He Loved Them to the End

Sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 2, 2015 || John 13:1-17, 31b-35

2015maundythurs“Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Thus begins the second half of the Gospel according to John. We’ve walked with Jesus for three years since he called his first disciples, since he miraculously turned water into wine, since he drove the businesspeople out of the temple. We’ve overheard his conversations with the Pharisee Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well. We’ve seen him heal a man suffering from paralysis and a man born blind. We’ve eaten the bread broken to feed 5,000 people. We’ve listened to Jesus call himself all sorts of names: the bread of life, the light of the world, the good shepherd. Recently, in an act that probably sealed his fate with his enemies, he raised his friend Lazarus from the dead.

That’s what happens in the first half of the Gospel. In the second half, we sit down with Jesus at dinner as he washes his disciples feet and talks with them late into the night. We follow him as he is arrested, tried, convicted, and crucified. And with Mary Magdalene and Thomas and the rest of the disciples, we see him risen again.

In between the two halves of the Gospel according to John, we have these two verses serving as a hinge. “Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

He loved them to the end. This is one of my favorite verses in the Gospel because it is deliciously ambiguous. The ambiguity raises this question: What end does he love us to? The obvious answer is his own death: the end about to be narrated, the end that happens at Golgotha. But this “end” is an unsatisfactory choice because we who live on the other side of Easter know that the cross was emphatically not the end.

So what other “end” is there? There’s our own, individual ends. Surely, he loves us to that point. But this too is an unsatisfactory answer, because our own earthly deaths are not the end either. They are a gateway to the larger and fuller life of consummation in God. The most famous hymn ever written reminds us there’s no end to that life, ever. “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.”

Then there’s the end of the planet we live on. That will happen at some point, whether we humans cause it or the star we call the sun loses its light. But even then, we believe the words St. Paul shares with the church in Rome: “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That’s pretty definitive, if you ask me.

Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. I honestly can’t think of an “end” final enough for the love of Jesus Christ to move from the present tense to the past tense. That’s what this week we begin tonight is about. Each day there is another end. Jesus is arrested and everyone flees. That sounds like an end. Jesus is convicted to die. Another ending. Jesus dies on the cross. The story is over. The stone rolls shut on the tomb. The End.

And yet none of these is the end. There is no end where the love of Christ is concerned. The love of Christ is bigger than the end. In the first half of the Gospel, this love heals the broken and raises the dead. This love opens the minds and hearts of those who hear Jesus speak. This love perseveres through the invective of his enemies. And now this love brings him to his knees with a basin and towel to serve his friends. This love expands out from Jesus as he gives his followers a new commandment: to love each other as he loves them. As he loves you. Me. Us.

In another letter, Paul speaks about love. And among those well-trod words, three of them ring out: “Love never ends.” So whether you are at the end of life or simply at the end of your rope, know this. Jesus loves you to the end. And because there is no final end, no end of ends, we can in all faith shorten that sentence to this: Jesus loves you. Always has. Always will. Because there is no end to his love.

Art: Detail from Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples by Tintoretto (late Ren.)

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