookers saying, “Truly, these people were children of God.” The theology of glory pervades our sense of self. It makes us important, and we like to be important.
What would it look like if we emulated Jesus in the dirt? Washing feet is uncomfortable. It makes us cringe. It makes us dirty. It is not an activity most of us would see ourselves doing. But precisely because of its simplicity, it’s degrading nature, it’s discomfort, it also makes us like Jesus.
For tonight, this is how Jesus chose to show love—by getting on his hands in a simple, intimate act of compassion.
Tonight, this one time during the year, we are invited to participate in that same act of love and compassion. “Just as I have loved you,” says Jesus, “You also should love one another”. It can be uncomfortable. It can make us vulnerable. It may offend our normal sensibilities. But in it, we find the heart of Jesus before the storm.