Holy Week Reflections: John 13

I have been writing some short pieces for the Baptist Times, exploring aspects of John’s Gospel.  With the permission of the Editor I intend to post one of these every day Monday-Thursday this week.  They are quite long (about 1300 words), and NT scholarly readers will want to question every assertion and challenge every interpretive decision.  But for what its worth – here is the first.  Again, with thanks to the Baptist Times for permission to re-use.

Last Supper and Lord’s Supper?: Reflections on John 13

All of the four gospels in the New Testament are different from one another. Those differences tell us something about the convictions, beliefs and situation facing each gospel writer and the churches for which they wrote. What is true for the other three gospels is, however, especially true of John.  Over the next four weeks we will be exploring the ways in which John’s account of Jesus’ final hours differs considerably from that story told in the other gospels.  Those differences take us to the heart of John’s message for the churches of his own day, and ours.

John chapter 13 tells us what happened at Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. Verses 2 and 4 refer to a ‘supper’.  Other than this basic point and references to Judas as the betrayer, there is little to connect the narrative of John 13 to those found in Mark 14, Matthew 26 and Luke 22.  John does not describe the meal, or the words used by Jesus to give the meal special significance (there is no ‘this is my body … this is my blood’).  John’s story takes place a whole day earlier than the story of the ‘Lord’s Supper’, so this is no Passover meal that Jesus is sharing.  In the same way that John omits any reference to Jesus being baptized, he seems to be unaware, or to deliberately ignore, the story of Jesus instituting a meal for his followers ‘in memory of me’.  Rather, the focus is on a different kind of symbolic action.  No breaking of bread, no pouring of wine; instead we hear that Jesus takes off his outer robe, and ties a towel around his waist and washes the feet of his followers.  The scene is familiar to us, and in some Maundy Thursday services it is even re-enacted.  But what does it mean?  What is the significance of this role reversal?

Perhaps we can begin to answer this by looking again at John’s apparently simple description of Jesus’ action in verse 4.  We are told that Jesus ‘took off’ his outer garment, and later (v12) ‘put it on’ again.  These are not the usual words for undressing and dressing, even though we translate them that way.  Crucially, they are the same words used in an important saying of Jesus in John 10.17-18: ‘For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again’.  This linguistic connection suggests that John understands Jesus’ action to be symbolic of his coming death.  Once we see this, other details surrounding the story come into view.  It begins with a reference to Jesus’ ‘hour’ in verse 1, which throughout the gospel is a term used with reference to the moment of his death (which for John is the moment of Jesus’ glorification – the point at which he most fully reveals God).  We are told in the same verse that Jesus loved the disciple ‘to the end’.  And Jesus decision to wash the feet of his disciples seems to have been prompted by his knowledge that ‘he had come from God and was going to God’ (see verse 3).

John describes Jesus’ actions briefly.  Many people know that the footwashing takes place at the wrong point in the evening’s proceedings, for the custom was to wash feet before the meal began.  Many Christians will also have been informed by their preachers that in performing this action, Jesus subverts the social hierarchy of his day – in this story the saying about the Son of Man coming not to be served but to serve (Mark 10.45), comes alive.  Yet that very saying also has the words ‘and to give his life as a ransom for many’.  This is the true focus of John’s account which invites us to consider the impossible: that the one to whom God had given all things, the Son whose very life is a revelation of the identity, purposes and glory of Israel’s God, will most fully demonstrate the truth about God in the act of laying down his life and taking it up again.  The story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet is often preached as if it were simply an ethical example – Jesus did something nice and humble for his followers … wouldn’t it be nice if we could do the same for each other.  This is to rush on to the later verses, and to neglect the radical claims that this text, and those that follow in John’s story, make about God.

This explains Peter’s otherwise perplexing reaction.  At one level this is a story about a disciple who can’t bring himself to let his master become his servant.  But as Jesus says to him ‘you do not know now what I am doing’ (verse 7) another level of meaning comes into view.  Peter does not yet understand that what Jesus has done for him symbolizes what Jesus will do for the world.  And in his enthusiasm for being literally washed all over, he needs to be reminded that the true response to Jesus is the faith that creates a true relationship with Jesus.

Of course, after Jesus has sat down (taken his life back up again) the disciples are instructed into the kind of relationships that will characterize a community that abides in Jesus.  Verse 15 is one of three crucial ‘just as…’ sayings in this gospel: ‘just as I have done to you, you should do (for one another).  This verse, together with John 17.18 (just as you sent me, so I have sent them, see also John 20.21) and 17.22 (as we are one, so may they be one) speak to us clearly of the church’s vocation to unity, apostolicity and community.  We are given an example, but it is an example rooted in the prior story of God’s action in Jesus Christ.  Three implications follow on from this:

First, while it is true that John’s gospel appears to have very little interest in the sacraments, it is perfectly aware that there are certain ordinary human actions that enable participation in the divine life; love, for example.  To this extent, the forms of humble service epitomized in Jesus’ actions are sacramental in that they mediate the loving presence of God in the world and to those who receive such service.  We must remember, however, that this not merely a case of doing kind things for one another.  Jesus’ action symbolizes the dismantling of the usual human categories of superior and inferior, power and service, status and significance.  Those acts of service that reverse and deconstruct the cultural assumptions that governed Jesus’ society and our own will be the acts that most fully mediate God’s loving and disturbing presence in the world.

Secondly, this means that, unlike Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the ritualization of footwashing in services of worship, no matter how well-intentioned, probably does not get to the point.  We need to identify the contemporary, counter-cultural equivalents to Jesus’ radical gesture.  This is not charity, which leaves the relative status and power of the donor and recipient intact.  God’s life as we see it in Jesus is characterized by self-emptying, suffering and the misunderstanding and hostility that comes with it.

Finally, we might turn the logic of the passage around.  If faith in Jesus as the revelation of God is the basis for selfless acts of humble service, is it not also the case that all such acts of service are a participation in and revelation of God’s life?  Wherever people take off the trappings of power, kneel and serve, God’s loving, life-giving presence is found.  Christians are quick to deduce that those who love God will go on to learn what it means to love others, often at great cost.  But might it not also be true that those who have learned to love others, whether they know it or not, are participating in the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ?