I recently heard a TED talk about a 75-year study conducted by Harvard University. In this study they followed the lives of more than 700 men beginning in 1938. They began by looking at two groups, the first being Harvard students at the time and the second being a group of young boys from the south end of Boston, which at the time was one of the poorest areas in the city. For the next 75 years the participants were interviewed every two years to gather data about all aspects of their lives. The purpose of the study was to determine what causes happiness in a person’s life.
What the study found was that it is strong relationships that lead to happiness. Based on the data the researchers could trace periods of happiness and unhappiness back to their root causes; but more importantly what they found was that over time they were able to predict how their subjects would be feeling based on the data they were gathering. When the subjects were in strong and loving relationships they were happier regardless of what other things may be happening in their lives.
Our faith can seem overwhelming and complicated, but this often because we are our own worst enemies. In our, seemingly, infinite desire to understand and have control we lose sight of the fact that the purpose of our faith is relationship. It is, at its core, about the relationship between people and God; people and the church; people and people; and people and creation.
Through the words of Exodus, we hear that it is through their rescue from Egypt that God establishes a more permanent community and relationship with the people of Israel. God is the source of the relationship between the Hebrew people, it is their belief in God that brought them together to form that community and it is their belief in God that keeps them in relationship with one another. The Exodus story is highlighting the style of relationship God wants to be in with all of us. It is a relationship based on mutual love, where both God and you spend your time and energy on building the relationship with one another.
Today’s reading from John highlights the establishment of a new relationship, a relationship also rooted in love; Love for God and for all of humanity. With a simple act of humility, we are given a glimpse of what a relationship with God is truly like. Like the Exodus story, John’s account of the last supper establishes the kind of relationship we are to have with both God and one another. When Jesus kneeled before his disciples to wash their feet he was symbolically demonstrating the love of God, who’s love is so vast that he is willing to lower himself to his knees, which is a position of reverence, submission, and complete surrender to the situation. When we kneel we are not only defenseless and unable to flee, but we are also placing our trust in the person before us. God has placed his trust in us to be the instruments of his love and mercy in creation and he established that when Jesus knelt before the disciples, all twelve of them, even Judas whom he knew would betray him, and washed their feet. He then told them to do the same for one another. Now the story of the foot washing may very well be just that, a story. Whether or not it occurred is irrelevant though, what matters is what we can learn from it. What is God calling us to do? The answer to that question is found in today’s Gospel. At the very end of the passage Jesus says “as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Every single action we are told Jesus did and every parable he told was rooted in this.
God loves his creation so much that he was willing to put himself, in the form of Jesus, in harm’s way so that he could show us firsthand how to experience his love. Until his last night on earth Jesus had spent his time showing his followers, and through them, us how to experience Gods love by living the way God has called us all to live. He did not judge others, he did not withhold his compassion, he simply lived his life with humility, empathy, and love. When he came to the end of his life he knelt before his friends and washed their feet. He could have fled into the wilderness and probably lived a long life as a refugee and wanted man, but he didn’t. He accepted his worldly punishment with the knowledge that he never wavered in his devotion to his Father and that his father’s devotion to him also never wavered.
In the beginning, I talked about the importance of relationships to being happy. When people come from a loving and supportive home, they are happy and that allows them to thrive and grow as people. The sad reality is that many people do not come from loving and supportive homes. There are many people in the world who do not have a network of relationships to fall back on in hard times. And when you are in that lonely and dark place it is easy to forget that God is always present, because you can’t see him. It is also easy to fall into bad habits, with the hope that they will help you feel better. Some people turn to alcohol, some to drugs, and in many cases far more risky behaviors in the hope of either becoming oblivious to the world or at least covering the pain and loneness they feel. The problem is that these things give you nothing more than false hope. There is no real chance that these behaviors will improve their lives, which means they are engaging with nothing more than wishful thinking. There is hope in relationships, whether that relationship is with another person or with God.
In both the old and new testament we are called us to “Love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul.” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself”. We are called to be Gods representatives in the world. In Exodus, Moses was Gods representative. It was through Moses that God led the people of Israel to the Promised Land and established their lasting relationship. It is through Jesus that God has established a relationship with us. It is now on us to be Gods face and ahnds in the world, it is up to us to reach out to the people who don’t have strong relationships and allow God to reach them through us, because he can’t reach them on his own. He can’t reach them because they can’t recognize him; but if we reach out and offer them friendship, they will come to know God through us and with the help of the Holy Spirit, eventually be able to be aware of God on their own. We have the ability to do this because we already do Love God with all of our hearts, mind and souls. We are aware of his love; we can feel it and experience it. Now is the time to be brave and to take the next step. We need to spread God’s love to everyone around us by engaging in the world, we need to build relationships based on trust and understanding. It is through this type of engagement that God will be able to reach everyone, and it is through that relationship that many people will find the kind of love they are searching for. Even if they never fully experience God’s love, they will at least have had yours.
I recently read a book called “The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual faithfulness in Judaism” By Jon Levenson. In it Levonson discusses the Hebrew understanding of God’s love and how it appears in scripture. He argues that God’s love in based on the relationship between God and the Israelites, much like Christian scholars argue that divine love is based on our relationship with the trinity. Towards the end Levenson says “The life focused on the love of God…is a life lived actively in the world yet focused on the Creator and drawing its energy from all-encompassing love for him.”
So as we come together tonight to wash one another’s feet and to celebrate the Lord’s supper remember what these two acts symbolize. They symbolize the love of God and his willingness to kneel before us in humility and love. They symbolize the relationship we have with God, as well as with one another and all of creation. God wants nothing more from us than to love him and to use his love to help us love others.