You know, being a parent—particularly a parent of a toddler—can be really gross. I mean seriously, it starts from the very beginning, those first few diaper changes (I went on ahead and got the nurse to do that). Don’t get me started on that cord stump. And it really doesn’t let up, does it? I don’t want to think about what the teenage years hold in store.
I think the moment I truly arrived as a father was when my son was beginning to eat solid food and one day in a restaurant started making these choking-coughing noises… And instinctively, without even thinking, I just put out my hand to catch whatever it was that was coming next.
It’s gross! But we do it naturally, because we love them. And who else is going to do it? And it doesn’t have to be a child—it’s anyone entrusted to us who can’t quite care for themselves—an elderly parent or a spouse or a pet. In caring for someone’s physical needs, we reach this new level of intimacy we don’t experience anywhere else.
There’s precious little glamour in it, if that is actually what we’re seeking. To say nothing of glory.
But perhaps in light of today, in light of what Jesus shows us…maybe there is.
The Fourth Gospel, John’s Gospel, is deeply concerned with this idea of glory. It’s not like the other gospels. There is no Christmas story—except, of course, this great cosmic prelude—there is no baptism. From beginning to end, Jesus is in control.
And even on that cross, as we’ll see tomorrow, Jesus doesn’t exactly die more than simply bow his head and declare it to be finished. So everything that Jesus does is intentional and carefully choreographed. He is in charge. And everything that he does points us to God’s glory.
So he didn’t just strip down and wash people’s feet on a whim. He’s making a point, doing the work of a slave. The gross, unglamorous work that most people relegated to the servants (if they could afford it, of course). And he does this on a particularly important night for him. His farewell dinner. Knowing full well what awaits him, and knowing full well that those are the feet of people who would scatter scatter away—deny him—betray him.
Jesus is showing us what glory looks like in God’s kingdom. He’s showing us what love looks like in God’s kingdom. The self-emptying love that creates intimacy. The kind of love that puts us out there, holding out our hand ready to take whatever comes next.
And for Jesus, what comes next is the cross. But that’s not all. As one pastor writes: “The ‘saving’ work of Christ, what Jesus has done and does for us always, is not just about the cross. It is about the birth and the baptism, the teaching and the healing, the body and the blood, the basin and the towel, the life and the death.”
Everything that Jesus did and does is to embody that commandment to “love one another.” And our lives, everything that we do as servants and disciples of Christ, is to live up to that commandment. As we act out that humbling, self-emptying love here in this worship service. As we carry it out in our day-to-day living.
But the truth is when it’s not a loved one (or perhaps when it is), that act of selfless love isn’t always so instinctive. Our hand recoils. We don’t always get it right. We’re a whole lot more like Peter or Judas in this story.
But on the night he was betrayed and on this night too, these shortcomings are not the final word. We return and we are welcomed again and again to be washed and cleansed, to be fed, to be emptied and filled up again.
God lays everything aside for us. In spite of our flaws, in spite of our denials and our betrayals, in spite of our overall grossness. Knelling before us, extending a hand before us, out of selfless love. Because that is what God is: love.
The storyteller/writer/humorist Garrison Keillor tells this story about the lullaby he used to sing his daughter: “Only you, only for you, I hold out my hand, only for you. That’s why I’m here, that’s what I do. Only for you, only for you.”
He later discovered the deeper meaning of the song when his toddler tried calamari and pesto for the first time.
“I hold out my hand, only for you. That’s why I’m here, that’s what I do. Only for you, only for you.”
Jesus in saying farewell to his friends, offers us something of a lullaby, too, fully aware of its deeper meaning—the glamorous and the dull, the glorious and the unremarkable, the pleasant and the gross: “Love one another. Love one another, just as I have loved you. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”