Recently the words from the John 13:1 “He loved them until the end” pierced my heart. They are part of John’s prelude to Jesus washing the feet of His disciples. It is His last Passover with them and the end of His ministry. John presents Him washing the feet of the disciples as an example of Jesus loving his disciples to the very end, even Judas who is mentioned in the next verse.
This phrase “until the end” struck me so powerfully because recently I have had opportunities to love my mother and brother until their end. Multiple times I laid hands on both and prayed for their healing. Neither got better, but Mom always said she felt better. Several times in the last couple years, my son Peter has come close to dying from diabetic ketoacidosis. I have stood in a couple ICU’s and asked doctors not to let my son die. We have had practice loving until the end, or possible end, of others.
The health issues Teckla and I face have made us ask what it means for us to love until our end. We are both retirement age, a time when society tells us that we have right to focus more on our comfort and interests. After all, we have earned some “me time” after raising four boys and working hard for decades. Our lives are so blended by years and love that Teckla and I long for us time—time we are not finding for numerous and inescapable reasons. So how do we love others to the end, when we yearn to be loving each other to the end?
If anyone deserved some “me time,” it was Jesus before His crucifixion. But instead, His focus was on His disciples. He washes their feet then provides, in chapters 14 through 17, encouragement and instruction concerning his departure. In love and words, He pours himself out to his disciples before being betrayed, abandoned, beaten, mocked, and then nailed to a cross.
We might be tempted to dismiss this example of Jesus by arguing, “That was Jesus. Of course, He could love others to the end. He is Jesus. I’m not.” However, Jesus does not let us wriggle off the hook. After washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus says, “For I gave you an example that you should do as I did to you” (13:15). Later Jesus announces a new commandment: “that you love one another, even as I loved you” (13:34). We are commanded to love others the way Jesus has loved us, and that means loving until the end.
As already pointed out, that means loving until their end and our end. The context here includes both. It is the end of Christ’s ministry in the world, but it is also the end for Judas. John is pointing out that Jesus washed the feet of all the disciples, including Judas who betrays Him and Peter who denies Him. Jesus loves Judas to the end.
Close attention to the gospels reveals that it could not have been easy for Jesus to love the disciples until the end. The disciples tried the patience of Jesus by arguing who is the greatest among them, by shooing away children, by lacking faith again and again. After the disciples are unable to cast out a particularly stubborn demon, Jesus says:
O unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put with you? Bring him here to me. (Matthew 17:17)
The disciples failed to stay awake with Jesus as He prayed in the garden before being arrested by the Romans. Yet Jesus, knowing that Peter would deny him, that Judas would betray them, and that the others would abandon him, still loved them until the end. Jesus loved with his last drop of blood.
We face, however, several cultural obstacles to loving until the end. We live in a culture and nation that is obsessed with rights. This can be a good thing if we are busy protecting the rights of others. However, we focus mostly on our rights and are quick to go to court to get what we think we deserve. Our culture encourages us to decide when we have given enough, put up with enough, and loved enough. We are encouraged to set boundaries and establish limits.
Sometimes good folks, people who unceasingly who serve others, rebel against the injustice of life. Carlo Carretto, a Catholic writer who was a member of fraternity called the Little Brothers of Jesus, talks about the “revolt of the good” in his book Letters from the Desert. He describes how in most families and in church communities the work and the burdens are distributed unfairly. Such unfairness is often long endured without much gratitude or recognition by others. It creates a festering resentment that explodes into a refusal to keep loving, giving, and sacrificing for others–until the person cries, “Basta!” But loving until we have had enough, waited enough, or given enough is not loving until the end.
Another obstacle is the idea, central to the gospel of Facebook, that we need to cut ourselves off from toxic people. Jesus never compromised his message or the truth to please toxic people—whether they be his enemies or his friends. Plenty of His followers deserted him, and Jesus offended His enemies until they sought to kill him. However, we don’t see Jesus setting limits on His love. Certainly, Judas, who John tells us stole from the disciple’s money box, would qualify as a toxic person. Yet, Jesus washed his feet. We are told by Paul that God demonstrated His love for us “in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” and “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Romans 12: 8, 10). Jesus loved and died for us when we were still toxic.
John explains why Jesus could love until the end. Jesus knew who He was:
Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into His hand and that he had come from God, and was going back to God, rose from the supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself about. (v.3)
Jesus was perfectly secure in his identity and has nothing to prove. He had no need for the approval or applause of others. He had no concern for his rights.
It is hard to wash the feet of others if we are unsure of our identity as beloved children of the King—as princes and princesses in God’s kingdom. If we are busy scurrying around to get our fair share of recognition, we are never free to serve others. We may grab the basin and towel, but we can’t stop hoping that everyone notices how humble we are. Focus on when we have done enough, loved enough, or given enough (at least more than others) makes it impossible to follow the example of Jesus.
If, however, the Holy Spirit bears witness to our adoption by God and our inheritance in Christ, we can pour water in the basin and wash the feet of others. We can pour ourselves out until nothing is left. God’s Spirit gives us the power to forget about ourselves and love others until the end.
Love never fails. It never fails to be the right choice. It never fails to please God. And loving until the end never fails draw us close to Jesus and the fellowship of His suffering. The more we are like Jesus, the more we are with Him.