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In John's gospel the word love is found 57 times, more than in all the other gospels put together. Jesus insisted: love one another (13:34-5). He had arranged a meal that would be his own personal Passover- it was the day before the Jewish feast of the Pasch. He died as the paschal lamb in John’s gospel, just as the lambs were being slaughtered in preparation for the traditional Jewish celebration. Jesus as the head of his newly chosen family- the Twelve- was anticipating the future. With him the apostles were enjoying their eating and drinking and their friendship.
On that April evening, in that Jerusalem setting, which tonight’s Holy Thursday gospel recalls, he included something profoundly important. What he did was unforgettable. Getting hold of a towel and water, he fell to his knees and began to wash their feet.
Had the world gone mad? Peter seems to have thought so. People washed their own feet on entering the house, before the meal began. But to have the host conducting himself thus was simply unacceptable. Peter said so. He refused absolutely. There are limits! And Peter stated them. We can hardly forget that in Matthew and Mark, at Caesarea Philippi, Peter confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, but he would not accept the idea of Jesus suffering- a satanic thought. Nor will he now accept the idea of Jesus washing feet- much too degrading. But Jesus insists. Then Peter is 'converted' and wants total immersion, perhaps a reference by the gospel writer to the meaning of baptism.
By contrast the Beloved Disciple cuts a very different figure in this scene. He is closest to the heart of Jesus, and Jesus alone is nearest to the Father's heart. The Beloved Disciple knows love's sacrifice. Love understands. And from the community of the beloved came the memory of this, and our fourth gospel. A symbol of foundational importance had been created by Jesus.
This same community remembered what Jesus said: God so loved the world that he gave his only son to save it (Jn 3:16). The world saved should reflect the being of God as love. For the believer love makes sense of history. The world was created by and for love. Christianity proclaims: life is about love. And love is what life is all about. For God is love (1Jn 4:8).
We believers come here this evening in Boarbank Hall to rejoice. Reminded by this evening's gospel we are Christ’s family; in faith we are the children of a loving Father. We ring out the bells for joy. We celebrate the foundation of the new people of God, the institution of the Eucharist and the institutional priesthood.
Thinking about love:
Whenever happiness comes it always comes under the rubric of love. And love remains a mystery. We know when we love, and we know when we are not loved. We know when we do not love enough and we know when we do not know how to love. We cry when we lose those we love, and we are amazed when people tell us that they love us. We are pained when we see possessive love because it is exclusive. We know that, despite all sufferings, sorrows and dissensions, people can be loved into goodness and that goodness can prevail.
The love of Jesus was clear from his relationships with men, women and children. People in his eyes were not important because of what they personally achieved, politically, socially or religiously. They were important because they existed. That is love. It does not seek its own (1Cor 13:5). Such an attitude is not natural. It is a work of grace and costs not less than everything. It cost Jesus his life. This loving loss of life is what John calls the glory of Jesus. In Hebrew glory is the external manifestation of God’s splendour... showing forth his mighty deeds in nature and history. Real historical disciples saw his glory on Mt Tabor. Without love these would not have survived the death of Jesus. Without it the early community in Rome could not have survived the devastating executions of Peter and of Paul. Is it too trite to say that those who survive great private sorrows and dreadful private losses manage this because of love? There could be no forgiveness without it. Because of love Christianity survives.
One thing is clear within the community of those who profess Christ’s name, and who try to follow his teaching: love is the guide to life. But this should be true for everyone, not just for believers. Those who love the most are those who give the most. In every family, community and parish such people are obvious. Like Our Lord they are truly humble and available to everyone, and would wash everyone’s feet. That always involves sacrifice. Jesus had to cope with Peter and with Judas. When it was all happening only he knew the difference between the two. The rest of the Twelve were innocently proclaiming the ‘I don’t know’ attitude. Before that it was the sons of Zebedee squabbling about places of honour- but their mother remained faithful (Mt 27:56). Our Lord asked for love as service not as sentiment. I do everything that pleases him (Jn 8:29). The institution of the Eucharist, the foundation of the new people of God, the appointment of leaders to serve in it, the virtue of self-giving love towards all, that is what we commemorate on Holy Thursday. A happy feast to you all. Amen.
Rev Richard J. Taylor
Boarbank Hall, Cumbria, UK