‘Sent to Serve’ (a sermon for Maundy Thursday on John 13.34-35)

A Rule of Life is a tool some Christians use to become more intentional about their plans for following Jesus in a practical way. Some rules are large and detailed, like the one St. Benedict developed for his monks in the sixth century, which is still used in Benedictine monasteries today. It dots every ‘i’ and crosses every ‘t’ and doesn’t leave a lot of room for interpretation and adaptation. Other rules are more like general principles and guidelines, giving a lot of leeway for individual Christians to figure out how to apply them in their daily lives.

Last year in the Diocese of Liverpool in England, Bishop Paul Bayes introduced a Rule of Life like that. He challenged all Christians in his diocese to take it and think about how they would live it out in their own lives. This is a bare bones Rule that asks for a lot of thought and prayer on the part of those who use it. It’s simply this: ‘Called to pray, read, and learn. Sent to tell, serve, and give’.

I like this Rule because it gives lots of leeway for everyone using it to try out different ways of applying it, ways that work for them. We can easily see that praying, reading and learning are three avenues of receiving strength and wisdom from God—that’s the ‘input’ side. And we can easily see that telling the good news, serving others, and giving generously are integral parts of active discipleship—that’s the ‘output’ side. But each of us needs to decide for ourselves exactly what that looks like in our daily lives.

Now you may be thinking, this is all very well, but what’s it got to do with the Maundy Thursday story?

Simply this: When Bishop Paul first proposed this Rule for Liverpool diocese, some people criticized him because the word ‘love’ doesn’t appear in it anywhere. Surely love is the centre of the Christian life, isn’t it? Shouldn’t we name it, then? Shouldn’t we specifically mention ‘love’ as one of the ways we’re called to follow Jesus? After all, in our gospel for tonight we heard Jesus say,

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13.34-35).

This is it, says Jesus! This is the essential sign of true Christian faith—loving one another as he has loved us. And if this is so important, why wouldn’t we name it as a central part of our practical, daily discipleship?

In principle I agree with this, but nonetheless I’m going to support Bishop Paul here. My reason is that ‘love’ is an English word, and the Gospel of John wasn’t written in English. It was written in Greek. And one thing linguists will tell you is that no word in one language is ever the exact equivalent of a word in another language. The donor word will have additional shades of meaning that can’t be captured by any single word in the receptor language, and vice versa.

In modern English the word ‘love’ is used in all kinds of ways. Some people love hip hop music and listen to it all the time, to the great annoyance of their friends! Some people love curry. Some people love the poor and demonstrate it by volunteering in soup kitchens. Some people love elderly relatives and give hours each week to serving them. Some people love their spouses or romantic partners. Some people love their old jeans. Some people love their favourite political party.

Are we using exactly the same concept here? Of course not. None of the situations I described above is exactly equivalent. Some of them are vastly different from each other. And yet we use the same English word for them.

But one thing many of them have in common is an emotional component. Love is a something we feel. We may do something active because of our love, but our love itself isn’t an action. It’s not a verb. It’s an emotion, often located in our ‘hearts’.

Greek has a word like that: eros. Eros is desire for something wonderful. You can feel eros for a beautiful person, or a sumptuous meal, or even for God. But eros isn’t about helping or serving. It’s desire for an experience of participation. Today we use ‘eros’ primarily to describe sex. In the ancient world it was a wider word, but the basic principle is still true.

But when the New Testament writers talked about love, they used the word ‘agapé’. Agapé means love in action. It’s something you do, not something you feel. When you visit elderly relatives, clean up for them, drive them to medical appointments and so on, what you’re doing is agapé. Agapé isn’t what you’re feeling (there’s another Greek word for family affection!)—it’s what you’re doing. Likewise when you hammer nails at a Habitat for Humanity building site, or give to World Vision, or stick with a friend who’s struggling with addictions even when they’re a nuisance. No matter what you feel, you are living agapé.

Jesus is the prime example of agapé for us. In our Gospel he says “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another”. How does he love us?

This weekend gives us two examples of the way he loves us. The most dramatic way is by going to the Cross and dying for us. Jesus’ love is absolute and complete. There’s nothing he won’t sacrifice for us, even his own life. He loves not only his friends, but also his enemies. When his enemies whip him and spit at him and nail him to the Cross, he refuses to fight back or retaliate. He will die himself rather than act out of hatred or revenge.

You and I may be called to do that. Certainly around the world today there are Christians who are called to do that. They live in places where it’s dangerous to be identified as a Christian. But they do it willingly, and many of them give their lives, sometimes in very painful ways.

Of course, there are other ways of giving your life than dying. Some people leave lucrative careers to give themselves in Christian service in poorly paid jobs in obscure parts of the world. I think of people with Ph.D.s in linguistics who are spending their lives in the jungles of South America working for Wycliffe Bible Translators, translating the scriptures into languages spoken by only a few hundred people. I think of colleagues of mine with seven years of university and master’s degrees under their belts, who’ve moved away from family and friends to the far north to serve in the most isolated and poorly paying churches in the Anglican Church of Canada.

These are dramatic examples of taking up your Cross and following Jesus. We Christians are challenged to be ready to do that if we sense God is calling us to it. But most of us probably won’t be called to do it.

All of us, however, are called to follow the other example Jesus gives us: foot washing. This was not a spectacular job. It wasn’t anything romantic. It was a practical necessity. People wore open sandals, roads were dusty and muddy. They then came in for the evening meal. It wasn’t served at tables like ours with people sitting upright in chairs. Michelangelo’s ‘Last Supper’ gets it all wrong! There would be a central table with the food on it, and then people would recline in angled couches all around that table. They would recline on one elbow and use their other hand to help themselves to food. And when they did that, their feet would be in very close proximity to their neighbours’ noses!

That’s what footwashing was all about. Usually the servants or slaves did it when people came in for the meal. But on that night, for some reason, no one had done it. Maybe there was no slave or servant. We don’t know. But we do know that eventually Jesus got down, removed his outer garment, took a basin and went around washing the feet of his disciples.

What does he say next?

“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13.12-17).

And this is where we come full circle to Bishop Paul’s Rule of Life. “Servants are not greater than their master,” says Jesus. Agapé is about serving. It’s not about emotions but actions. Bishop Paul’s Rule of Life says we are ‘sent to serve’. That’s where agapé fits in. I would argue that ‘serve’ is actually a better word than ‘love’, because in modern English ‘love’ is such an emotionally loaded word. ‘Serve’ makes it clear we’re talking about actions.

And this is something we’re all called to do in very down to earth ways. The danger of a footwashing service is that we can sometimes forget this. Footwashing isn’t a normal part of our daily lives. But dishwashing is. Clothes washing is. House cleaning is. Shovelling snow from an elderly person’s walk is. Volunteering at a soup kitchen is.

Tonight we serve one another symbolically by washing each other’s feet and hands. But let’s not forget that we have to make the symbol a reality in our daily lives. We do that by looking for practical ways we can serve one another, and then doing it willingly.

And let’s not forget that we need to be willing to receive service as well. So often in the Christian community we’re cheated out of the opportunity to serve because our fellow Christians won’t admit they need help. We need to be willing to be vulnerable, to admit we can’t do everything. We need to be willing to ask for help when we need it. And then, as a community, we need to be faithful to Jesus’ call to serve one another as he serves us. That’s what it means to love. And that’s how people will know we’re Jesus’ disciples.

Random Lent Thought for Maundy Thursday: Humble Service

washing-feet-ghislaine howard

The word ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin word ‘maundatum’, which means ‘commandment’ (we get the word ‘mandatory’ from ‘maundatum).

In the Upper Room, at the Last Supper, after washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus said to them: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35, NIV 2011).

It has often been pointed out that ‘love one another’ was not a new command; something very like it appears several times in the Old Testament, and Jesus had previously given it to his disciples.

What is new is the description of the love: ‘As I have loved you’. The disciples are instructed to imitate Jesus in loving one another.

What specific acts of Jesus are in view here?

At the beginning of the chapter John says of Jesus, ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’ (John 13:1). This is clearly looking forward to the story of the cross. So we can say without hesitation that we’re called to imitate the love Jesus showed for us in the cross. This is sacrificial love, not ‘feeling’ love. Jesus doesn’t show the disciples his feeling of love by dying on the cross for them. The dying is the act of love. ‘Grater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15:13).

So we’re called to be ready and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for one another. Am I ready to do that? Probably not. Maybe I need to pray on that.

But I suspect there’s something more pressing for me to pray on. The other way Jesus loved his disciples was to wash their feet. This was the slave’s job, but for some reason no slave had done it that night. Consequently, after spending the day walking the dusty streets of Jerusalem in open sandals, Jesus and his disciples were now reclining on low couches around a table, their feet literally in each other’s faces. The omission would have been painfully obvious.

Apparently no one was willing to do the slave’s job, so Jesus got up and did it. When he was done, he said, “Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:12-15, NIV 2011).

Many churches (ours included) will remember this action of Jesus tonight by having foot washing services. I love this custom, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is real obedience to Jesus’ command. Foot washing today is unusual and exotic, but in the time of Jesus it was a mundane task of humble service.

What are the tasks like that today? The simple, humble tasks we do for others as ways of loving them? We make each other cups of tea and coffee. We prepare meals and clean up after them. We change smelly diapers. We clean up messy houses. We care for aged relatives as they lose control over their bodily functions. We support organizations working in refugee camps. We sit with difficult people and listen to their problems, for the forty-seventh time.

We used to have a saying in the college i attended: “I’ll die for you, but I won’t run up to the third floor to fetch your sweater for you”. It’s highly unlikely that I will be called on to die for my fellow Christians (though it may happen). But it’s absolutely certain that today and every day I will be called on to die to selfishness and self-centredness by performing humble acts of service for my sisters and brothers in Christ.

I am not very good at this. Lord, have mercy, and help me follow the footsteps of Christ.

(Painting by Ghislaine Howard. For more of her work see ghislainehoward.com)

(This will be my last RLT this year. Thanks to all who have read and commented, here and on Facebook!)