Exploring the Gospel of John: 13

EXPLORING THE GOSPEL OF JOHN

By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]

St. Peter’s Anglican Church [2006]

New words:  Click here for definitions:  prolepsisforeshadowingprolepsis

“Farewell . . . For Now” (I)

John 13:1-38

I. Setting an Example: 13:1-20

1.  The purpose of John 13-16 is to prepare the disciples for Jesus’ departure and the aftermath of this departure. As becomes clear, as the discourse moves along, Jesus’ departure is not a departure at all — but is a radicalization of his presence.

2.  It is clear that Jesus knows his destiny — that “his hour had come” (13:1; 12:23).  For Jesus, the crucifixion will mean not simply death but [will mean] a return to the Father.  His death on the cross consummates his obedience to the Father and his love for the world.   Jesus will now demonstrate proleptically the meaning of his death — the fact that “he loved them to the end” (13:1).

3.  The cause of Jesus’ departure is twofold:  Ultimately, its cause is the will of the Father and the concurring will of the Son.  Proximately, it is the devices of the devil (13:2), worked out in human instruments (Judas).  13:3 is the interpretive key to understanding the washing of the disciples’ feet:  This verse makes Jesus’ identity clear:  he is from God and is returning to God and God has placed all things into Jesus’ hands.  Jesus is, if fact, the Father’s personal action in human history:  The One who created water is going to [now] wash the disciples’ feet.

4.  The washing of the disciples’ feet is not simply an act of humility or an attempt of Jesus to identify with the “common man.”  Jesus removes all his clothing, except for a loincloth, which foreshadows the removal of his clothes, for the purpose of flogging and crucifixion.  (The Romans usually crucified their victims naked).  Foot washing was an act of hospitality in the ancient world:  it was a task given to slaves or to servants of the lowest standing.  It was the iconic form of menial service because it involved not only the washing of dirt from the feet of guests but also [involved] the washing of human and animal excrement, which found its way into the streets and sewers – [those two things being “pretty much” the same things.]

In this case, foot washing is an enacted parable of the Cross — a parable which Philippians 2:6-11 describes.

5.  Peter, who speaks for all the disciples, finds Jesus’ intentions incomprehensible.  For Peter (13:6) those in positions of superiority, like Jesus, do not wash feet:  “Lord” and “washing feet” do not belong in the same sentence.  Jesus makes it clear (13:7) that Peter cannot now understand the meaning of Jesus’ actions but such an understanding will come only “afterward.”  Peter’s refusal for Jesus to wash his feet (13:8) constitutes a clear rebuke to Jesus but Jesus responds:  “If I do not wash you, you have no share in me” (13:8).  “Share” here seems to mean “inheritance” or “participation.”  The refusal of the foot washing means a refusal of Jesus himself.  Accepting the foot washing is acceptance of the reversal of values it implies and such a reversal is necessary, in order to understand and accept Jesus’ death and its consequences.  Accepting this reversal is also necessary, in order to carry on Jesus’ mission in the world.

6.  In 13:12-14, Jesus provides an interpretation of his own acts:  Jesus underlines the incongruity between his status as Lord and his action of foot washing — that the Lord should engage in menial service.  Jesus says that this same pattern of action is to be the hallmark of the Church.  He calls upon the disciples to serve one another — reminding them that any relinquishment of status that they may have to make pales, in comparison, to the relinquishment of status that Jesus makes.

7.  13:15-17 makes it clear that Jesus has not merely commanded the washing of feet but [has commanded] also the imitation of the pattern that he himself has set (13:15).  The pattern of service that Jesus has set presupposes a radical inversion of values — an inversion that the disciples will have to accept and practice.  What Jesus has in mind is not simply the one act of foot washing but an entire set of practices which reflect his own pattern:  “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (13:17).   [Of course, Jesus has to qualify what he says, in order to account for Judas.]   In 13:18, Jesus quotes Psalm 41:9, to make the point that the betrayal of a close friend (one with whom one has broken bread) is a great cruelty.  One of his own, not the Sanhedrin, will betray Jesus.

8.  13:20 looks forward to the disciples’ mission, which is, of course, what the discourse about foot washing has been all about.  Just as Jesus has been sent from the Father and to receive him is to receive the Father, since “I and the Father are one” (10:30), so to receive the disciples is to receive Jesus himself and the Father.  This emphasizes the fact that the disciples (and the community gathered around them) are not simply independent agents but, are, rather, themselves an extension of Jesus’ mission.

II. Betrayal, Commandment and Denial: 13:21-38

1.  13:21-30:  The theme of Jesus’ sovereignty continues in this section:  he knows that an intimate is going to betray him and this fact further prevents people from seeing Jesus as a victim — an innocent man which an evil world has overtaken.  Significantly, the foreknowledge of betrayal does not render it easy to accept, as 13:21 makes clear.  Here, the text considers seriously the matter of Jesus’ humanity and his divinity.  All through the next several chapters, Jesus is simultaneously inside and outside the developing narrative -– he is both the one who has written the narrative and [he is also] one of the characters in the drama.  Just as the crucifixion of Jesus is not simply about the fate of an individual, so Judas’ decision to betray Jesus is not simply about an individual decision but is something larger: “Satan entered into him” (13:27; cf. 13:2).  Jesus’ death is not simply a function of the Sanhedrin’s desire to retain power or of Pilate’s desire to maintain Roman rule.  Notice that Jesus knows what Judas is about to do and does not attempt to dissuade him from doing it (13:27).  It is appropriate that Judas goes out into the night (13:30), to carry out his decision.

2.  13:31-38:  This section is the beginning of what we know as Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse,” because, in it, Jesus prepares the disciples for his departure.  The striking of the first note is the most important one:  Jesus’ crucifixion will not be a humiliation or a defeat but [will be] a glorification.  Emphasizing the reciprocal relationship between Father and Son, the Father will glorify the Son in his death and the Son will also glorify the Father.  The reputation and honor of God and that of the Son are finally inseparable.  The “new commandment” (13:34) is not actually “new” but is a re-phrasing of Leviticus 19:18 and Jesus presents this as his final wish for the Church.  The type of love that Jesus will demonstrate in his death will be the hallmark of Christian behavior.  Observers will recognize the community of Jesus by the quality of its life — as a continuous corporate image of Jesus.  Jesus emphasizes twice (13:33, 36) that his disciples cannot follow him.  This is because of the unique work he has to do and the unique destination he has:  he is going to the cross and to the Father and only after this has happened will it be possible to follow him:  “but you will follow afterward” (13:36).

Questions for Reflection

(1)  The washing of the disciples’ feet is an enacted parable of love, which is at the center of John’s understanding of God, Christ, and the Church.  Unfortunately, the Church has, in many ways, surrendered this understanding of love, in order to embrace a modern, individualistic, and therapeutic one — an understanding in which “love” means the non-judgmental acceptance of other people.  How can we recover the meaning of “love,” which Jesus demonstrates in this scene and which he enacted on the Cross?  Note Philippians 1:27-2:11.

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Filed under discipleship, Interpretation of Scripture, The Gospel of John, theology and doxology

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