by Jason Micheli
John 13.1-15 (click to see Scripture text)
Here in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, we are in the midst of one of Jesus’s most eloquent and loquacious sermons. “For I have given you an example,” Jesus preaches, “that you also should do just as I have done for you.”
This sermon is different than Jesus’s earlier, pithy sermons:
“Fill the jars with water.”
“Go to Siloam and wash.”
“Give me a drink.”
It’s even different than the Law-Gospel sermon he delivered at the tomb with Martha and Mary in attendance and a gaggle of begrudgers on the sidelines, the short sermon in which Jesus preached a word that was simultaneously command and promise, “Lazarus, come out!”
If only Christ would speak so directly to us. If only you could have a word from Jesus delivered straight for you, but, who knows, we have a few minutes left. Maybe Christ does have a word this day for you.
Immediately after this sermon in John chapter thirteen, Jesus tells his bewildered and frightened disciples, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” Now, we know that sermon about his Father’s house because it’s the occasion for Jesus preaching those hard words, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” Perhaps distracted by those hard words, we neglect to notice that, in preaching about his Father’s house and its many dwelling places, Jesus is actually talking about a marriage. In first century Jewish weddings, when a bridegroom betrothed himself to a bride, before the wedding ceremony, he would first go to his father’s house and build an addition onto the family home. Only after the bridegroom had prepared a place for his bride at his father’s house would the bridegroom return, make his promise of forever to his bride, and then take her to the place he had prepared for them.
If the many mansions of the Father’s house describes the marriage of Christ and his Bride, then the foot-washing is a kind of wedding sermon.
And it’s a strange sermon for a wedding— stranger even than this sermon would have been had I capitulated to Alex and agreed to write the sermon in Klingon, which, of course, I could not do. I mean, that would be ridiculous. References to Virginia Tech and Trombones and the Marching Band where Alex and Brittany first met, I could do.
How could I write a wedding sermon in Klingon? The only relevant Klingon I know is, “bangwI’ SoH,” which we all know means, “You are my loved one”
Or, “Kill Kirk”…
And also, “Hallelujah,” depending on the context.
It’s a strange wedding sermon Christ preaches to his betrothed.
It’s more sign than spoken.
The Lord of all takes off his outer robe and, like a slave, ties a towel around his waist. He stoops down on his knees. The calloused fingers that once crafted the cosmos wash our feet painted with dirt and stink and sweat. And when Jesus stands up, a bowl of brown water beside him, he concludes his wedding sermon by preaching the Law to us, “I have given you an example…”
Jesus tells us in Matthew’s Gospel that the two greatest commandments in the Law are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The problem though—
The Bible also says that Christ is the end of the Law and its commands, including that bit about loving God and neighbor like we love us. It’s not that love isn’t important in the New Testament. The apostle Paul tells the Romans that all of the ten commandments are summed up by loving others while St. Peter writes in his own letter that loving others covers a multitude of our sins. But if Christ is the end of the Law, then is the love commended by Peter and prescribed by Paul the love commanded by the Law? Is it the same love with which we love our neighbors as ourselves?
Notice what Jesus says here.
Notice exactly how Christ puts it: “A new command I give you.”
This is something different.
“Love one another as I have loved you.”
NOT as you love yourself.
Love one another as I have loved you.
Christ is the end of the commandments, even the greatest commandment.
Christ is the end of a love that need not go further than self-love as the standard.
The old commandments are over and done. Christ has given us a new command. No wonder Peter interrupted Christ’s wedding sermon by insisting that he didn’t want God washing his feet.
The way Christ has loved us is nothing like the way we love.
Jesus broke bread with those he knew would betray him with a kiss. Even in the midst of their betrayal, Jesus says to them, “I call you friends.” Three times he forgave Peter who cheated on him thrice. He gave his life not for the good but for the ungodly. Jesus loved his enemies, and, as every married person here already knows, the ability to love your enemy is often the necessary condition to love your spouse. The way Christ has loved us is nothing like the way we love even ourselves.
The golden rule and all the rest are bygones from a covenant Christ has closed with his cross.
The good news is that Jesus isn’t a liar.
He really does give us a burden that is lighter of obligations.
The bad news is that the only obligation attached to Jesus’s yoke is what Christians call grace, and grace is a whole lot less amazing when you’re the one who’s got to give it. Grace does not feel amazing to the giver. Grace feels awful to the giver exactly because, by definition, everyone who receives it from you is undeserving.
Love like this, Jesus says today in his wedding sermon.
The apostle Paul summarizes that sort of love by saying that in Christ God was in the world not counting our trespasses against us. The new command isn’t to remember to love another as we love ourselves; the command of Christ is to a love that remembers to forget the sins sinned against us.
Not to quash the mood— a life lived with another exposes the worst in us. Marriage would be hard enough if the love we talk about when we talk about love was the love of the Law, love with self-love as the standard. Unfortunately, it’s even harder. It’s a love that leaves the ledger book behind and— take it from any married person here— those ledgers would have plenty of ink spilt in them if we could hold on to them.
By your “I do” you’re pledging “I won’t” when it comes to the tit-for-tat score-keeping by which we game the rest of our lives.
Forgive but don’t forget goes the cliche, but for Christians, especially in Christians caught up in a marriage, there’s no distinction between the two, for forgiveness just is forgetting— forgetting to count the slights and sins suffered by way of the other.
This is the new Law of love Jesus commands.
This is the love you pledge one another in his name. Christ today preaches to you this Law; so that, you might be for us a sign of the Gospel.
Bride and groom not only forsake all others from their beds, they forsake also the calculators we all carry around with us— the ones we covet in order to balance the credits and debits we’ve accrued between us. Without a calculator, you’ve no recourse but to take each other at your word that all will be forgiven and forgotten.
In other words—
As it is with the Beloved’s unconditional promise called the Gospel so it is with your beloved’s unconditional promise called Marriage. There’s nothing for you to do in response to it but trust it.
And just as in the preached word of the Gospel, from this day forward, God is present on the lips of your every “I do.”
So too, I should point out, is Jesus present on my lips when I announce to everyone here that, on the authority of Christ, you are forgiven. See, like Lazarus, each of you have a word from Christ for you too.
From this day forward, God is present on the lips of your every “I do.”
Today your marriage becomes a manger for the Word of God.
Therefore, there is no other clearer way of imitating the love revealed to us in Jesus Christ than in the divine amnesia you promise to practice on each other everyday.
This new command of Christ— a love that forgets how to count— henceforth it makes your marriage more of a ministry than any soup kitchen or service project. And it means you will never have any holier vocation than the grace you bestow with your daily “I do” to the (often) undeserving other.
This new command—
This way of grace-giving is in no way a guarantee for happily.
But it is the way the two of you together become a parable of the One who is Ever After for all of us.
13Now 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. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table,* took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ 7Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ 8Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’9Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet,* but is entirely clean. And you* are clean, though not all of you.’ 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’
12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you?13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
*After submission, a confirmation email will be sent to the email address you provided. Please click the link to complete your subscription. You can opt out of receiving emails from us at any time.