(John 13: 1-17, 31b-35)
For decades, even centuries, the Pope carried out a tradition for Maundy Thursday. 12 priests would be selected to have their feet washed by the Pope, and the Pope would ceremoniously wash their feet just as Jesus washed the 12 disciples feet in the passage from John which we just read.
That is until things were changed in 2013. Pope Francis in 2013 rather than selecting 12 priests, 12 holy men, whose feet to wash Pope Francis chose instead to wash the feet of 12 detainees at the juvenile facility in Rome. 2 of those young people were Muslim and 2 were women.
He changed the tradition, he changed what it meant to do what had become a routine of foot washing in the Vatican City. Choosing instead of the ritual to choose the act of radical love. To bow down at the feet of those who ought to bow to him and to wash their dirty, muddied, blistered, even tattooed feet.
Changing what it meant for the Pope to wash the feet of 12 on Maundy Thursday. Reclaiming the bold act of love, rather, the radical act of love of Jesus. The radical act of love. Radical, meaning to fundamentally change something. To fundamentally change; Jesus on the that night before his death fundamentally changed what love meant.
He took love that meant care for, love that meant protection of, love that meant rescue, love that meant provide for. And he made love mean “I am with you,” he made it mean “I wash your dirty feet,” he made it mean “I break bread with you even when you deny me,” he made it mean “I love you when you don’t love me back.” He fundamentally changed what love meant that night.
Those disciples, and of course us, ought to walk away from that night, from that night long ago that we remember tonight with a fundamentally different understanding of what love means.
Not because they were told what love was, not because Jesus gave a new definition of love or explained it differently. Rather, because the disciples finally experienced that love. They experienced what this radical love is. They experienced it as Jesus knelt before them and picked up their burdened and muddied feet and washed them clean, he picked up their gross and embarrassing stuff and held it in his hand and washed it. He sat with them knowing they would deny him, broke bread with them knowing they forget him. He became for them, “radical love.”
This radical love, fundamentally different love, fundamentally different from greeting card love, or romantic love, or strong like love, or desire love. This radical love has a name. The word in Greek is a word familiar to most of us, agape, agape love.
Interestingly, the word “agape” is rarely found in ancient Greek literature. In Homer it appears only ten times and only three times in Euripides. But in the New Testament, in the New Testament it appears THREE HUNDRED AND TWENTY TIMES.
Agape love isn’t some ancient custom known to people of the time, it is a concept that tells us who Jesus is, Jesus is radical love, Jesus is agape love.
I tried and tried to find the perfect definition of love, of agape love. And I found none that do it justice. Some describe agape love as love from God, sacrificial love, the highest form of love. But those definitions don’t fully do the trick and I think that’s exactly what agape love is, its totally undefinable, incomprehensible, illogical.
Agape love, radical love, Jesus love, it’s the kind of love that loves without condition, that loves when you think you can’t be loved, the kind of love that makes no darn sense, the kind of love that finds you when you think you’re at your most unlovable and says “I love you still.” It’s the kind of love that can only be known through sharing, through experience, through story, not the kind of love that can be explained, the kind of love that can only be known.
Agape love, radical love, Jesus love, it is the new commandment which Jesus gives to us — that we love one another, that we radically, Jesus love one another, and that by loving one another we too know that we are radically, Jesus loved too.