Apostles Anglican Church
Fr. John A. Roop
Maundy Thursday, 1 April 2021
A Reflection on John 13:12-17
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I come here tonight — on this solemn and holy night — with great good news, news of great joy. It comes in two parts. Here’s the first: God doesn’t need us — not in the least. That’s it; that’s the great good news: God doesn’t need us. I know, at first, that may not sound like good news, but I hope to show you it is. To say otherwise, to say that God does need us, is to imply that there is some imperfection in God, some deficit in the Divine nature, some hole in the Trinity that only we can fill. And that is just bad theology. That is the theology of paganism. The pagan gods, as their stories go, created man precisely to serve the gods, to meet the needs of the gods. It is the theology that Paul refuted when he stood among the pagan philosophers at the Areopagus in Athens:
Acts 17:22–25 (ESV, emphasis added): 22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
Did you hear what Paul said? God — the true God, the Lord of heaven and earth — doesn’t need us. God doesn’t need anything, since he is the ground and source of being who gives existence to all things, since God is full, complete, entire in Himself. That is good theology. But, it’s more than that; it is what makes relationship with God possible.
Let’s suppose for just a moment, to the contrary, that God does need us. I want you to see how that would distort or skew the Divine-human relationship. If God needs us, then God must become either subservient to us or domineering over us.
If God truly needs us, then he is dependent on us, and he will do everything in his power to make us happy so that we will not withhold from him what he needs. He will grant our every wish, cater to our every whim. God will satisfy his needs by satisfying our every desire. In other words, God will step off his throne and seat us on it. And that is not good news. Satan longed to seat himself on the throne of God, and rebellion followed. Our first parents sought the prerogatives of God, and death followed. We know those stories, and they won’t do.
Or else, if God doesn’t become subservient to us, then God must exercise his power to coerce us to satisfy his needs. If that fails — when that fails — then God must force us to meet his needs. God must become domineering. And now we are back to the pagan gods.
The moment we admit that God needs us, all possibility of a real relationship with God is compromised. So, I say again: the great good news is that God doesn’t need us.
And this leads to the second part of the great good news: because God doesn’t need us, God can — and God does — love us perfectly. It is only God’s absolute self-sufficiency — his need for nothing outside himself — that makes divine love possible, that makes possible the kind of love God has for us.
St. Thomas Aquinas defined love as willing the good of the other as other. That is, love is acting for the good of the other regardless of the benefit or harm to oneself: acting for the good of the other even if there is no benefit to oneself, acting for the good of the other in spite of harm to oneself. That is perfect love: not the hormone driven infatuation of teenagers, not the sentiment filled romance of the wedding day, not even the seasoned affection and devotion of the old married couple — not that, but willing the good of the other as other, not looking inward but outward. That is perfect love, and only God can love perfectly.
So this is the two-part, great good news, news of great joy: God doesn’t need us, and because God doesn’t need us, he can — and does — love us perfectly, willing only our good as other.
On the night that he was betrayed — on this very night — our Lord Jesus gave his followers two signs of God’s perfect love for us: the Sacrament of Holy Communion and the washing of feet. Taken together, these signs are the antithesis of need; there is no hint in them of subservience or dominance. And, they are the definition of love, done solely for the good of the other as other.
Yes, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. You know that this menial service was the task of the lowliest servant in the household, the most unseemly service to be performed. So, how is this not subservience? Note well what Jesus says when the task is over and he has resumed his place at the feast:
John 13:12–17 (ESV): 12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
“You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right,” Jesus says. He never for one moment denies his exalted position. He never for one moment abdicates the throne and places his disciples on it. He serves, yes, but he serves without becoming subservient; he serves as Lord. More importantly, and more to the point, Jesus, by his very actions, redefines Lordship in terms of love: willing and acting for the good of the other as other. It was through the washing of feet that the disciples gained a share with Jesus and a share in his ministry. It is through the washing of feet that Jesus defined, by example, the disciples’ ministry — and ours.
The alternate Gospel reading for Maundy Thursday from Luke recounts the institution of the Lord’s Supper:
Luke 22:19–20 (ESV): 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
If love truly is defined as willing the good of the other as other, can there be any greater example of love than this: the giving up of one’s very flesh and blood not just for disciples, not just for friends, but for enemies, for all others?
So, when all of this is over, when the feet are washed and the meal is finished, Jesus can say to his disciples, not just to those around the table but to those throughout all time and in all places, even to us:
John 15:12–17 (ESV): 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”
Maundy Thursday, Commandment Thursday: love one another as the Lord has loved you. As the Lord has loved you, as we’ve seen the Lord right here loving his disciples, as we will soon see the Lord on the cross loving friends and enemies alike, neither subservient nor domineering, but willing the good of the other as other. That is what the Lord has commanded us to do, all of us, not just some “spiritual elite.” Love one another as the Lord has loved you.
How do we do that? What does that look like? It is tempting to say that all we need to do is look around at our culture and do the opposite, and there is some great degree of truth in that. There is the famous and familiar passage from 1 Corinthians 13 — Paul’s description of love — that is the scriptural staple of weddings. You know the one I mean. I’m sure you also know that it has nothing inherently to do with weddings. Paul didn’t write it for an espoused couple in love; he wrote it to a bitterly divided church: a church with factions formed around charismatic leaders, a church with factions formed around ethnic identity, a church with factions formed around socio-economic differences, a church rife with sexual immorality, idolatry, and doctrinal confusion. The only way out of that mess — Paul saw — was the spiritual virtue of love. The only way out of that mess was actually following Jesus’ Maundy Thursday commandment to love one another as he loves us.
Beloved, we desperately need this word today. Our culture — our world — is coming apart at the seems. But, even more troublesome than that, the Western church — certainly the American church — is showing the same tension and stress. The church is divided over politics and political leaders. May it never be! The church is divided over ethnic and racial identity. May it never be! The church is divided over competing ideologies. May it never be! The church is divided over sexual morality. May it never be! The church is divided over what constitutes a responsible and faithful response to the pandemic. May it never be!
We know the answer to these challenges. It is not a mystery. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, the answer has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried. We have the answer, the only answer, from the Lord himself. He gave it to us this very night: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” And now we can hear Paul speak as he intended to speak:
1 Corinthians 13:4–8 (ESV): 4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends.
This is the perfect description of the kind of love we’ve been talking about all along — perfect love: love as willing the good of the other as other. This is the kind of love that never asks the question, What about me? This is the kind of love that is antithetical to our culture and to those cultural tendencies that threaten to infiltrate the church: a culture that is impatient, unkind, envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, self-serving, angry, vengeful; a culture that celebrates the wrong things and cancels the truth. Only love has the power to resist this, only the love commanded and exemplified by Christ Jesus, only the love that is infused in us by the Holy Spirit.
1 John 4:7–12 (ESV): 7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
So, where do we start? How do we wash one another’s feet? Again, Jesus told us. Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Welcome the stranger — the other. Clothe the naked. Visit the sick and the prisoners.
Don’t let politics get in the way of these things. Don’t let ideologies get in the way of these things. Don’t let fear or self-interest or any of a countless number of excuses get in the way of these things. With God’s help, discern how you can do these things and then do them.
There is an underlying principle to all these specific ways of showing love. I’m afraid it has fallen out of fashion, if it were ever in fashion. I’m afraid it’s considered childish ethics, a trite remnant of the past. I’m afraid a generation has never even heard of it. How do we love one another? Where do we start? Start with the Golden Rule: “And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:31). Let’s start there, and once we’ve mastered that, then we can move on to the next, more challenging level. Don’t ask me what that next level is; I’m still working on the Golden Rule.
Brothers and sisters, love isn’t an option for those of us who follow Christ; it is a commandment: not love as emotion or sentiment or as carefully disguised self-interest, but love as willing the good of the other as other, love as exemplified by Christ in the washing of feet, in the bread and wine — his body and blood — in the agony in the Garden, in the passion of the cross, in the still of the tomb. Seek this love. Pray that God the Holy Spirit will love in and through you.
Jesus’ words echo down to us and challenge us still on this solemn and holy night:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Amen.