One year ago I was finishing a morning run when I saw my friend Nat’s name appear on my phone. Before I answered the phone I already knew what the call was about. I didn’t want to answer it because I didn’t want the news to be real. But I steeled myself and answered it anyway.
“Hey, Nat,” I said. “Hey, T-roy” (that’s what Nat calls me). “Rich died last night. He had a good last day. He was at church in the morning. He spent time with his family, but things took a turn later in the day. He was able to say all his goodbyes, and he just went to sleep. This is just so heart breaking.”
We had known it was coming. Rich was diagnosed with esophageal cancer several years earlier. He lived pretty well with it for those years, although there were some ups and downs with the treatment. But his options were exhausted. He didn’t know how long he had left, so he made his peace by doing his best with his remaining time.
I met Rich Goeldner at St. Simons Presbyterian. He was a good fifteen years older than me, but we became fast friends. The friendship went deep. We were both Midwesterners living in the South. His youngest and our oldest were about the same age. We spent a year in a discipleship group together. He was part of my discernment process for knowing it was time to head to a new church. And — most important of all — I am a Chicago Bears fan and Rich loved the Green Bay Packers. Whenever they played Rich and I would go to a sports pub called Locos so we could watch the game.
Long after I moved back to the midwest, I could count on regular texts from Rich about the Packers and Bears. “Do you think the Packers will trade Aaron Rodgers?” he’d write. I’d like to tell him now, “Yes, they finally will. And good riddance. Can’t the Packers have a below average quarterback for the next couple of decades?” It’s just a taste of what it’s like pulling for the Bears.
Knowing Rich was living on borrowed time, I went to visit him two years ago. He and I had a few days together to enjoy life together. We toured the church so I could see the beautiful renovations. We shared meals. We talked. We kayaked the Satilla River with our friend, Nat. I was hoping that it wasn’t the last time I’d be with Rich, but it was.
I went to his funeral last April. Over the two days I was there, I spent a lot of time dwelling on what the world would be like with him in it. His absence was just so present. Several times this past fall I found myself wanting to text Rich about football, things like — Can you believe the Bears are so terrible? Could an asteroid hit Aaron Rodgers so he stops beating the Bears? Maybe I should became a Bills fan.
But I couldn’t text him. He wasn’t there any more. He was gone, but he still sometimes feels so present to me. Love is what connected us. It was brotherly love. And it was love we shared because of Jesus. It’s a love that never let go of Rich and that holds him even now. It’s a love that is present and available to all of us.
We are gathered tonight to observe Maundy Thursday. This service remembers Jesus’ final night with his disciples. This is a night filled with intimate moments. Jesus assumes the posture of a servant, going from friend to friend to wash their feet. Jesus invites them to the table for the Passover meal, only this time he changes the script and begins talking about how the bread is his body and the cup is his blood. He’s warned them about what is going to happen. He’s doing all he can to prepare them for his departure, but its’s hard to believe that anything so awful can happen to someone so wonderful.
We call tonight Maundy Thursday because Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment. As a kid I always wondered why the church had a service called “Monday Thursday.” It seemed like such a strange thing to have two days in the name. But it’s not Monday. It’s Maundy. It comes from the Latin mandatum, which means command. It’s the night Jesus says this, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).
Theologian Dale Bruner writes that this entire portion of John’s gospel seeks to answer this one big question — How can we connect with an unseen Lord? What do we do when Jesus is not physically with us? How does he become real to us? John’s answer is found in the actions he takes. We connect with Jesus in becoming like him in serving others — that’s what it means to wash one another’s feet. We connect with Jesus in sharing the communion meal. And we connect with Jesus by living in the way of love. When we love the way Jesus loves, we are embodying him, we are making him physically present to others and to ourselves.
The heart of the very creation is love. God created out of love. God sustains the creation out of love. God saves the creation out of love. It’s a costly love, for sure. That is so evident in these days. The heart of it all is love.
We may not be able to see or touch Jesus, but we do get to embody Jesus in how we love one another. I stay with ministry because Jesus has my heart and life, but what really keeps me going is that — from time to time — I meet Jesus in the way that you love one another. I see how you respond to the prayer chain. I see you bring meals to someone in a hard season. I know you visit the lonely and sick. I see you genuinely happy to see someone you haven’t seen in awhile. The heart of the church is love, and we encounter Jesus together when we love like him.
This side of eternity, our experience of Jesus is limited. But that doesn’t mean we don’t experience him. We do — in serving, in worship, and in how we love. It’s love that makes the loss worth the losing. That’s something I say all the time at funerals. Without love, this is all meaningless. But the love is there, so life is filled with meaning.
To this day, I still miss my friend, Rich. But the love we had was a glimpse of the way God loves the whole world. It was a glimpse of the love Jesus embodied. We gather tonight to bear witness to that love of God we know in Jesus Christ, and to hold it more closely in our hearts. But we also go from here — sent into the world by God’s love. How will people know that we love Jesus? By how how we love each other. So, may we love deeply and well in these hard but holy days and carry that love with us wherever God sends us.