Thursday, April 1, 2021

Sermon: “Recipe for Repentance: Empathy”, John 13:1-17, 33b-35 (April 1, 2021--Maundy Thursday)

(This is the Maundy Thursday sermon for our Lenten series, "Recipe for Repentance".
Previous sermons can be found herehereherehere, and here,
and the Ash Wednesday message can be found here.)


I think I’ve mentioned it in the past, but it bears repeating that the word “Maundy” (which we see almost exclusively in the context of Holy Week) comes from the Latin word for “command”. While this holy day is most often associated with the Last Supper or the foot washing that we just read about, it’s named for the “new commandment” that Jesus gives the disciples: “Love one another as I have loved you.” As an aside, I always imagine Jesus smiling wryly as he calls this a “new” commandment, since it’s the exact same message he’s been trying to get across since day one of his ministry. But on Maundy Thursday, he elevates it from a suggestion or an instruction to a genuine commandment, on par with the Torah: Love one another as I have loved you.

Today might be named for the commandment and not for the evening’s activities, but that doesn’t mean that the two aren’t connected. No; in fact, the latter reinforces the former: Jesus gives this command not ONLY in word, but in action, too, providing a vivid example for his disciples of what, exactly, he’s talking about. He insists on washing his disciples’ feet, even over Peter’s protestations. Do you know why Peter objects to having his feet washed by Jesus? Because that’s a job for a servant or a slave, certainly not for one’s friend or (heaven forbid!) one’s RABBI. This action disrupts the power dynamics of their society and is (from Peter’s perspective) completely inappropriate. But Jesus disagrees; he insists that service shouldn’t be equated with power, but with love. After all, love involves action, not just emotion, right? If you love someone, you’ll seek opportunities to serve them. And (as the disciples find out shortly thereafter) we’re all called to love one another, so…

Now, it’s one thing to serve your friends because you love them: that’s easy enough, right? Many of us do this without even thinking about it. But Jesus isn’t telling us just to love the people we like. That wouldn’t be much of a sign of discipleship. In Luke’s gospel, he says frankly that even sinners love those who love them. It’s not the badge of righteousness that we might hope to love our family and friends. We all know (but sometimes conveniently forget) Jesus’ instructions to love those who persecute us; this commandment given in John grows naturally out of that teaching. Now, it’s no longer a “should”; it’s a “must”.

In order to follow this commandment, to love our enemies (and even our friends), we need to consciously develop some emotional tools. Specifically, we need a fine-tuned sense of empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. When we understand their feelings, we better understand their needs. Empathy helps us figure out how best to serve others—and therefore, how best to love them. When we have a strong sense of empathy, it becomes much easier to love our enemy, because we’re able to *get* them in a way that would be otherwise impossible.

As Jesus moved around that room, looking each of his friends in the eye and demonstrating his love for them, I have to imagine that it wasn’t especially difficult for him…until he came to Judas. He knew what Judas had done and was going to do. He knew exactly what was in store for him, and exactly who was responsible for it. He even told his disciples, “Not every one of you is clean,” leaving no room for doubt as to his understanding of the situation. He must have been heartbroken, hurt, and afraid. And yet…Jesus washed Judas’ feet, too. He loved Judas through this act, just like the others. I have to believe that, as aggrieved as he must have been by Judas’ betrayal, Jesus empathized with him. He would have known the pain in Judas’ heart, the moral and emotional struggle that he must have gone through, and his own fear that drove him to forsake his friend. And so, mere moments before Judas left to hand his teacher over to death, Jesus served him in love.

It’s hard to argue with that kind of example. Jesus is the epitome of practicing what he preaches: love and service through empathy, even for those who won’t return or appreciate it. Who is that for you? Who do you feel most hated by? This commandment isn’t instructing us to submit to their hate (remember, it’s not about power) but to try to understand them and love them in spite of it.

And on the flip side…who do you hate? I know, I know; we all want to say, “I don’t hate ANYONE,” but the fact is that all of us, ALL OF US, have treated someone else in a way that, as a beloved child of God, they don’t deserve to be treated. Judas probably would have claimed that he didn’t hate Jesus. But his actions certainly didn’t reflect the love that Jesus taught.

The good news is that, even when we act in hateful ways, it’s never too late to do better. The first step is repentance, and empathy has a role to play here, too. See, *genuine* repentance isn’t just about us. It’s not just that we’re sorry because we got caught or because our chances to see the Kingdom of God just got a little slimmer. It’s that every one of our actions in the world affects those around us, and it’s the sins that hurt others that cause the greatest separation from God—it’s these sins that grieve God the most. So in order to repent, we need to truly understand others, so that we can see how our actions have hurt them. We need empathy in order to change our hateful attitudes in light of Jesus’ new commandment. When we understand how we’ve hurt others, it makes us want to *do* something about our sin. We want to make it right, to correct the mistakes we’ve made…to serve those whom we’ve wronged. In this way, empathetic repentance for the way we’ve harmed others is an act of love, one just as important as serving those who’ve harmed us. Both are meaningful ways for us to live out this “new” commandment that Jesus has given us.

It’s interesting that the story that we most often associate with Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper, isn’t found anywhere in John’s gospel. Maybe it’s because John wanted to make the connection between love and service crystal clear, and a story about Jesus willingly taking on the job of a household servant certainly communicates that effectively. But in a world where so many go hungry, both literally and metaphorically, sharing a meal with others can be a radical act of empathy. Inviting someone to your table—whether a friend, someone who’s harmed you, or someone you’ve harmed—is a way to meet that person’s needs, and it’s the perfect opportunity to get to know them better. When we invite others to the table, we say, “Let me serve you. You are loved, and you are welcome here.”

Jesus has prepared an abundant feast for us, and he calls US to keep adding more places to the table. We gather for this meal with so much more that unites us than divides us; we gather in repentance, in service, in empathy, and in love. We gather to better understand one another in the name of Christ. This table doesn’t belong to us, but it’s our job to make sure that it’s full. There’s plenty of room, so in recognition of the deep human need to belong, let’s set a place for everyone Christ loves—our friends and our enemies alike. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment