Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Doylestown, Pa.
Way back when I was in college there was a terrible tearjerker movie called Love Story,which was nominated—unbelievably, it seems now, for seven Academy Awards, and it won the award for best original music score. But what people remember about that movie now, almost 50 years later, it’s not the music. What turned out to be the lasting legacy of the movie Love Storyis the line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
That quote has entered into the popular culture. It’s got its own Wikipedia entry, but even if this is the first time you’ve ever heard it, I’m think you probably know that it isn’t true. It’s a perfect example to me—and this is the reason I mention it today—of the way our culture lifts up love. Our movies and music and novels lift up love as really important but gives us a really distorted view of what love is all about.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to love one another, because love is the single most important thing that will tell the world that you’re my followers. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he tells his friends.
Love is the core of our Christian identify, and we better know what it is, and what it’s not. It’s not affection. It’s not a sentiment. It’s not wishing someone well. It’s not something you fall into if you’re lucky. It’s not a feeling we have for our romantic partners, or for our families.
True love not what a writer who’s written a couple of books about the subject once tweeted: “the lack of desire to check one’s smartphone in another’s presence.”[i]
That’s not what love is, and it certainly doesn’t mean never having to say you’re sorry.
So if none of these things is the kind of love Jesus was talking about, then we have to ask ourselves, what is exactly is this love like?
He gives them this new commandment of love at the Last Supper, but the curious thing is that it’s actually notnew. The familiar words that Jesus speaks about love in other places in the Gospels–“love God with your whole heart and soul and mind and strength,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”[ii]– he didn’t just make that up. He’s actually quoting from the Hebrew Bible. He’s quoting the prayer that faithful Jews say every single day.
But what was new in this new commandment is those five words at the end: love “as I have loved you.” We’re supposed to love the way Jesus loved.
We can see right here in this story that it means loving even when love is hard. Jesus talks about love right after Judas has left the table to make arrangements to set the plot against Jesus in motion—and Jesus knows what’s going on—and this is right before he turns to Peter and tells him that before the night is over, Peter will deny him. And despite these two betrayals, Jesus still loves both of them. He loves Judas. And he loves Peter.
So we see that love is hard. We also see in that same story another aspect of the way Jesus loves in this same story, and that is that it’s self-giving. Certainly we see that on the cross, but we also see it in that gesture of foot-washing which takes place at the same meal. Jesus takes off his outer garment, ties a towel around himself, and stoops to tenderly wash the feet of his disciples. Performing a service for them that is normally a lowly servant’s job.
And when he’s done, he tells them something important. He tells them to follow his example and do the same thing for each other. And in the church today, we usually do that once a year, on Maundy Thursday. But in the L’Arche communities around the world—where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together in community—foot-washing is a really important ritual. It’s something that’s repeated frequently. It’s expresses something that’s essential to the spirit of the community without using any words, and that’s important.
You might have heard about L’Arche—which means ark—and about the founder, Jean Vanier. He died earlier this month and he was buried last week, and he’s been in the news a lot over the last couple of months. Some people were calling him a living saint. Vanier was a Canadian—a philosopher, theologian, and writer—but he’s really best known for founding these L’Arche communities. They’re places where people with and without intellectual disabilities live together in community. There are about 150 of them now, in almost 40 countries around the world.
The members of these communities with intellectual disabilities are called “core members,” and the members without these disabilities are called “assistants.” And the assistants provide intimate personal care. They do anything the core members can’t do for themselves, sometimes including feeding and bathing and dressing them. But they all live together as peers, as equals. There’s no hierarchy. They recognize that everyone has something to give in community, that everyone needs and can give love.
The assistants are often volunteers who come and spend a year or so living in the community. One young woman spend a year living in a L’Arche community after college, and later she wrote about that experience. And she said the experience had totally changed her view of service—“both what it means to serve as well as to be served.” And really, I think it totally changed her view of love, what it means to love, and what it means to be loved. She said:
In L’Arche houses the washing of the feet takes on a significant meaning because in this blessed and simple community the beauty of human connection is revealed. How important is loving, tender, human touch when one cannot talk or hear or see? How important is loving, tender, human touch when one is pre-occupied with the problems of the world, the stress of running a household, the scourge of depression, or the inability to love oneself? L’Arche assistants learn sooner or later that we all have disabilities, some are just more visible than others. When we washed each other’s feet at the L’Arche house, we did it beyond the roles of assistant and core member. We were simply brothers and sisters before God.“[iii]
How would our world be changed—how would we be chang—if we could love with that kind of tenderness, seeing all others simply as our brothers and sisters before God?
Vanier talked and wrote a lot about love, because L’Arche is really all about love, and about loving the way Jesus loved. “To love someone,” he said, “is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value. … To love someone is to reveal to them their capacities for life, the light that is shining in them”[iv]… Loving someone means showing them “their beauty, their worth, and their importance.”[v]
So true love for others begins with seeing them for exactly who they are and also who they could be, and relating to them in a way that helps them to see those things for themselves. And more than just revealing that light inside and their capacities, true love has the power to help them live into them.
That’s exactly how God loves us. God’s love is the force that enables us to live as the people we were created to be. And the name we use for that power of God’s love—the name we use for the lived experience of God’s love—is grace.
That clear-eyed and empowering love, that’s how parents love their children. It’s how good teachers love their students. But what if we all loved that way? What if we loved everyone that way? I think that’s the way that Jesus loved.
What if we loved our literal neighbors and the people we work with that way? Or the people we meet every day, the people who serve us by ringing up our orders at the grocery store, or pumping our gas, or serve us and clearing away our dishes in restaurants?
What if looked at them and could see each one as another child of God? What if we could see that we need their love as much as they need ours?
How would the way we treat them change? How would we ourselves be changed?
What if we could the poor of this nation and the world as children of God who are no more or less valuable than ourselves, and what if we really believed that the mission Jesus gave us in his new commandment is to find some way to love them into fulfilling the full human potential God gave them? What if we saw those miserable women and children huddled at our southern border the same way, and loved them?
I could keep adding to the list: People we disagree with politically. Other drivers out on the road. Refugees fleeing terror in other parts of the world. People in our own country who are terrified. And so on.
The world we live in now feels a lot meaner than it used to be, and people seem to be really angry everywhere I go. Where does that anger come from. Is it because we have forgotten the true meaning and our true mission of love?
I wonder what would happen if we resolved to take to heart that simple command of Jesus, to love one another as God loves us. I want to hope that if we loved that way, we really could change the world.
[i]@alaindebotton March 10. 2012.
[ii]Mark 12:28-34, Luke 10:25-27
[iii]Katy Beedle Rice, “The Washing of the Feet,” https://akinsidepassage.org/2013/03/26/the-washing-of-the-feet/. Accessed May 17, 2019.
[iv]Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community, p. 16.
[v]Jean Vanier, Seeing Beyond Depression, p. 19.