Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Every year the Revised Common Lectionary offers the opportunity to read through significant portions of the Jerusalem narrative on Palm/Passion Sunday.
This gospel lesson is drawn from the Synoptic Gospel that anchors the year. So on Palm/Passion Sunday of this year, the gospel lesson is taken from Mark 14:1-15:47 (with a shorter option from 15:1-39-47). The longer option includes the synoptic version of the Last Supper with its emphasis on the institution of the Lord’s Supper.
The Revised Common Lectionary, therefore, designates John as the Gospel to be read on the weekdays during Holy Week every year to give us a different version of the events that occurred during Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem. Thus on Holy Thursday each year we read John’s version of the Last Supper with its emphasis on the institution of footwashing and the pronouncement of the new commandment to love one another.
The way the Revised Common Lectionary establishes the boundaries of this lection, we are led to read the two sections as sharing the same message. In other words, we read the institution of footwashing as an example of loving one another. Or better, the footwashing as a manifestation of Jesus’ love for “his own” (17:1) leads to the instruction to love one another. His love for them makes their love for one another possible (verse 34).
This interpretive connection is appropriate but incomplete. It distorts somewhat the structure of chapter 13 as a whole. A word about context will help us see why this is so. A major transition takes place between chapters 12 and 13. In the first half of the narrative, it is clear that Jesus’ hour to be glorified has not yet arrived (2:4; 7:6, 8 30, 39; 8:20). But just after he enters Jerusalem for the last time, Jesus chooses not to meet some Greeks who are seeking him because his hour to be glorified has arrived (12:23). John 13-17, then, comprises Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples. It follows the ancient literary technique of presenting the last will of important figures. Properly speaking, the last will is made up of chapters 14-16.
This section is framed at the end by a prayer (chapter 17) and at the beginning by the material in chapter 13. The gospel lesson for Maundy Thursday includes the positive material of the chapter — the institution of footwashing (verses 1-13) as practice for the disciples/church and the commandment to love one another (verses 31-35) as an ethic for the disciples/church. But to read these passages in isolation from the negative material in the chapter steals some of the power from them as the chapter introduces the farewell speech. The footwashing is followed by the prediction of Judas’ betrayal (verses 21-29), which is already mentioned before the footwashing (verse 2); and the new commandment is followed by Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial (verses 36-38). This sets up a pendulum effect or parallel structure to the introduction to Jesus’ discussion of his “departure”:
Institution of footwashing — Prediction Judas’ betrayal
Commandment to love one another — Prediction of Peter’s Denial
Jesus’ love for “his own” is rejected by Judas and Peter (albeit in different ways). And yet as both this chapter and the following discourse show, such rejection does not diminish Jesus’ love in the least. Indeed, his concern in the farewell discourse is not about how the disciples have abandoned him, but about how he orphans them with his departure.
What this means, then, is that the command to serve one another by washing each other’s feet (verses 12-20) and to love one another (reiterated in the discourse proper in 15:12ff) should not be read as duties (and certainly not as burdens) so much as gifts. The love and service to one another in community are as much a way of caring for the church in the shadow of Jesus’ departure as is the gift of the Holy Spirit (14:15-31). And as such they stand counter to (i.e., as more powerful than) any ways we might turn our backs on God. Mutual love and service in the community of Jesus’ disciples are means of God’s grace.
There are three main dangers in preaching this lesson which should be avoided. The first is moralizing the instructions. While John clearly intends the instructions to shape church behavior, as we have just seen the passage is really not about what we can achieve but about what Christ gives to us in this behavior. So preachers should be careful not to use this text (especially on the occasion of Maundy Thursday) to offer exhortation in the place of proclamation.
Second, like so many of John’s passages, this chapter is filled with a myriad of different theological and narrative nuances. There are christological, soteriological, and ecclesiological claims all mixed together with the agenda of advancing the narrative towards the passion. If they are not careful, preachers can get lost in all these competing elements.
And, third, because the text has a behavioral aspect and a cacophony of theological elements all sounding at once, preachers can forget to frame their interpretation of the passage as foreshadowing Jesus’ departure and equipping the church to live in the aftermath of that departure. Without upstaging Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the Holy Thursday sermon on this text should consistently keep Jesus’ death and resurrection before the congregation.
A strategy to help avoid these three dangers and focus on the passage as an offering of grace is to ask the congregation to identify with Peter. One might even begin this identification by narrating the scene in which Jesus tells of Peter’s denial (13:36-38). Less than denouncing or accusing Peter, Jesus simply names Peter’s denial as a fact. But this announcement follows a dialogue unique to John. Peter asks where Jesus is going in light of the language of departure. Jesus does not really answer, but says instead, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now…” This foreshadows Peter’s denial but without taking a breath, Jesus goes on to say, “but you will follow afterward.” Jesus brings Peter back into the fold before Peter has even left. (Of course, this dialogue foreshadows 21:15-23.)
By starting at the end of the chapter, with Peter promised redemption proleptically, the congregation can experience the story of the footwashing and the new commandment as a gift to Peter for when he will need it in the future. This is an interesting way to interpret the footwashing as part of the Maundy Thursday service, then. Baptism has cleansed us from our past. Footwashing cleanses us for what we yet face.