[October 30, 2011] The story of the gathering in Bethany and Mary’s anointing of Jesus was the end of the horizontal beam of the Gospel according to John’s cruciform pattern. The vertical beam resumed its ascension with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in chapter 12. Chapters 13—17 form a unit, the culminating teaching moment that prepares us for the scenes of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. Structurally they correspond to Jesus’ talk with Nicodemus, but the earlier story was only the promise of which the latter is the fulfillment, the fulfillment of the explanation, that is. For the fulfillment of the gospel awaits still the cross and resurrection itself.
Chapters 13—17 make clear what the Gospel according to John is all about. Jesus undergoes the process of death that He might release the divine life that is within Him. In resurrection He, while remaining the Son, becomes the Holy Spirit whom He breathes into His disciples, those who believe into Him. That is, by the coinherence (the mutual indwelling) of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, all that the Son is, both His humanity and divinity, all that the Son has been through, all that the Son has become, all that the Son has obtained—all this dwells in the Holy Spirit, so that when the Holy Spirit dwells in the believer, Christ Himself dwells in the believer in His fullness. He—His body, soul and spirit, His history, His humanity and His divinity—dwells in our spirit and we dwell in Him. It is the beginning of our divinization—the process whereby our humanity (without change or confusion) begins to participate in the divine nature. It radically changes who we are in relation to each other as well. We become one, not in a fusion of sameness (or differences) but in the communion of persons who participate in the coinherence of the Trinity, the coinherence of one and the same life. This is the new situation after the resurrection of Jesus.
The Gospel according to John goes beyond the revelation of Jesus presented in Matthew, Luke and Mark. The Gospel according to Matthew presents Jesus as the coming of the Kingdom of God and reveals Him and the church in this light. The Gospel according to Luke presents Jesus as the Savior and reveals Him in the light of His and the church’s mission (apostolate). The Gospel according to Mark presents Jesus as the One who takes up the cross and calls us to do the same and reveals Him as the Witness who Overcomes the world. None of them go as far as John does. In the Gospel according to John Jesus presents Himself as life and then makes Himself directly communicable to His disciples by the Holy Spirit. The union between Jesus and the disciple cannot be more complete or more full than is revealed here.
Chapter 13 is the entryway—the foyer—to this revelation.
“He Loved Them to the Uttermost” (John 13:1-3)
We come now to “His hour” (see John 2:4; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 17:1), the hour of His glorification by means of the cross and resurrection. On the one hand the divine life that is within Him will be released; on the other hand His human nature will become divinized (for example, it will no longer be “localized” in space or time). Jesus knows that this hour is upon Him when He will “depart out of this world unto the Father.” “He had come forth from God and was going to God.” From John 1:19—12:11 He had come forth from God, hiding His glory from the world in His humanity but presenting Himself (in His humanity) in His glory through revelation to His own. From His entry into Jerusalem He began the journey back to the Father. He will leave the world—the world will see Him no longer—but He will be glorified in His humanity; He will return to the same glory that He had with the Father before the creation of the worlds but with a difference. He never left the glory that He had with the Father, but it was hidden beneath the veil of His humanity. Now His humanity will be glorified. It will no longer hide His divine glory but will share it. This is what it means “He had come forth from God and was going to God.”
“Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the uttermost.” He loved His own who were in the world—not “His own” in the sense of 1:11 and 4:44, meaning the Judeans, but—His sheep whom He called by name, those whom the Father had given Him to whom He gave the gift of eternal life (17:2). He loved them by revealing Himself to them, by opening their eyes that they may behold God (the “I Am”) when they saw Him (17:3). To say that He “loved them to the uttermost” means, of course, that He loved them to the end of His life. It also means that He loved them to the limit o possibility. It means more than this, though, something more profound. As Bruno Barnhart in The Good Wine (1993, page 121) says, “He loved them to the point of bestowing upon them his own fullness—the discourses which these words introduce will point to the fullness which is meant here. Jesus’ love consummates itself in the communication of his own being to those he loves.” To love them to the uttermost is to fully give them all that He is, has been through, has acquired and has obtained—to give them, in other words, His very Self, not only His humanity but His divinity, not only His divinity but His humanity. This is no mere covenant that His death and resurrection establish, in which we remain two partners in an agreement. No, He literally enters us and we Him in internal union, not to the dissolution of our distinctions but to their coinherence until there is a complete “intercommunication of properties”—we become what He is as He became what we are, not on our own but by virtue of our union with Him. We are still face-to-face with Him—in a hierarchical relation of Giver and receiver, yes, yet as lovers in which our love is ever growing to match His—but no longer are we separated as individuals. We are one flesh, cohabiting in one bed as it were.
The means of this glorification will be by the cross. “The Father had given all into His hand.” On the one hand, this can refer to those whom the Father has given into His hand (as in 17:2). On the other hand, it probably refers to how what is about to happen is not something that happens to Him as a passive victim, but is the Father’s will and gift. Jesus enters this course as One in possession of the events that will take place, as the Victor taking the lead. The reference is probably to the betrayer. The word “betray” means to “hand over.” Judas “hands over” Jesus, as if he was in control and he was passing control over to the chief priests. In reality, the Father was in control, and Judas’ actions were providential.
We are told that the devil put it into the heart of Judas to betray Jesus. Of course, Judas acted freely. He was no marionette. He was free because he acted according to what was in his heart. His will was free, but his heart was not. This is true of all human beings. We experience freedom of the will. But our heart is enslaved to the world. It is imprisoned within the delusion that is the world. We are blind and do not even see the world, for it envelopes us and defines the categories by which we see everything. We can see the world the way a fish sees water. It is all that we take for granted. Until the fish is yanked out of the water into the element of air, the water was unknown to the fish. The devil is the ruler of the world and puts into the hearts of all whose reality is defined by the world whatever he will. Judas acted according to the conditioning and reasoning of the world. The devil as the “mind”—the unifying principle—behind the world, put it in his heart to betray Jesus. After that, Judas acted of his own free will. (This is why most arguments about free will are irrelevant—the will is free, the heart is not. The decision to forsake the freedom of our heart comes much earlier. “Whoever sins is a slave of sin.”)
Jesus loved His own to the uttermost by giving them His very being. The scene before us takes the place of the Last Supper in the other gospels. We have seen before, however, that John avoids a direct reference to baptism and the Lord’s Supper not because he (and his communities) do not have and do not acknowledge these practices but because he chooses to go for their inner significance. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are implied throughout the gospel, but always through their significance, not their outward performance. So here, the Lord’s Supper is not dismissed as a practice but its significance is revealed by Jesus’ discourse. The discourse has to do with our participation in Jesus, in His entire being, His divine life and human nature, His death and resurrection, and what He has effected and obtained for us. Our participation in Him IS the significance of the Lord’s Supper. Through the Word of the Gospel we eat His body and drink His blood, not symbolically but really. Of course no one thinks we physically eat flesh and drink blood in the gross sense (this is not even the doctrine of the Roman Catholics). However, we do take Him—body, soul and spirit—into our own spirit, not as an idea (a mere memorial) but by actual participation in Him. We do this through the Holy Spirit. The Gospel according to John dispels any notion of the Supper being merely a mental or social event concerned with historical, religious, or ethical ideas and concepts.
The Foot-Washing (13:4-11)
The foot-washing as our entrance into this revelation is full of meaning. Mary pours out her very self upon Jesus when she anoints His feet and wipes them with her hair as an expression of her love. Jesus now expresses His love to us by anointing our feet with water and wiping them with the towel with which He is girded. It is an expression of His love.
Water throughout the gospel has been significant. For one thing it speaks of baptism. On the one hand we are born again through the waters of repentance which passes judgment on the world out of which we come and washes us of it. On the other hand, it signifies the Spirit which is given to us when we believe. To wash our feet—as opposed to our whole body being immersed—before we enter this discourse on the inner meaning of what it means to be a Christian is to say that we need to be on this ground, the ground of the new birth. We need to renew, in that sense, the washing of the world from our souls. Otherwise, we will be unprepared to see and hear.
The foot-washing also reminds us of the brazen laver in which the priests had to wash before they could enter the Holy Place of the Temple. Its bronze also speaks of judgment, and the water speaks of the washing away of what is judged. The discourse we are about to enter in the gospel is the Holy Place. We enter as priests who are participating in its mysteries. Not only that, but, our participation in what Jesus reveals here is our worship.
In view of how powerful the motif of the Promised Land is in the Gospel according to John, from chapter 5 on, we are also reminded of Israel’s crossing the Jordan when they entered the Land. “You shall command the priests who carry the Ark of the Covenant, saying, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan’ … When the soles of the feet of the priests who carry the Ark of YHWH, the Lord of all the earth, come to rest in the waters of the Jordan; the waters of the Jordan, the waters that flow down from upstream, will be cut off, and they will stand in a heap.” (Joshua 3:8, 13). “When those who carried the Ark came to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests who carried the Ark dipped into the edge of the waters … the waters that flowed down from upstream stood and rose up in a heap a great distance away” (3:15-16). In other words, the waters of the Jordan only wet the feet of the priests. We, the disciples of Jesus, are like the priests who carry the Ark of the Covenant. The Promised Land is Jesus Himself in His fullness. The presence of God (represented by the Ark) in the Land brings the blessing upon the Land (Deuteronomy). Before we can enter into the enjoyment of the Land (its revelation to us), we need to dip our feet in the Jordan. The Jordan, of course, speaks of judgment, which is represented in Joshua by the ceremony of national circumcision that follows directly upon the crossing in chapter 5. The feet are washed in the Jordan and we cross over. We have already crossed the Red Sea, meaning that we have left the world behind. However, as we crossed the wilderness, our feet have been soiled by the world. It is this that we must have washed from us. We must wash the world from ourselves and judge the “flesh,” the independent self (independent of God)—which we saw demonstrated in Abraham when he acted on his own and went in to Hagar in an attempt to obtain the promise.
In order for us to take in the revelation that is contained in John 13—17, we need to have our feet washed. That means that the soiling of the road, the world as we journey through it, needs to be washed from us. In this way we come again to the ground of our baptism, the ground of the new birth, the birth from above. We need to not only judge the world but judge our “flesh.” We do not, however, wash our own feet. Jesus washes our feet, which is a demonstration of His love for us as was Mary’s similar act when she did it to Him. We need to recognize His love for us, in fact, His adoration of us. We do this when we “remember” Him by hearing the Gospel and when offering our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in response.
Washing One Another’s Feet (13:12-16)
In verse 14 Jesus says, “You also ought to wash one another’s feet.” His act was a demonstration of what we ought to do to one another when He departs out of this world. Not only ought we to imitate Him, but in view of what He reveals in chapters 14—16, when we wash one another’s feet, it is He in fact who is washing the feet of our siblings, and who is having His feet washed. When we receive love from one another, it is Jesus who is loving us; and when we express our love to one another, it is Jesus in the other whom we are adoring.
To wash one another’s feet does not mean that we literally wash one another’s feet. Of course we could do that; but if that is all we do, the ritual—as usual—will quickly replace what it is meant to signify. To wash the feet of another is to love them—as Mary loved Jesus—but it is also to serve them, as a slave serves.
Peter refuses to have Jesus wash his feet because it implies servitude and he would rather be a slave to Jesus than to have His Lord act as a slave towards him. This insight is at the heart of what this action means. Peter perceived the reversal, and he was right; he “got” that part. What Peter did not perceive is that the reversal is the point.
Jesus laid aside His garment and girded Himself with a towel—like a slave, and proceeded to perform this most menial of tasks, washing the feet of the guests. Jesus was the Head of the supper and yet He was acting as the household slave. “You call Me the Teacher and Lord, and you say rightly, for I am.” But this Teacher and Lord—a Lord is the owner of slaves—takes the place of the slave. He is the Lord, but He takes apart the pattern of domination. The hierarchy of teacher and lord is there, but it is not a hierarchy of power.
What Jesus is about to reveal to us is certainly hierarchical. It about what He will do for us. We are the recipients. He is absolutely the Lord of our salvation. Yet that salvation makes Him not only our Lord but our Brother. He transforms from being the Only-Begotten of the Father to being the Firstborn of many Siblings. He creates the conditions for us to become what He is, and He holds nothing back. What He offers us all that He is and in resurrection will become. He is always the Source, always the First, but He makes us full participants in all that He is. We never become an equal lord; that is His prerogative alone. But He is Lord in such a way that in exercising His lordship towards us, His lordship—in being transformed into friendship—becomes obsolete.
When we cross the threshold of the Jordan into the Promised Land, it is not just as an individual that we get our feet washed. We must wash one another’s feet. Therefore, the condition of our seeing and hearing the revelation, the condition for our reception of it, is that we take this servant position with respect to one another. There are no hierarchies in the church, at least no hierarchies of power. If there are hierarchies, and there are in the sense of direction as ministry flows from one to another, they are not exercised in the sense that one is over another. A woman may not exercise authority over a man because men may not exercise authority over women or over anyone else. In the church, Christ alone has authority, and that authority is exercised through the ministry, not through the minister. No one has a position over another. If Christ ministers to me through the “lowest” in the Body of Christ, I must yield to that authority. This is the only authority there is in the Body of Christ.
We all are called to take the place of children with respect to one another and so serve one another in the manner of slaves but out of adoring love for another. Our service to one another is completely wasted if we do it grudgingly and not as an expression of love. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote: “He that works me good with unmov’d face, does it but half: he chills me while he aids, my benefactor, not my brother man” (Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement, lines 51-53). It is this love that we show one another that cleanses the world from our feet and renews us onto the ground of our baptism.
In the universal church there are apostles and their coworkers, in other words, the apostolate, yet they do not have “legal” authority over the local churches. They have spiritual authority, which means that their authority is recognized only insofar as Christ Himself is recognized in them. In the local church there are elders, but their authority also is not “legal.” They are examples to the flock; their authority is also spiritual. The younger should submit to the older; but this also is not a legal relationship or one of domination, but of respect, guidance and mentorship.
To Receive Him or to Reject Him (13:18-20)
Not everyone is included in the fellowship of the believers. There is the betrayer. John speaks of those who left the fellowship of the believers because they are not “of us.” Some may join us who later reject us and may even betray us. Yet it shall be that way. For Jesus Himself, the actions of Judas did not represent a failure or a loss of control on Jesus’ part, nor should the disciples be offended as if God was not behind all things that happen. Even if it be the cross, God is working out His purpose. The cross is Jesus’ victory and the betrayer acted according to God’s will to bring it about. This can scandalize the believer.
What we see happening in the church can easily scandalize us. We may question our faith because those in the church behave so badly. Yet God is working His purpose out from beginning to end. This does not mean that we should close our eyes. It means that we need to see through things in such a way that our vision is inclusive of all the human failures and betrayals.
“I am telling you before it happens, so that when it happens, you may believe that I AM.” This is another of the “I AM” (egō eimi) statements in which Jesus asserts His divinity. He is the presence of the divine in all the bad things that happen: “I AM” in the emphatic sense as well as the present tense. He is present to us now as we discover these things. He is beneath (or inside) our own presence to these events. He sees them not only before we do, but also when we do, and with us as we do. His own presence overwhelms what we perceive and is, in a sense, all that matters, all that ever mattered, and all that will matter. It is a way of saying, do not be scandalized, do not be afraid, do not doubt. Stay with Me in the center.
Jesus washed the feet of Judas, and we are to wash Judas’ feet as well. While Judas departed before the revelation in chapters 14—17, just as in the other gospels he left before the Lord’s Supper, he did have his feet washed by Jesus. Jesus served him and in doing so expressed His love for him even knowing that Judas would betray Him. We ought to be similarly self-possessed by knowing that Jesus is “I AM.” May we learn to be the church.