God Loves Us to the End

By The Rev. Anne Michele Turner

Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

If I could only choose one gospel story to have with me for the rest of my life, this might well be it.  Because I think that this night tells us what we most need to hear from the Christian story. This night tells us about being loved to the end.

It doesn’t seem an auspicious beginning, not at first.  Because, this story makes it pretty clear, pretty early on, that the disciples are not an especially loveable lot.  Throughout John’s gospel, they are remarkably slow on the uptake, over and over again the dullest knives in the drawer.  Wait, you mean he wasn’t just talking about bread there?  If there is a metaphor to be missed, they will miss it.

And when we meet them here at the last supper, they are characteristically inept.  Or worse.  The first thing we hear is that Judas has already decided to sell Jesus out.  And he is sitting at the same table with Peter, who is no prize, either; he either has to resist Jesus or swamp him with enthusiasm.  And in between the two of them are all of those other disciples who don’t seem to get what’s going on and who sit in this passive, befuddled silence while everything happens to them.

And Jesus—well, Jesus doesn’t have to be there.  John makes that repeatedly, explicitly clear to us.  He could be anyplace else.  Jesus knew “that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God.”  John’s gospel has what’s called a high Christology, which means that, more than any other Gospel, Jesus is divine.  He could snap his fingers and be out of that upper room, off to be with some more suitably angelic peers.

Except he doesn’t.  And this is what’s so weird about this gospel, and so stunning, and so powerful, and so important.  Given the choice of being able to do anything, Jesus chooses these things: a towel, and a basin, and the company of a bunch of inept, fair-weather friends.  Given all the power in the universe, Jesus chooses the most powerless, thankless job.  Culturally, foot washing was more common in Jesus’s time than it is now, but feet are still feet.  John makes it clear that the force that was there at the founding of creation, the light that lit up the first dawn of the world—that that light is now crawling around on the floor and scrubbing calluses and being gentle with ingrown toenails.

Jesus chooses this.  Jesus chooses treacherous, bumbling humanity.  Jesus chooses us.

We are just as inept as those disciples, aren’t we?  I like to tell myself that I have clean feet and good command of metaphor and a fairly consistent moral code, but I know that’s only a small part of the truth of me.  Because I have dirt on my soul, too.  I act out of anger, and I act out of fear.  And I cheat.  And I can be mean, and petty, and indifferent, and small-souled.  I am a sinner, and telling myself or you or anyone else anything different is just a lie.

We are all sinners.  You and I:  we are not the people we want to be.  We cannot play the long game of goodness, and quite frankly most of us suck at discipleship, every bit as much as the first disciples sucked at it.

And yet there is no amount of suckage that will keep Jesus from us.  There is no amount of dirt that Jesus will not wash.  There is no amount of sin that will deter our God from loving us.

When the gospel says that Jesus loved his own to the end, this is what I think it means.  Not that Jesus kept it up to the finish line, to the logical conclusion of the narrative arc of the story.  Loving to the end was not an act of time but one of degree.  Jesus loved his people—which is to say all of us—to the very limit.  To the edges of whatever behavior they might display, to the boundaries of what actions they might take, to the very edges of whatever atrocities they might dream up in their bent, flawed minds.

In Christian theology, the reform tradition has a doctrine called total depravity, which is the belief that there is no part of the human soul that is not warped by sinfulness.  I’m still not sure I agree with that, but I do believe that Jesus’s love is the opposite of total depravity.  It is total grace.  It is a love that will find us at the bottom of whatever pit we have fallen into, covered in whatever muck the world has shed on us, worn down by whatever journeys our life has taken us on.  And it is a love that will pick us up, and wash us off, and embrace us gently.  No matter what.

If I have to choose one story, this is the story I choose.  It is the story I would leave you with, this night, and perhaps every night.  That God loves us ridiculously, awkwardly, disproportionately, unstoppably, irreversibly, eternally.  God loves us to the end.

Maybe, in just a few minutes, you will come get your feet washed.  I know that not everyone is comfortable with it.  It’s weird and awkward.  In that respect, it’s kind of like love, which makes us indebted and beholden in ways that most of us are uncomfortable with.  But whether you take off your socks or not, I hope you will recognize that Jesus already has a hold of you.  Jesus gathers together all those parts of you that are most vulnerable and most dirty.   And he holds them.  And he loves them.  And he does not and will not ever let them go.