SIGNS OF THE BELOVED COMMUNITY
John 13:1-7, 31b-35; I Corinthians 11:23-26
“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.” This expectation of Jesus is a set up for failure because more often than not, we don’t have love for everyone as we ought. All that we have to do is look around us at all of the homeless people sleeping on the streets to know that we don’t have love for one another. That’s not to lay a heavy guilt trip on all of us. It’s just the reality in which we live. We can be thankful for our night ministry that is out there every night providing socks for the feet of those who so desperately need a bath—a foot washing of sorts. However, we always have to be careful that we don’t become too dependent upon someone else doing for us what we also are called upon to do ourselves.
Jesus made it very clear in earlier teachings that it’s always much easier for us to love those who love us, who are like us, whom we like, or who are our kindred spirits. As we are reminded this evening, even Jesus loved his own who were in this world to the very end of his life. However, what became clear through his suffering and passion is the fact that he also loved his enemies to the very end of his life by refusing to take their lives in defense of his own and then forgiving them for what they had done to him. In this way, Jesus was able to love all people in the same manner in which he was loved by God—completely and forever.
In this vein, Jesus’ simple act of washing his disciples’ feet was more than a symbolic act of servanthood. Given that washing someone else’s feet was something only slaves were supposed to do in Jesus’ day, Jesus’ act was a radical sign of what his followers would be expected to do in order to embody the beloved community that Jesus’ proclaimed throughout his ministry—a community in which everyone has a place at the table and no one is in a position of lording themselves over others. Within this beloved community, there still may be people in positions of authority and power in order to administer or govern what goes on within the community, but for those who have decided to follow in the way of Jesus and are in such positions, the common good of everyone in the community takes precedence over any individual or personal priorities.
Similarly, Jesus’ simple act of sharing a piece of bread and a cup of wine on this momentous evening was a radical reminder of all that Jesus would be revealing to his disciples during the next 24 hours. They would be the ones who would betray Jesus, deny him, and then abandon him to the powers that be. Nevertheless, they also would be included among those whom Jesus would forgive from the cross because they also did not know what they were doing. This meal would be a constant reminder of Jesus’ gracious gift of forgiveness that is offered every time that we eat this bread and drink from this cup.
Yes, one of Jesus’ disciples did attempt to defend Jesus by cutting off the ear of one of the high priest’s guards. However, Jesus made it clear that shedding another person’s blood would not be the way of his disciples for any reason. This cup of the new covenant in Jesus’ blood would be a constant reminder of this witness by Jesus as later he would tell Pilate that the followers of his beloved community would refuse to fight and shed the blood of another human being. As we share in this holy meal this evening, we are reminded that Jesus’ blood was meant to be the last blood that Jesus’ followers would cause to be shed out of love for all people, including their enemies.
The Apostle Paul also reminded his beloved community at Corinth about this truth when he told them that as often as they eat this bread and drink this cup, they would be proclaiming Jesus’ death until his return. As we learn from Paul’s letters to this beloved community, the church at Corinth was being torn apart by many different conflicts, including the abuse of this holy meal by some who thought that it was just another regular meal of privilege. No, Paul says, when we share in this meal, we always will remember the night that Jesus was betrayed and how he chose to die by offering a prayer of forgiveness for everyone rather than taking up a sword of death. From Paul’s perspective, this meal had the power even to unite this community of faith that was being torn apart by so many disagreements and abuses of authority and power.
On this night of his betrayal, Jesus wanted so much for his disciples to understand what he was about to do—to give his life as a testimony and witness to the new covenant of this beloved community that he proclaimed and described throughout his entire ministry—a community in which his people would love God with their entire being by loving all of their neighbors as they themselves have been loved by God. The basin, the water, the towel, the bread, and the cup were the tangible means that Jesus used to remind his followers of his central message about how his followers were to be in relationship with one another as a witness to the whole world about how God desired to save this world.
Put aside for the moment anyone who is not a baptized member of the body of Christ, and just consider how people who have decided to follow Jesus have related with and treated one another throughout the course of history. For every example of Jesus’ disciples demonstrating love for one another, we can cite countless examples of how some disciples of Jesus have oppressed other disciples of Jesus, persecuted them, abused them, enslaved them, violated them, tortured them, and, of course, killed other disciples of Jesus—all for the sake of gaining and demonstrating control over other members of the body of Christ.
These examples include burning heretics at the stake, bishops fighting with one another throughout the Middle Ages, Protestants and Catholics waging war against one another, revolutionary Christians killing British Christians, Christian masters enslaving Africans who were grounded in the spirituality of Jesus, Union Christians and Confederate Christians killing each other, Allied Christians and Nazi Christians killing each other, Christian legislators passing laws that force other disciples of Jesus into poverty, and some disciples of Jesus accumulating obscene amounts of wealth while other members of the body of Christ have to sleep out in the rain with nothing but a sheet of cardboard for their protection.
Tonight we share in a meal that is meant to remind us about how much Jesus has loved each and every one of us and already has forgiven us for all that we do every day to contribute to the impoverishment, enslavement, persecution, and death of so many others in our country and throughout the world, including our sisters and brothers in Christ. Jesus gave his body over to be crucified and shed his blood so that we might be liberated from all of our pride, fear, greed, and lust that is at the heart of why we do not have love for one another. This meal that we share this evening is God’s gift of freedom from all that we do to lord ourselves over others, betray those whom we label as non-white, deny our complicity in things like investing in the military industrial complex, and contribute to the death of so many innocent people with our tax dollars.
Jesus gave us a new commandment that we love one another just as he has loved all humankind and that we become the beloved community that would demonstrate to all the world that we truly are disciples of Jesus, our Christ. If it seems to you that I have concentrated too much this evening on the negative side of our humanity, you probably are right, because being a disciple of the Jesus who called us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him goes against almost everything in our being that wants to protect our own possessions, preserve our own investments, secure our own freedoms, and save our own lives at all costs.
That is one reason why we concentrate this evening on the basin, the water, the towel, the bread, and the cup. These are the radical reminders about how Jesus has loved all of us and has forgiven the sins of our fallen humanity, and are the radical reminders of how we are to have love for one another. As we concentrate on these gifts of God’s grace this evening, may the love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, our Christ. Amen.