“I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
Jesus practiced a love that ran contrary to everything the disciples expected. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus summed it up: “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Instead, Jesus “made himself and his own as unhappy, humanly speaking, as possible.” This is the love that smashes every wish dream, forcing us to admit that only God can teach us how to love him and every other human being. We have to give up loving people on our terms and love them on God’s terms. The way of love conceived by the God who kneels is the most radical kind of love. The world cannot recognize this love, and even many Christians struggle to embrace this love.
The world’s idea of love says Kierkegaard is “group-selfishness.” The world rightly condemns me-only self-love as selfish, but when selfishness forms a group of other selfish people the world calls it love. The world demands that selfish people give up a measure of selfishness in order to enjoy the privileges of group-selfishness. This kind of love sacrifices the God-relationship and “locks God out or at most takes him along for the sake of appearance.” Sanctioned self-love comes in many forms: ethnic compatibility, tribal affinity, denominational loyalty, social familiarity, and generational identity. But to love as Christ loves is to know the difference between “group-selfishness” and being the neighbor Christ calls us to be.
True friendship finds its roots in Christ. We are befriended by Jesus. The old gospel hymn says it well: “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.” Our freedom and capacity to be true friends rests on the fact that we have been befriended by Jesus. The command to love one another in John 13:13 is based on the profound deep-soul cleansing and healing that only Jesus can do. The love of Christ “sacrifices everything in order to make room for God.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated the profound implications of this primary relationship with Christ in his helpful classic Life Together. He wrote, “We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.” This means that whatever relational neediness we experience issues out of our primary relationship with Jesus Christ. The abide-in-me-first principle of friendship means that all other relationships depend on this one prior and primary relationship. We need others because of Christ and to be in fellowship with Christ means we will be in friendship with others. Every relationship, whether with a Christian or a non-Christian, is centered in our abiding relationship with Christ. As Bonhoeffer says, “. . .a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ.” This shared experience, within the church, among those who are abiding in Christ, serves as a defense against the selfishness of the human condition.
“The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity.”
Jesus said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” We ought to be amazed that we can do anything along the lines of Jesus. But by choosing the menial task of foot-washing as his example for loving one another, Jesus chose a task that was both ego deflating and outwardly unimpressive. This bottom-rung practical necessity was inconsequential, as was the person who typically performed the task. The work required no skill or training to speak of. There are no bragging rights for foot-washers. When Prince William emerged from the hospital caring a car seat for his newborn son, he did so to the applause and cheers of an adoring crowd of well wishers. Millions of parents do the same thing daily without applause. That’s how it is with foot-washers. The world worries about glass ceilings and room for advancement, but Jesus focused on the basics in the basement. The wisdom of selecting this particular task is that it opens up an infinitude of possibilities. It takes the wind out of the sails of every form of selfishness, even “group-selfishness.”
Upper Room Reflection
Why does “group-selfishness” look like love, but isn’t love?
How can it be said that all love is sourced in God’s love for us?
Why is the love of the God who kneels the most radical kind of love?
How is it that real love opens up an infinitude of possibilities?