Reflection: May 6

Published on May 15th, 2018 by Rev. David Boyd | 0

         I’ve often wondered if you can actually mandate someone to love.  The passage from John’s Gospel this morning is an echo of the passage we read every Maundy Thursday—the Thursday of the Last Supper, just before Easter.  At that observance, we read the story of Jesus taking basin and towel and washing his friends’ feet.  He also says that I give you this mandate—that you are to love one another. Mandate and Maundy come from the same Latin root word, which means “to command.”

         I remember a historian telling the story of one of the German Kaisers of the 19thCentury. Many of them were, like the Tsars of Russia, ruthless and uncaring of the common people they were to serve. The story told by a historian tells of this particular Kaiser walking down a road—well, he didn’t walk, he stomped pompously and regally as he thought befitted a demi-god.  People would scurry out of his way and hide in doorways or behind whatever was at hand.  Finally, apparently, the Kaiser was bothered by everyone getting out of the way and he cornered some poor man, who cowered before him.  “Why are you hiding,” demanded the Kaiser.  “Because I was afraid of your majesty,” said the poor man. “Why would you be afraid?” “Because I know of your greatness and the many wondrous decisions you have made.”  (The poor man was scared to say what he really believed.)  “Well, you must love me, you wretch.  Love me,” the Kaiser ordered.

         What is interesting about Jesus’ commandment to love is that it is told, not by someone with power over, but by someone who was with them in their struggle.  Jesus called those with him friends.  In today’s world, with friends so common on Facebook and the like, we use the word “friend” rather casually.  Jesus used it intentionally to make the point that we are equals and mutually interdependent.

Now, cultural anthropologists say that there were two types of friendships in the ancient world of Palestine: there were political friendships along the line of patron and client, an unequal relationship based on power; and there was what was called fictive-kinship friendship, based on the lines of reciprocal love, respect, honour and integrity.[1]  Jesus’ calling his people friends was along this line of fictive-kinship.

Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, once said of friendship, “we define a friend as one who will always try, for your sake, to do what is good for you.”  The kinship part of this meant that we are even to defend a friend with our lives.

It was a radical thing for Jesus to call those with him friends, the implication being that we call each other friends. Jesus held power, but he didn’t use that power to dominate.  He invited participation and involvement; he invited people to live the rule of love, which is egalitarian, hope-filled, life-giving, welcoming, hospitable—all those good things that Paul later wrote about to the Corinthian Church in that famous chapter about love.  Teachers in those days didn’t welcome their students to be equals.  There was a hierarchy, but Jesus contravened that accepted norm.

Jesus challenged that there was an order and everything should follow that order.  It was God’s intent that the world be turned upside down and people realize that the most important thing by which we live our lives is love.  And so, it is not surprising that the people that Jesus gathered around him were a rag-tag group.  You had fisherfolk, tax collectors, prostitutes, rabbis, students, lepers, people who were once unclean, Samaritans, other non-Jews, all made up of women and men.  And they were to be friends of each other; they were to lay down their lives for each other.  Really! They were to be kin!

Reading David Steindl-Rast’s book, The Way of Silence, has confirmed for me again that the only way we tear down the barriers that separate us is through a heart to heart appeal.  We have to get out of our heads and find the common things that define us as human beings—an appreciation of beauty, love, feelings of acceptance, having enough to eat, having good clean water, a place to sleep, all of which are about belonging. We belong to each other in the grand scale of mystical union.  We create barriers and boundaries out of a sense of power or greed or fear or whatever, all of which undermines a sense of belonging.

Many of us have been suggesting for some years that our current climate crisis, for example, is one way that we can see the kinship and friendship exist between us.  That this common threat we face is our opportunity to widen our circle of friendship to cross the barriers we’ve erected. In fact, only by coming together in friendship, will we get through this crisis.

And the first step we can take is to change our behaviour, to not let fear dictate how we will live.  That’s the message that people have offered in Toronto as a result of the recent tragedy; that we will be strong together in friendship, that through love we seek to make friends even of the stranger, that we will take steps across the divides with an open hand of love and kinship.

One commentator on this passage from John, Professor Osvaldo Vena in Evanston, Illinois, has asked rhetorically, “I often wonder what the church would look like if its distinctive sign would have been the towel and the basin rather than the cross and the empty tomb. Instead of redemptive suffering — which has justified so much bloodshed through the idea of the Christus Victor, from the Crusades to the Conquest, to the Holocaust, we would have love, the giving of oneself for the other.”[2]  Taking water and washing feet and naming the other as friend is what we are about. Two symbols for Diaconal Ministry in the United Church are basin and towel.  They are symbols of servanthood and love/compassion.

We are friends to one another; we are servants of each other.  We are united in a love that takes us out of our comfort zones and into a deep friendship. 



[1]See Social-Science Commentary on the Book of John by Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh.  Page 235-36.

[2]See Working Preacher website:

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