28 Nov 2012

Love: The Road Less Traveled, Jn 13.1-17

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Church, Gospel of John, Grace, Jesus, Kingdom, Love, Martin Luther King, Preaching, Race Relations

A word about this post.  The following is the text of a sermon I was invited to preach at the Bell Flower Missionary Baptist Church in Grenada, MS on February 14, 1999.  The occasion was a “Community Praise & Worship Service” in the middle of the month of love and Black History Month. Belle Flower M.B. Church is a historic church in Grenada, MS.  It is the oldest historically black church in the city, it was host to Martin Luther King Jr in the 1960s and the church was fire bombed after Dr. King spoke there.  In the auditorium the evidence of the fire is still visible in places. It was a great honor to asked to address this nearly all black crowd (except for the white folks I persuaded to come with me).  I chose as my text John 13 and combined the themes of love and black history.  I have not edited the text. I realize that I was somewhat juvenile in my homiletic so bear that in mind.  It was my prayer that it blessed then and it is my prayer that it does so now.  I prayed and I preached from the heart to a city in serious racial turmoil … May God grant us shalom.

Love: The Road Less Traveled

(After reading all of John 13.1-7 I made the following brief observations to set up the text and context)
* Jesus’ death is near (v.1)
* Jesus “shows the full extent of his LOVE” (v. 1b)
* In the last hours of his life God in human flesh is on his hands and knees washing feet like a common slave, including the one who means to murder him
* His disciples are puzzled, indeed Peter rejects this humble demonstration of radical love (v.8)

The Full Extent of Love

What does John mean when he narrates that Jesus “showed the full extent of his love?” I thought the Cross was the full extent of the Messiah’s love? Perhaps the key lies in the fact that this event is a drama of the Cross itself.  Jesus served all humanity – good and the bad – on that Cross and here he served humbly even those who had already betrayed him.

The one who would do Jesus in, Judas the Betrayer, is sitting in that circle of disciples to have his feet washed.  Amazingly Jesus washes Judas’ feet too! Jesus knows the grotesque plot hatched by Satan in Judas’ mind I am convinced. And here we have Jesus being the servant to the one who in mere hours will hand him over to be murdered.  This is the extent of his love! Perhaps John is testifying to the fact that Jesus did what no other person in that circle would or could have done … that is to actively love the one who is seeking your demise.

But we often respond like Peter.  We claim we want love. Yet when love does show up we reject it as too costly. We want love but we find love to heavy to a cross to bear.  So we settle for less!

My friends if the extent of Jesus’ love in John 13 shows us anything it reveals that love is the truth. Love is costly. Love is painful. Love is cruciform.  I imagine in my mind that as Jesus washed Judas’ feet that a tear welled up in his eyes.  Is that far fetched to imagine? But wash his feet he did and that was painful love.

Love is painful. Perhaps that is why it is the road less traveled.

Jesus was often lonely because of love.

Jesus served, on hands and knees, his murderer because of love.

Jesus was hung upon the Cross because of love.

Jesus discovered that true love is a dangerous thing in this world.

Belle Flower MB Church, Grenada, MS

The Road Traveled Less Often is the Way of the Cross

Isn’t that why we on a daily basis choose to relate to each other on every basis but love? We relate to each other on the basis of competition, of power, of self interest. How we can make this or that come out to our own advantage. How we can preserve our power base or influence in this community.

Love takes too much time.  Love takes way too much commitment.  Love requires that I take you into account in every action and every decision I make.  Love demands I put you before myself. Love commands that I serve my enemies and bless those who would “do me in” … Just as Jesus showed Judas the full extent of his love.  Perhaps it is the requirements, the demands, and the commands of love that make love the road less traveled.

We know that Martin Luther King, who stood in this very pulpit, knew the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ on this vital point. For King, love for his enemies became his cross to bear! His sermon “Loving Your Enemies” [1] sends shivers down my spine because he does for me what the picture of the stooped Jesus over the feet of Judas did for John … it was only in hindsight that John could, or did, know that THAT was the full extent of love – that even Judas was not excluded from the love of the Messiah. It was only AFTER the suffering of the Cross that John could look back and see Jesus kneeling before Judas caressing his feet and know the depth of the love displayed in that act of humble kindness.

King addressed the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago on January 17,1963. His words bring John 13 to life, for love is no mere abstraction:

To be a Christian one must take up his [i.e. Christ’s] cross with all its difficulties and agonizing and tension packed content and carry it until that very cross leaves its marks upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way which comes only through suffering.  Only through love.

Grenada was in the national news more than once

Grenada was in the national news more than once

Is carrying a cross easy? I do not think so, and I have never endured any cross such as that of Jesus or King.  The cross was not easy for Jesus … he begged the Father to be set free from it!! It was not for Dr. King.  And in Grenada it will not be easy for you and it will not be easy for me.  That is why Love is the Road Less Traveled in this town haunted by loveless past. To heal our churches and our community we must choose the Way of the Cross.

Perhaps, Dr King caught a glimpse of Jesus bending over the feet of Judas on that day when the Cross became an unbearable burden.  It was a day the nails of the Cross pierced with unbelievable pain because they were hammered with pure hate. You know the day – it was day that lives in infamy.  December 15, 1963!

The day a haven, a place of worship, became the target of terrorists. A bomb planted by those who hate at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.  That bomb killed four little girls: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.  They were just little girls.  I have two little girls! Rachael and Talya and I know the anger in me should someone harm them. The way of the Cross was beyond a torture stake on that day! Love was the road less traveled!

Dr. King spoke at those little girls funeral. Innocent as the pure driven snow! The victims of a senseless hate crime.  I cannot even begin to wrap my mind around that.  But when King addressed that crowd we learn the depth of his Christianity.  We learn the extent of love.  We learn of the Road that he often traveled alone in the footsteps of the One who washed Judas’ feet.  Just to read King’s words we can see the impression of the Cross bearing down upon him. He said at that funeral

in spite of the darkness of this hour we must not despair. We must not become bitter; nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect every human.”

Then King says these unbelievable words “God has not given me permission to hate.”

But Grenada does not have to travel to Birmingham to know the pain of violence against her children.  It is an all too familiar story that some run from and others can never forget.

I am unworthy to even utter these words because I am sooooo far from the vision of love embodied here.  I would have lost faith I think! I would have exited the Way onto the path of retaliation.

Martin Luther King Jr, my friends, followed Jesus and took the road less traveled. Heeding the words of the Hebrews Preacher “consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you do not grow weary and lose heart” (12.3) King saw the full extent of Jesus’ love for his own enemy and believed that to be a disciple he must love as Jesus loved.

Do we not naturally balk at that kind of love … it is costly. It looks to much like a crucifixion! We are Peter and say we cannot endure such humility, we have too much self respect to serve THEM! Whoever “them” may be …

The road of love requires courage. But if we want shalom in our community, if we want renewal in our community, if we want a new day in our community then we must follow first Jesus, and then Dr King, down that less traveled road.  Until we do we will not have God’s shalom in Grenada.

The question that we all must confront is: Am I willing to bear the Cross of Love and serve the Judases of Hate? Am I willing to put even those who would “do me in” before my own interests? Are our congregations in Grenada, that dare to call Jesus “Lord,” willing to follow the one who knelt before Judas? Are we willing to come together for the sake of the kingdom? Are we willing to walk on the road less traveled?  Milan Kundera was painfully correct when he wrote “nothing is heavier than compassion.”

Look at Jesus before Judas as John gazes back upon that scene through the gift of memory – and be amazed!  Look at King saying “we must not lose faith in our white brothers” … and be amazed! Compassion. Love. The Cross is hard to carry.

The On Ramp onto the Road

But suppose every person here in this crowd tonight says I am willing to follow Christ down that road less traveled, What then? I confess to you right now my friends that I do not know all the answers, and perhaps I do not know ANY answers.  I have never endured anything like the Lord before Judas.  I have never endured anything like an attack on my precious little girls. As I was unfit to vocalize King’s astounding words I confess to being unworthy to say what we “must do.”

But I believe that God in his Providential mercy has brought all of us here to this place tonight.  In the middle of this month that I am standing in the very pulpit that Martin Luther King Jr himself stood I cannot help but feel God is on the move and he demands that I do SOMETHING.  I do not always know what it is but I know something offered in his name can be blessed by the Holy Spirit. So with fear and trepidation I offer a few suggestions to help us travel the road together.

1) Love Begins With Understanding. To feel with, to share with another human being, I must know something about your burden and you lovemine.  True understanding means I must learn to listen longer and speak much less.

I submit to you this is why God was incarnate in human Jewish flesh. For the Messiah to understand the human condition he needed to become a true human being. Jesus lived, Jesus suffered, and Jesus died, and Jesus was raised from the dead as a human being.  He loved us enough not only to wash Judas’ feet but to get inside the skin of the despised Jew and experience our life in this fallen world in order that he could represent us to the Father! The great German pastor/theologian Helmut Thielecke wrote “tell me how much you know of the suffering of your fellow man and I will tell you how much you love them.”

So the task for us all here tonight is to begin the process of listening, learning and understanding. Do I care enough to learn about your life? Do you care enough to learn about mine?  Can we move beyond the stereotypes of what is black and what is white and listen to the unique stories we all have? We may find that our stories identify us both a mere humans. I confess this may mean we white people may need to put down the defenses and learn something about the history of black lives here in America and Grenada.  To enter the Road Less Traveled we must begin to understand one another.

2) Understanding Must Deepen My Willingness to Bear Your Burden. Understanding is not the end of love rather it is the entry point. Understanding love bears fruit in my own life in shouldering the burdens of your life. It is a most interesting fact that the Greek language, in which the NT was written, that the word for “compassion” literally means to be moved with anger at a given circumstance!

For example two chapters ahead of Jesus washing Judas’ feet we read about Lazarus. Most of our English translations tell us that Jesus was “moved” or something similar (cf. Jn 11.33, 38).  But Jesus was not simply ‘moved’ he was “angry.”  He understood deeply what death had done to his friend and it made him ANGRY … not at Lazarus but at death and the power of death, at the circumstance! Does our understanding – as limited as it is – move us the way Jesus’ understanding did him? Are we “moved” to the point to be willing to actually do something about it?  If not then I have arrived at the love Jesus shows Judas and that King shows us throughout his life.

3) Love Means I Must Commit to LIVE My Baptism.  Bear with me on this point please.  (Read Col 3.1-12, note esp. v. 12).  The apostle says the Christian life reflects the crucifixion we receive in baptism.  King spoke movingly about bearing that Cross till its impression is left in our lives – Paul says that is what baptism does in our journey down that road less traveled.  As a fallen member of humanity I am nailed with Christ to the Tree in the waters of baptism.  The old human dies and we walk leaving all the stuff of death there in the grave.  In baptism we are clothed with the qualities of Christ – compassion, lowliness, meekness, forbearance and love (see 2.9-12 [died with Christ]; 3.1ff [raised with Christ]) The Christian life is one of fulfilling our vows made to the creating and redeeming God we made in baptism.  It is through baptism that we learn there is no Greek, Jew and for our purposes tonight – NO WHITE and NO BLACK – rather Christ is all and in all (3.11).  Traveling on the road of love demands that we live these baptismal claims. It was no easier in the first century church than it is in our own day for Jew and Greek than it is is in Grenada for black and white … but if we want to claim love as our way then this is the path we take.

Editorial Grenada

Love is, at times, an unbearable cross


My friends we must choose the path less traveled every single day. We must follow the Way of the Cross if we are followers of the one that showed the extent of his love. There are exists off the road every which way we look.  Love is a choice.  Jesus made a choice to serve Judas. Love is a decision.  Martin Luther King made a choice to love those white brothers. Love is hard because we must freely and willingly take up that Cross when all around us the voices come from within the white community and the black community to caste it aside as too burdensome.

Will my fellow ministers in Grenada walk along this path? Will the mayor? Will our divided and hostile city council? Will teachers in our schools?

I think I know why love is the road less traveled but it is the one to which we are called as Christians. I do not claim that my walk on that road is perfect, in fact I do not even know if I am on it!  But I will confess to you my heart’s desire is to walk in the steps that Jesus walked and to love those who would “do me in” even as he loved them.  Perhaps we – you and I – can enter the road together tonight understandingly bearing with one another and I do not think Grenada is prepared for the revolution that can happen when we all decide to make Love the most traveled of all roads. May God bless you and keep you and make his face shine upon you.


1] My edition of this great sermon is in Martin Luther King Jr, Strength to Love (Pocket Book 1963. Mine is the 2nd printing from 1968), 41-50.  This is a priceless gem of a book.  King’s sermon “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” (pp. 165-173) should be required reading for Christians.

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