I cannot read the gospel passages of Jesus’ last week on earth without wondering what must have been running through his mind. I realize that this is pure speculation — nothing more or less. But I feel like it must have been a time of great agitation and ambiguity. I can accept that Jesus reconciled himself to his own impending sacrifice. What catches my attention is how seemingly unready and unprepared the disciples were to carry on Jesus’ work. They were still ambitious, oblivious, obtuse, and naive. They were confused, doubting, duplicitous, and daunted. They weren’t ready to cope with what was to come. At best, they might hang together behind closed doors, hiding. Jesus faced his death not knowing whether his friends could carry on without him. They certainly gave him no indication they were capable. And he loved them anyway. On the night he gave himself up, he sat with his disciples and friends and — in the synoptics — he broke bread and blessed a cup of wine and he offered one last gesture of unity and grace. Peter still didn’t get it. James and John were wrestling with ambition. Thomas, was, well, Thomas. We don’t know much about the others, but it is safe to say that they weren’t far ahead of their compatriots. And Judas, for whatever motivation one might ascribe, betrayed Jesus. Within hours they would abandon him, and in various ways deny him, and he loved them anyway.
In John’s gospel, Jesus humbled himself and washed his friend’s feet. He took upon himself the role of servant, to offer one last, powerful witness to his affection and regard for those who shared the last few years of his life. Once more, lovable Peter missed the point — wanting a full-body wash — but Jesus took the opportunity to prepare them for the trials to come. Even with all the assurances and promises Jesus make to his followers throughout the passion week in John’s gospel, there is no stronger evidence that they “get it,” in John, but despite their lack of understanding, he loved them anyway.
And then the crowds. Those who shouted his praise, then drifted away — those who screamed for his blood — those who cheered the lashes — those who mocked and spit and abused. He faced an unbelievable and unbearable rejection from the very people he came to save… and he loved them anyway. He forgave them. I can’t get my head around the pure grace, the unadulterated consideration and concern. This is a love that few can comprehend, and I fail time after time. I struggle to forgive the person who cuts me off in traffic. I lose my cool with the irritating waitress at the restaurant. I feel outraged when I get stuck in line behind someone who can’t make up their mind. I’m not sure, after a lifetime of Christian teaching and community that I really “get” this forgiveness stuff, but Jesus loves me anyway.
Jesus loves us all. As God is love, so Jesus is an eternal manifestation of this love — in whatever form we might conceive or understand him. Unbridled love. Unbounded love. Unconditional love. All true, but love without limits? It is hard to believe. Does this love extend to criminals? Not just thieves, but murderers? Not just murderers, but pedophiles? Not just pedophiles, but terrorists? This is where it gets harder and harder. This is where we start feeling the urge to excise portions of scripture. We don’t want to love our enemies. We don’t want to forgive those who persecute us. We don’t want to embrace those who wish to hurt us. This doesn’t feel like love; it feels like insanity. But what if it is true? What if, despite all our failings and sins, Jesus loves us anway?
First, it destroys the dividing walls of hostility. There is no “us/them”. There is only “us.” We are responsible for us. This doesn’t mean we agree with everything, or tolerate everything, or accept everything. Anyone who has ever been in real love knows that it doesn’t make you weak, it makes you strong. There are still boundaries in love. You can love someone and prevent them from doing violence. You can love someone and insure that they will not behave in violent and destructive ways. But you set limits and laws because you love, not because you don’t. Our highest calling is to become the body of Christ. Our greatest challenge is to be that body for everyone, not just those we like or agree with. And whether we succeed or fail in our inclusiveness, Jesus loves us anyway.
Second, it defines our reason for being. We no longer waste our time fixating on all our differences. We don’t divert energy to division, but to reconciliation and union. We seek to build bridges and form relationships instead of putting up walls and deciding who is acceptable and who isn’t. We stop talking about who “deserves” care, who “belongs” here, and who is “entitled.” All belong, all deserve, all are entitled, according to God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. That which brings unity honors God; that which divides does not. But regardless of how well or how poorly we manage this, Jesus loves us anyway.
Third, it redefines what it means to be holy, good, and right. Too often, in our fallen state, we define our righteousness against that which we dislike in others. What I believe is true; therefore anyone who disagrees is wrong. Being “good” is a case of subjective and arbitrary morality. I embrace that which I agree with and approve of. I can pick and choose scriptures to validate what I believe. I can decide that “good” people never strike their children, and I can cite biblical precedent to support this “truth.” I can decide that “good” people discipline their children with an iron hand and apply domestic pressure where appropriate, and I can cite biblical precedent to “prove” it is the “truth.” Then, I can debate endlessly with people who see things differently than I do, all in the twisted names of “holiness,” “righteousness,” and “goodness.” I can use my personal opinions and faith to turn morality into a sham. But whether I am being fair, or rational, or kind, or faithful, Jesus loves me anyway.
Holy week always makes me take a good look in the mirror and honestly acknowledge my failings and imperfections. The incredible sacrifice of Jesus humbles me, and in humility I feel ashamed. I am so far from being the person I believe God wants me to be. I fail to build bridges. I set up walls. I get sucked into silly debates over who is right and who is wrong. I waste time thinking and talking ABOUT God, instead of spending time WITH God. I take for granted the glorious gift of my faith and relationship with Jesus Christ, and lament that I have not come further. But, in the same mirror I see hope. I see potential. I see not only what I have not been, and what I am not, but what I could be. By the grace of God, I can occasionally catch a glimpse of what Jesus might see, and in that instant I know I am still loved, and that makes all the difference in the world.