God's Cleansing Love
TEXT: John 13:31-35; Acts 11:1-18
Even though we’re fully into the Easter season, the lectionary this week takes us back to the night of Jesus’ betrayal. That’s the context for what we just heard from the Gospel of John. Chapter 13 begins with Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples, including Judas, and comments with several layers of meaning about being clean and unclean.
Right after washing their feet, Jesus is agitated and announces that one of the twelve will betray him. The passage we just read follows immediately after Judas leaves the room and, in John’s symbolic play with darkness and light, John declares at the end of verse 30, “And it was night.”
So it is in the context and contrast of clean feet and a heart bent on betrayal that Jesus announces his imminent departure and decides to give a new commandment to the remaining eleven disciples: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
In case you find yourself thinking, along the lines of a Hallmark card, that love is nice, fluffy, and easy, remember the context. The disciples are to love others the way Jesus has loved them. And how has Jesus loved them? He just showed them. He took on a servant role and cleansed them. He washed their feet—including the feet of the one who would, within the hour, beat a path to the door of Jesus’ enemies to betray him to death.
And then the rest of that incredible weekend unfolded and we zip ahead to our Eastertide place on the church calendar. Judas chose to end his life, perhaps believing that if he didn’t do it, the other disciples would. Peter, however, is still with us, and trying to assimilate all that has happened and trying to remember all that Jesus said and did in his last hours with them.
The foot washing time was memorable for Peter. He knew his own flaws and he knew who it was that was doing the menial chore of washing his feet. He had objected loudly and when Jesus insisted, Peter wanted Jesus to give him a whole bath. Good old Peter. Jesus calms him down and affirms the cleanness not only of Peter’s body, but of his heart. Jesus also mentions that not everyone in the room shares that cleanness of heart, and yet Jesus keeps on washing, not making any distinction. The love of Jesus washed them all and he instructs them to do the same. Then, a few verses later, he names that act as love.
The categories of clean and unclean were primary in the Jewish psyche of Jesus’ day. If you didn’t know the distinction, you would end up being cut off from Jewish life—from the sacrificial system, which was the only means of atonement, and often from being in community with others. You had to pay attention to what you ate and how you ate it, who and what you touched, where you went, who you visited, and the condition of your health. For some infractions you would become unclean for a day, but for others it could be a week or more—maybe even a lifetime if you contracted a disease such as leprosy.
So I don’t think it was lost on Peter that night that Jesus says there are unclean people in the room and he washes their feet anyway. Peter is a proper Jew, and I’m guessing he didn’t really get what Jesus was saying or doing—at least not until Acts 10 where Peter has the strange vision and subsequent experience that he describes to others in Acts 11. The vision, as you hear earlier, revolves around those categories of clean and unclean. He sees a sheet come down from heaven, filled with all the kinds of food a Jew is not supposed to eat—the unclean foods. God tells Peter to eat it.
Peter figures this is some sort of test of his adherence to the law and refuses, as any good Jew would have. But apparently that wasn’t the right answer, because the test comes again. Peter refuses again. It comes a third time—maybe recalling the three times Peter denied Jesus or the three times Jesus later asks him, “Do you love me?”—but still Peter refuses, sticking with the laws in Leviticus, even though God keeps basically saying, “Hey, if I say it’s clean, then it’s clean. Don’t go quoting Scripture at me!”
The vision is then interrupted by a very real version of the same thing. It isn’t food, but some Gentiles are knocking on Peter’s door on behalf of a Gentile Centurion named Cornelius. Cornelius would like a visit from Peter. Well, that’s a no-no. Gentiles were unclean, always and all the time, and to go into the house of a Gentile was strictly forbidden.
But the Holy Spirit has begun to work in Peter and suddenly he gets the vision. Like the day Peter took the great risk of getting out of the boat in a storm and walking on water to Jesus, he takes the risk of being unclean, invites the messengers in to spend the night and then leaves with them the next morning for the home of Cornelius.
That step out the door is the beginning of the Church as we know it today. It began the seismic shift away from a literal interpretation of Scriptural law and into the much more fluid, exciting, and risky world of listening to the voice of God as it speaks in the moment and watching for what the Spirit is actually doing in the world. Not that the church ever blocked the ways that God had spoken to or partnered with the faithful of past millennia; but those who came to believe that Jesus was not dead but alive and very much at work in the world through the Holy Spirit could no longer rule out the possibility that God might do a new thing and even shift the rules to adapt to new circumstances in a new age.
Sounds like heresy until you see that it happened in Scripture itself. Peter’s step out that door led, as you might imagine, to a huge battle in the early church over the literal adherence to the law. Finally the showdown comes in Acts 15 at the Council of Jerusalem. Some cite the law of Moses as a reason that Gentile believers cannot be part of the faith unless they first adhere to Jewish law. Then Paul and Peter get up and say that in their experiences with the Gentiles, God has not seemed too particular about whether anybody was circumcised or not or whether they kept the other laws. When they came to believe, the Holy Spirit filled them, without any regard to whether they were clean or unclean.
Those experiences of the living presence of God ruled the day and the apostles made the astounding, heretical decision not to require circumcision and most of the other Levitical laws of Gentile believers. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant. I don’t think we have even begun to understand how radical a decision they made. It would be like the church today deciding to toss out baptism. But they did it, and they did it because they believed Jesus was alive and working among them and not simply entombed in the sacred pages of Scripture.
It began with Peter stepping out the door to visit Cornelius, and I think the seeds of his ability to interpret the vision and take that step were sown back in his somewhat bumbling, confused days with Jesus. Like the day when Jesus said, “It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Or the fateful night that Jesus washed the feet of the one who would betray him to death before the night was out and who had commanded them all to do likewise.
That was the way Jesus had loved his disciples, and that was the way Jesus commanded his disciples to love others—even to love enemies. To wash them clean with love, even when they are about to betray you; to step over the threshold of those that a literal interpretation of Scripture would say are unclean and bring God’s love.
Do you remember the story of the woman who was hemorrhaging and tried to secretly touch the hem of Jesus’ robe in the hopes of being healed? She was healed, but there’s something else to pay attention to there. A woman was considered unclean during a time of bleeding. For this woman it had been going on 12 years—a condition that was not only horrible physically, but because of her unclean status, it was horrible emotionally and socially as well.
The way clean and unclean worked, the status of unclean trumped clean. In other words, if you were clean and touched something or someone unclean, the uncleanness rubbed off on you as well. In the story of the hemorrhaging woman, Jesus shows that he has come to reverse that. There is contact between an unclean woman and Jesus, but this time, clean trumps unclean. Jesus doesn’t become defiled, the woman is healed and becomes clean.
We see in the life and stories of Jesus that the love of God seeks out those considered unclean and instead of defiling the clean one, such unconditional love heals the defiled one. It happens everywhere you look, and the church is born the day that Peter gets it and brings the love of God to wash the home of Cornelius.
I think the church is languishing today because we are again caught up in trying to separate the clean from the unclean. We’re often stuck in what the Bible said millennia ago to a people whose language and culture we don’t understand and have closed our eyes to how the Holy Spirit is actually at work in the world right now…under our noses.
If you ask me, I think it’s time that the church opened its doors wide—not just to let the supposedly “unclean” messengers in, but more importantly to get up the next morning and to follow them out. Out to their homes. Out to the world. Out to the dusty places where the poor gather, where refugees are starving, where people are brutalized because someone else thinks they are unclean, and to put a towel around our waists and wash their feet before sitting down to a meal. Even if they are about to betray us. Even if the Bible says they are unclean.
Because the Bible also tells us that Jesus can cast out that unclean spirit, can heal the unclean condition, or…as was the case with the Gentiles…that God cares more about the devotion in a person’s heart than about any group to which a person may outwardly belong.
Only you know who the unclean people are in your life and in the life of this church. I don’t know who they are and it might take some soul searching even for you to know it yourself, either as an individual or as a congregation. Sometimes we think we welcome everyone, when what we really mean is we welcome everyone who is willing to do things the way we do it, to like what we like, to behave in ways we think are proper, and to basically become like us. Who are the “unclean” for you? Only you can say.
But I can tell you that God has gathered them all in a sheet and daily lowers them before our eyes. They are in that sheet along with Jesus, who eats with them, touches them, and is washing their feet—saying to us—“Don’t call unclean those I have washed.” Love them as I have loved you…unconditionally, with all your sins and failings and flaws. I have washed you all with my love and invited you to share a meal with me, even if betrayal is in your heart. Go and do likewise. Amen.
Sermon © 2007, Anne Robertson