The Love that Repairs Sins
Maundy Thursday (Year A)
John 13:1-17; 31b-35
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
9 April 2020
Tonight, Maundy Thursday, is the first day of the Paschal Triduum. The Triduum is the three-day period which begins today at sunset and ends at sunset on Easter Day. During this sacred time, we read and remember in our liturgy these final days of Christ’s life in great detail. Tonight, we remember the events surrounding Jesus’ last meal with his disciples in the upper room. Tomorrow, Good Friday, we will read the account of Christ’s death and Crucifixion. On Holy Saturday, we come to grips with fact that Jesus, the Son of God, died. The fate which every human being before and after him still suffers. On Sunday, we will celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead.
Most of us, when we think about the focus of this first day of the Triduum, the day which we call Maundy Thursday, immediately think of the Last Supper, which we heard about in the reading from Corinthians. During the last supper Jesus reconstituted the traditional Jewish Passover meal, which we read about from Exodus, and transformed into an act which inaugurated God’s new covenant with his people. Some, too, associate Maundy Thursday principally with Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. That act of humble service was the focus of the Gospel reading which we read just now.
But often overlooked is the real focus of what tonight is actually all about. It is about the underlying principle that unites the act of the last supper and the foot washing all together. The clue is in the term “Maundy,” which comes from the Latin word “Mandatum,” which means “mandate” or “commandment.” This is why tonight is most properly called “Commandment Thursday.” Perhaps it is easy to overlook, since the new command to love comes at the very end of the Gospel reading after the drama of the foot washing and the last supper. Jesus says, “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.”
As human beings, we are wired in such a way that our very basic desires are to love and to want to be loved. In many respects, I think this is what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. God’s whole being, his whole way of relating to himself and to the world is in love. God is love, we say. God cannot be anything other than who God is-Love. And, God, being perfect, never deviates from the essence of his being. I know it might be hard to wrap our mind around this, but if God stopped loving, God’s very being would cease to exist. Just like when we stop breathing, we die. And, without electrons there is no electricity. So, without existing as the essence love, God would cease to be and disintegrate into nothingness. Love is who God is and how his whole being coheres. And, If God stops loving, everything God created, which came into being through his love and which is sustained by his love, would disintegrate into nothingness right along with him.
So we, too, whom God has made in his own image and likeness are also fundamentally wired to love. When we love and experience love, we are our best selves. When we love we are most fully human and participate most fully in the divine life of God. Do we not feel the most human, our best selves, when we love another person so deeply, so totally, we would be willing to sacrifice ourselves for them? Do we not flourish as human beings, when we are so secure in the knowledge that we are loved by God and by others so unconditionally, that we are released from our efforts in constantly trying to secure this love? And, when we are released from our insecurities, do we not become free to exercise love and have the courage to accept the risks and the pain that come with it?
But unlike God, we are not perfect, and we are creatures of flesh and blood. We go wrong when we love the wrong things, or love good things at the expense of God, our neighbors, or other higher goods. That was St. Augustine’s basic description of sin, sin is disordered loves. Loving food at the expense of our health; loving our country more than its citizens; loving church more than we love God, loving our goals and our own interests more than our friends. And, our imperfect loves, our disordered loves, which manifest themselves in our idolatries, our pride, greed, lust, anger, sloth, gluttony, and envy, are what destroy us individually and our relationships. Sometimes our sins are so egregious that they can demolish a relationship in one fell blow. But most of the time, our sins just eat away at our relationship with God and each other ever so slowly, causing an almost imperceptible corrosion over time. Sins of neglect, sins of indifference, and passive aggressive behaviors can do this. When this happens, a relationship that we thought was as sturdy as a piece of iron, able to withstand a great amount of force, slowly turns to rust and then easily breaks when something goes wrong. That is what sin does to relationships with God and with each other. And the only thing that can repair sin is love.
The only thing that can repair sin is love.
And, that is the kind of love, Jesus is commanding his disciples to exercise. That is the new commandment. Love one another as I have loved you. How did Jesus love his disciples? He exercised Love that reconciles. He exercised Love that forgives. He exercised Love that heals. He exercised Love that restores. He exercised Love that transforms.
Loving our parents and children and spouses and friends is natural and easy enough. Until, that is, they lets us down, disappoints us, betrays us, or hurts us. Then it is easy to turn our backs on them. “That person doesn’t deserve my love anymore,” we may say. “I can’t love someone whom I don’t trust,” we will reason. “Why should I love someone who has hurt me,” we might ask? “I’m just setting myself up to be hurt all over again. I’m not going to be a doormat,” we say, indignantly, standing up for ourselves.
Imagine if Jesus had said those things to his disciples. They certainly deserved it didn’t they, his friends, that betrayed him, and abandoned him during his greatest hour of need? Imagine if Jesus had just discarded them. What if he had said, “you don’t deserve my love anymore.” Or, “I can’t love you anymore because I don’t trust you.” Or “Why should I love you, since you all have hurt me.” Jesus didn’t do any of those things. What did he do?
He took off his robes, the outward garments which represented his role as their master and teacher. He wrapped a towel around himself and knelt at his disciples’ feet and washed them–like a servant. He washed Judas feet, the one whom he knew would betray him. And, he washed Peter’s feet, the one whom he knew would deny him not only once, but three time. What else did Jesus do? He took bread and broke it and said, “This is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he took the cup of wine saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” And what was the last thing he told them? “I give you a new commandment. Love one another as I have loved you.”
Love one another as I have loved you. The kind of love Jesus exercises is the love that repairs sins. The love Jesus exercises with the disciples is reconciling love. They don’t fully understand what he is doing, of course. They can’t grasp the significance of the last supper or his washing of their feet, or what he means with the new commandment. But their eyes will be opened to true meaning and significance of his words and actions soon enough. The love Jesus asks the disciples to exercise is the love he exercise towards them. A love that breathes new life into relationships that are broken by sin. A love that not only repairs and restores relationships, but that also transforms them and strengthens them in ways one might not think possible. As some of you may have experienced, relationships that survive crises of deep hurt and betrayal can turn out to be the strongest, most resilient, most enduring, and most loving relationships one can ever hope to have. Reconciling love can strengthen marriages and cement friendships. But, relationships that cannot withstand deep hurt and betrayal, where reconciling love cannot be accomplished, can often leave marks of terrible pain, remorse, and regret that can last a lifetime.
In the Garden of Eden, the serpent tempts Adam and Eve by telling them that if they eat the apple, they will become like God, knowing good and evil. But, the serpent lied to Adam and Eve. God is not defined by what God knows. God is defined by who God is. And, God is that eternal and dynamic energy of love that binds the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit together into one being. If we want to become like God, to realize ourselves as being made in God’s image and likeness, then our goal is not to seek absolute power or infinite knowledge. Rather, our goal is to learn to love as God loves. And, that kind of love is not the love of warm and romantic feelings. To be God’s image bearers to the world, to be like Christ, who was fully God and fully human, is to love each other in such a way that our love can work to repair relationships harmed by sins.
That work of reconciliation is a work of love. It requires humility. It requires vulnerability. It requires risking getting hurt. It requires risking being betrayed. It requires risking being misunderstood. It requires risking not being loved equally in return. It requires risking not being loved at all in return. But the work of reconciling love is the most fundamental aspect of the being of God. And, it is one of the most defining features of being human and of real friendship. It is not by accident or casually that Jesus calls his disciples friends. “A greater love has no man than this, that he will lay down his life for a friend, Jesus says.”
Forgiveness. Trust. Perseverance. Service. Humility. Honesty. Patience. Forbearance. Compassion. Grace. Mercy. This is how Jesus loved his disciples. These are the ingredients of friendship. Friendship with God and friendship with each other. These are the ingredients of reconciling love.
I know that we cannot participate in the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ tonight. But we cannot forget that as the church, we are the body of Christ, whether we are receiving the Eucharist tonight or not. And, as the body of Christ, we are called to love one another as Christ loved us. Do that work of reconciling love in your life. Take up that hard, sometimes painful, but infinitely rewarding work of love that God commanded us to do. Do that, and you will be participating in the divine life of God. Do that, and you yourself can become the sacramental presence of Christ’s Body and Blood, the outward and visible sign of that inward and spiritual grace of the reconciling work of love that was accomplished by Christ in his death on the Cross, that death which we will recall and reflect on tomorrow. Amen.