Show, Don’t [just] Tell

April 2, 2015 (Maundy Thursday)
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Show, don’t just tell.  This was something my college professors would constantly say as we learned about writing.  Don’t say, “the man was mad,” say “George stormed out of the room, knocking down 3 lamps along the way.”  Don’t say, “he thought she was beautiful,” say, “her eyes reminded him of the color of the horizon just before the sunrise.”  Telling shares information, but showing increases engagement and participation in the story.

This lesson didn’t originate with my college professors.  In tonight’s gospel, and throughout Jesus’ life and ministry, Jesus doesn’t just tell his disciples what he wants the disciples to know, he shows them.  Jesus doesn’t just tell them about God’s Kingdom on earth, he restores sight to the blind, heals the sick, brings the dead back to life.  Jesus doesn’t just tell them that God’s love includes the outsider, he embraces the young children, touches the leper, recruits the tax collector.  Jesus doesn’t just tell them that God is more powerful than death, he dies and is raised again.

By pondering tonight’s account of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, and by focusing on what Jesus SHOWS, I think we get a strong sense of what Jesus wants to TELL us.  And just like in my journalism class, by showing more than just telling, Jesus invites deeper engagement and participation in the story.

The first thing I think we see Jesus show his disciples is ADORATION, or living in response to God’s presence in his life.  At the beginning of tonight’s gospel, we read that Jesus was able to do all that comes later because he knew that the Father had given all things into his hands.  Jesus knew he had come from God and that he was going back to God.

We tend to think of adoration as this sentimental emotion with little substance—I ADORE that blue dress, for example.  But adoration—another way of thinking about worship—is much deeper than that, I think.  Jesus’ adoration towards God means being grounded and confident in his identity and relationship to God.  Jesus’ grounding wasn’t in the opinion of others or in his reputation—it was in the fact that he knew he had come from God and that he was going back to God.  So he could face the celebration of the crowds with the same humble strength as he faced the condemnation of the crowds.  He could face trials and persecution with the same quiet strength with which he could face worship and acclamation.  Because his foundation was solid.  Adoration has to do with keeping that grounding firm—through worship, prayer, faith practices and other spiritual disciplines.  Throughout Jesus’ life and ministry he says and does things the disciples don’t always understand.  “God is glorified in me,” or “When you know me, you know the one sent me”…all these statements point back to Jesus’ foundation in God, and flow out of Jesus’ adoration for God.  Jesus showed the disciples what it looks like to live a life of adoration—grounded in your identity before God so that your life doesn’t show how talented and marvelous YOU are, but rather how awesome GOD is.

Secondly, Jesus shows the disciples that from adoration comes affection.  “Having LOVED them, he loved them to the end,” we read at the beginning of this passage.  And then near the end:  “As I have LOVED you, you also should love one another.”  Jesus’ affection for the disciples flows from his adoration of God.  Because he is grounded in God, his love for the disciples isn’t contingent on their eagerness to reciprocate.  He knew he was returning to God so He loved them to the end…when they misunderstood him, when they betrayed him, when they denied knowing him, when they deserted him.  He loved them to the end.  The Gospel-writer TELLS us this, but Jesus SHOWS us what it looks like.  He gets up from the table, takes off his outer garment, ties a towel around his waist, and washes their feet.  Foot washing is an unfamiliar custom for us today.  But think about how you feel when someone close to you does the dishes for you unexpectedly, brings you a meal you weren’t expecting, slips a check into your hands that more than covers much needed repairs.  When someone does something radical and unexpected, the affection that person has for you is revealed.  They SHOW you how they feel, not just TELL you how they feel.  In washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus doesn’t just TELL the disciples that he loves them, he shows them.

But this affection is not intended to just make the disciples feel great for being part of Jesus’ inner circle.  If Jesus’ adoration—his identity in and relationship with God—enables him to love his disciples to the end, his hope is that his affection for them will inspire ACTION.  This passage is full of Jesus saying and showing that what he is doing for them is not meant just for them…to fill them up with good feelings…but instead is meant to lead them into action.

He washes their feet, not so they can sit around and celebrate having clean feet, but so that they can go wash others’ feet.  He reminds them of his love for them, not to keep them feeling safe and fuzzy, but so they can love others.  “As I have loved you, you also should love one another,” he says.  “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

One commentary I read explained that in first century Mediterranean society there was no term for this internal feeling we today call ‘love’ that did not include an external action.  Love for the people in Jesus’ day ALWAYS, by definition, meant doing something that revealed someone’s attachment.  So today I would say that we throw around that word ‘love’ for all kinds of internal feelings that may have very little external expression or action.  But the disciples would have known that when Jesus said, “as I have loved you, you also should love one another,” he wasn’t saying, “as I have felt warm fuzzy feelings towards you, you also should feel towards those you like.”  To love someone meant by definition doing something…not for MY benefit, but for YOUR well-being as the person to whom I am attached.  Jesus isn’t talking about a Valentines’ Day kind of love.  He is talking about an agape, ‘love you to the end even if you don’t love me back’ kind of love.  And what more action-based love is there than laying down your life for someone else?  In fact, shortly after this passage, in John 15, Jesus says that very thing: “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  The word used in John 15 for “lay down” is the same word used in John 13 for “took off his outer robe.”  Affection…love…looks like laying down your life, taking off that outer robe of first impressions, status and reputation and washing others’ feet—sacrificially wiping away the dirt and grime that builds up as we walk through life together.

This is, then, the invitation and the challenge for us tonight.  Holy Week is a great opportunity for us to “Show, don’t just tell” the story of God’s love and redemption through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  But what Jesus shows the disciples, and us, through the experience of that last supper is meant to extend beyond Holy Week.  Adoration leads to affection which is expressed in action.  That’s what Holy Week is about.  More than that, that’s what following Jesus is about.  That’s how they will know that we are Jesus followers, Jesus says…if you have love…active, to-the-end, unconditional, lying down your life, sacrificial love…for one another.

Tonight’s service is meant to be a ‘show, don’t just tell’ expression of this community of faith.  Tonight we show community by sitting around tables with some people we know and some people we don’t know, sharing food and conversation.  We show service by preparing, serving, receiving and cleaning up together.  We show worship by setting aside time to come into this space, listen to scripture and join in song and prayer.  We show Jesus’ love and forgiveness by hearing and receiving the gifts of bread and wine, and taking into our very selves the body and blood of Christ.  We show care and compassion by being part of all of this together, and by creating space for all people to feel welcome.  As we do this, hopefully we don’t just hear the story of Easter, we enter into it…we engage it…we experience it in deep and meaningful ways.

This Holy Week, I pray you have a “show, don’t just tell,” experience of Jesus’ love for you.  This love comes from Jesus’ adoration of God, his deep affection for all people, and his sacrificial action with and for us on the cross.  This love for you is not just an example of how to live and love, it’s an invitation and a charge to LIVE and to LOVE.  As I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this—adoration, affection, and action—everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you show don’t just tell love for one another.


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