• May 26, 2024

Love Those Who Trespass Against Us?

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Photo by Obiekwe Okolo

I’m at church for the Maundy Thursday service. The day is so called because it’s the day Jesus gives his disciples “a new commandment, that you love one another” (John 13:34). “Maundy” comes from the Latin for “commandment.” I often feel splintered when I’m here.

Our community feels splintered to me too, the result of a priest’s misconduct and his removal several years ago after a long investigation that followed. This makes me on edge coming to a service meant to commemorate Jesus’s command to love.

Service begins with a reading of God’s instructions to Moses for the Passover. God is preparing the tenth plague for Egypt: death for every firstborn son in every household. Hebrew households, though, will be passed over if marked by lamb’s blood. It’s a troubling passage, one of the reasons I showed up to my undergraduate Old Testament class skeptical that this God had anything to do with the God of love in the gospels.

But the class redeemed the Hebrew Scriptures for me. In the book of Jonah, God sends Jonah to Nineveh, something like sending an American to ISIS-controlled Syria today. Jonah fled at first, and I imagine him envying Moses. Who wouldn’t rather deliver his people from an oppressor than offer deliverance to that oppressor? I hear Jesus’s response: Love your enemies.

I didn’t have enemies before the church splintered. Now I know what it feels like for people to slander me, to reject my testimony, to ignore my suffering. My hurt makes me wonder how I could stay in this community. Jonah makes me wonder how I could leave.

The second reading is from Psalm 78, about the Exodus and its aftermath. The Hebrews get to the wilderness and get hungry: “Can God prepare a table in the wilderness? Indeed, he smote the stony rock, so that water gushed out, and the streams overflowed; but can he give bread also, or provide meat for his people?” (Psalm 78:19b-20).

Jesus’s love commandment makes me feel like the Hebrews in that psalm. Did God save me just to put me between a rock and a hard place (the rock being he who tells me to love my enemies, and the hard place, the presence of my enemies)? Why would God save me only to put me here?

“When the Lord heard, he was full of rage; a fire was kindled against Jacob, his anger mounted against Israel, because they had no faith in God and did not trust in his saving power” (Ps 78:21-22). But instead of fire, “he rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven. Mortals ate the bread of angels; he sent them food in abundance” (Ps 78:24-25).

Later in the service, when we pray the Lord’s prayer, I realize that “give us today our daily bread” sits next to the request for forgiveness “as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” The requests are connected.

When I hear the third passage, part of a letter from St. Paul, I’m reminded that the night Jesus gives the love commandment is also “the night when he was betrayed.” Jesus washes Judas’s feet, invites Judas to a new covenant and altar, even as he knows Judas will be the one to sacrifice him on it.

Some of my enemies were enemies from the start. Others became enemies years into our relationship; we’d shared bread at the altar and in our homes. Jesus knows it’s harder to love the enemies who extend love before betrayal.

When the time comes for the foot washing, in memory of Jesus’s washing his disciples’ feet, I see that the man washing feet for those on my side of the aisle is someone who’s hurt me. This is someone who’s asked my forgiveness, who’s asked not to be my enemy anymore, who’s stopped acting like it. Though I’ve offered my forgiveness, my nervous system hasn’t relearned to relax around him. I don’t want him to wash my feet.

Peter didn’t want his feet washed either. Love for the Lord requires willingness to serve but also willingness to receive.

When I go up, sit down, and stick my feet in the basin, I can’t quite keep the tension out of my body, but I try to put my forgiveness into my eyes for the man crouched at my feet to see. I see the same tension in him, but his eyes, as I knew they would be, are warm and pleading. I return to my seat hoping he feels cleaner than he did before he washed my feet.

I murmur to my roommate, “Weird we didn’t pass the peace today, on love commandment day of all days.” She looks at me, having seen that moment at the basin: “No, we did.”

The same day Jesus gives the love commandment, the day Jesus is betrayed, is the same day he prays asking that his followers would be one with each other as he is with his Father. His body is broken for each of our lives and that we might share them with one another, even with our enemies. When I receive that body a few minutes later, from those same hands that washed my feet, it tastes like manna, good and fresh and abundant, and I’m glad to have been brought here.

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