Yeah, I know it’s kind of strange
every time I’m near you;
I just run out of things to say.
I hope you’ll understand.
Every time I try to tell you
the words just come out wrong.
So I have to say I love you in a song.
We know that feeling, don’t we? We know what it is for our words, especially words of love, to be inadequate to the moment before us. We know what it is to struggle to show our love in ways that do it justice, in ways that convey its power and truth.
A year ago, my family and I were in the midst of a six month separation, as I began ministry here at the Cathedral, and they finished the school year in Roanoke, Virginia. Four times during those six months, we saw each other. I traveled to Roanoke twice, and Jill and the kids came to Houston twice, the last time for Easter. The visits were splendid, but the partings were excruciating. As the family would drop me off at the airport, or vice versa, I would fumble with teary eyes, trying to convey in those hurried final moments just how very deeply I love them. My words were never adequate to my feelings. The time I remember most was Easter evening last year, when I said goodbye to my family at Bush Intercontinental. As they were about to head through security, leaving me next to the ticket counter, Eliza looked up at me and said, “I don’t think I can go. I feel like I’ll never see you again.” I hugged her and said a few words, and as she walked toward the x-ray machines, I experienced the pang of regret that I hadn’t been able to show her, or Griffin, or Jill what I felt, to convey to them their centrality in my life. Whereas my love for them is overflowing—with the volume, rush and power of Niagara Falls—my words were halting and stilted. My words weren’t up to the task. I needed to show my family how I loved them, but I didn’t know how.
In John’s Gospel today, Jesus, and to some extent the disciples, know the game is up. After the week they’ve had, how could they not know it? The buzzer is about to sound, the plane is boarding, the curtain is closing. Soon and very soon Jesus will move into the Garden of Gethsemane. There he’ll pray a prayer for release that he knows is futile even as he utters it, and the mob will come and drag him away. But first, he’s in an upper room having his last meal with the ones he loves.
Though he is the Son of God, Jesus is also, we affirm theologically, fully human, and in the human attempt to convey his feelings, he talks during dinner. And talks. And talks. For five full chapters Jesus talks, striving to convey his feelings and his hopes for the disciples. He is saying goodbye, and the disciples fear they may never see him again. There is an urgency to the evening, a desire to say it all, to share everything there is to share, to leave nothing on the table.
Jesus says amazing and unforgettable things, things that are preached and prayed and remembered to this day. Most importantly, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment—mandatum in Latin, from which the name “Maundy Thursday” is derived—in which he tells them what is most important in their lives together. “Love one another,” Jesus says. And not just any love. “As I have loved you, love one another.”
But it is not what Jesus says at that most auspicious and last supper that is most daunting, most discomfiting. Jesus—even Jesus—seems to recognize that there are times when even the most profound and eloquent words are inadequate. In addition to all he says in that upper room, Jesus wants to show the disciples what he means, what his love looks like.
Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his outer robe, and ties a towel around his waist. He kneels in the dirt. And he begins to wash the disciples’ bare and road weary feet.
Do we understand the eye-watering, deer-in-headlights, unbelievability of this act? Peter does. He jumps up from his chair and says, “Not me! You’re not washing my feet!”
Peter could sit through Jesus’ words (all five chapters of them), but he won’t abide this showing. Why is that? In his excellent book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning has God himself explain to us, saying, “Do you know from where the inspiration to wash the feet of the Twelve came? Do you understand that, motivated by love alone, your God became your slave in the Upper Room?”[i]
In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis offers us another image. In it, the ghost of a man who repeatedly refuses God’s gracious love shrinks smaller and smaller with each refusal. As he diminishes, the Christ-figure in Lewis’ story—here a beautiful and angelic woman—first leans down to be nearer the faltering ghost. Still, the ghost refuses and shrinks some more. So she drops to her knees to speak to him. Again, he refuses. Until finally, she lowers herself until her face is practically in the dirt to reach him. Christ, prostrating Christ-self on the ground…Christ who will even debase himself, in love for us.[ii]
That is why Peter jumps from his chair. That is when the steady stream of Jesus’ words assume the force and power of Niagara Falls. That is the way Jesus loves, and calls us to love: as one who removes the mantle of the savior—or, in our case, the CEO, or the senior partner, or the matriarch, or the self-sufficient American—and kneels as a servant to wash his sister’s and his brother’s feet.
People often ask why, two thousand years after the first Easter, the world it still a broken place. It is because we do not yet love one another as Jesus loves us. It is because we do not become servants to one another and—metaphorically in our world—humble ourselves to wash one another’s feet.
We think that love is too much to give. It requires us, by definition, to disrobe, to remove the pretensions with which we clothe ourselves in the world. And we fear—like the ghost in The Great Divorce, like Peter—that that kind of love is too much for us to receive. Like Niagara Falls, it will overwhelm us. It will drown who we are and turn us into something different.
Yes, it will. But it is the only kind of love Jesus offers, because it is the stuff God is made of. When the last syllable of the last word drifts away, there will be Jesus, kneeling in the dirt, washing our feet. And tonight, there will be Jesus, receiving our blows. And tomorrow, there will be Jesus, accepting the cross; not counting our trespasses against us, but countering them with the love that outlasts words, that cannot die to the grave, that will never leave us, in this life or the next.
[i] Manning, Brennan. The Ragamuffin Gospel, pp. 166-167.
[ii] Lewis, C.S. The Great Divorce, 104-116.