How Jesus Lived Like He Was Dying: Love and Service
Maundy Thursday; John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
There’s a country music song from the early 2000s by Tim McGraw called “Live Like You Were Dying”. The song tells the story of the singer’s conversation with a man who received a life-threatening diagnosis some time ago when he was in his early forties. He asks the man what he did once all that news sank in. Then he breaks into the chorus saying: he went skydiving, rocky mountain climbing, and bull riding. He loved deeper, spoke sweeter, and gave forgiveness he'd been denying. He was a better husband and a better friend. He took time to go fishing and watch an eagle fly. And each chorus closes with the words, “He said, someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.”
I thought of this song when I reflected on our Maundy Thursday text this evening. We don’t get the whole story of the Last Supper, arrest, and trial. We get a shorter passage about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and telling them that they should love one another as he loved them. He clearly knows what’s coming, that he’s about to die. And as his final act before death, Jesus chooses an act of love and service. As he prepares to die, Jesus chooses to care for others. For Jesus, to live like he was dying meant to love and serve.
I wondered to myself, how would I respond if I knew I’d be crucified within the next 24 hours? Honestly, I probably wouldn’t be in the best mood. And I might be pretty concerned with myself. I might be pretty wrapped up in my own needs and ask my friends to take care of me. But for Jesus, his concern was for his disciples. Especially in the Gospel of John, Jesus is shown to be fearless about his death. While the other Gospels include a prayer that God remove this cup from him, John presents Jesus as much more concerned with how his disciples are going to handle his death. How they will respond. Both to his death and to life without him after he ascends to the Father. This is his last chance to really prepare them for life without him. And so for Jesus, to live like he’s dying means doing what he’s been doing all along: to love and serve. And in doing so, he prepares them to continue his mission.
It's amazing that Jesus would respond to certain torture and death with love and service. But really that is how he lived his entire life. Jesus sets the model for his disciples, and he sets the model for us. To live life, not concerned for ourselves, not absorbed in our own needs, but dedicated to caring for others, to loving and serving. That’s how Jesus lived like he was dying. And that’s how Jesus teaches his disciples to continue living when he is no longer with them.
This final act of washing of his disciples’ feet is a physical symbol of his final instructions to them. An acting out of what love and service look like. Of taking the lower place even if you’re greater by the world’s standards because the Kingdom of God is all about that role reversal. There’s even the somewhat humorous interaction between Jesus and Peter. Where Peter tries to show respect for Jesus by refusing to let him wash his feet, because that was the job of a slave. Then when Jesus tells him “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Then in a very Peter-like fashion he completely changes his mind and goes overboard: Well in that case, wash everything! I can almost imagine Jesus with a sigh or eye roll at Peter’s comment. He explains that that’s missing the point too. That this isn’t about cleanliness—it’s about love and service.
Jesus then describes to the group that he washed feet, the duty of a slave, not because they are greater than him, after all Jesus is their teacher and lord. But he did this because greatness—who’s superior, who’s more important—doesn’t matter in the Kingdom of God. In fact, in the Kingdom of God those who are greatest are the ones who love and serve the most, the ones who lower themselves not the ones who exalt themselves. And so this is how they are to act. If they’re going to continue Jesus’ mission—this manifestation of the Kingdom of God—then this is how they should live too. Acting in the same way of service and love for all people, especially those the world would say are “less than” they are.
Jesus came to serve not to be served. And Jesus prepared for his death by doing what he always did, loving and serving those God gave him to lead. And it is this kind of love and service that slowly transforms the world. It is through this kind of love and service that God is embodied here and now. Because God is love. God is present whenever we love one another. God is always present of course, but God shines brightly when we embody love and service. The invisible God becomes visible when we act out of love and service. That is how we bring God’s light into the world. How God becomes incarnate in us. That’s what Jesus did. And that’s what Jesus taught his disciples to do. And that’s what Jesus calls us to do as well.
So Jesus’ final command to love one another as he loved us is not just a nice parting word to be kind to each other. It is literally the way to continue his mission of incarnating the divine in the world. To continue manifesting God through our own bodies. To continue his mission of God’s Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven.
That is how Jesus prepared to leave this world. By commanding and demonstrating love and service. By practicing what he preached. By concretely putting into practice what he’d been teaching them all along.
And at the end of the night, after showing the disciples what they are called to do, Jesus will take love and service to its extreme conclusion. Jesus will demonstrate the ultimate sign of love and service. Jesus will die on a cross. Jesus will die on a cross because he loves and serves the world. Jesus will embody love and service by literally dying as a way to love and serve a broken world. Because that’s what love does—suffers on behalf of others and gives freely of itself. Love is what led Jesus to the cross. His love for us and for all humanity. He took all the pain and suffering and sin of this broken world onto himself. Absorbing all the pain of the human experience, drawing it to himself, feeling it to its fullest, and letting human sin to kill God incarnate.
Dying to love and serve the world. Dying to heal and redeem the world. Dying to bring reconciliation and wholeness. Dying to free us from sin, heal our brokenness, liberate us from estrangement with the divine. The death of God brings life to all.
That’s what love and service led Jesus to do. And while his disciples are not called to go through the exact same thing to free the world from sin (which—of course—we cannot do ourselves), we are called to take that same love and service and do with it whatever God is calling us to. Love and service led Jesus to the cross. Love and service will lead us to uncomfortable places too. Love and service will change our lives also. Following our teacher’s call to love and serve in the way the way he did, let us strive to embody divine love in the world. The divine love that Jesus incarnated throughout his life is the same divine love we make incarnate every time we serve someone in need, every time we love unconditionally, every time you do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
And so, as we enter into the great three days of Jesus’ death and resurrection, let us remember what Jesus’ love and service does for us: the gift of redemption through his death on the cross. And let us also remember this night that he called his disciples then, and calls us now, to embody that same divine love in our lives. The love that led Jesus to the cross is the same love that led him to wash his disciples’ feet. And it is the same love which calls us to serve a world in need. That is how the world will know we are disciples of Jesus—if we have love for one another.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.