John 13:1-20 - Maundy Thursday
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
March 14, 2016
I have always been amazed by the Gospel of John. This Gospel is by far the most theological of the four portraits we have of our Lord. It is also the most liturgical, and in many ways it is the most Eucharistic. Throughout John’s Gospel we hear Jesus teaching “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” I am the living water, whoever drinks from the water that I give, shall never thirst again.”
It is John who gives us the most detailed account of the feeding of the 5,000, which is surely seen as a foretaste of the Eucharistic Meal that he will inaugurate on the night before He dies. Yet, when John comes to write about our Lord’s last night on earth, he does not even make mention of that act, that has been central to the Church’s worship of our Lord, the observance of His last supper with his disciples.
Instead, John tells us of another action that Jesus took that evening. After the meal was over our Lord took a basin and a towel and began to wash the disciple’s feet. When He got to Peter, who seems always to be the spokesman for the group, Peter protests. He articulates what undoubtedly all of the disciples had been feeling. “Lord, you will never wash my feet.”
Our Lord, who is often understanding, in these teaching moments, sharply rebukes Peter, saying “if you do not let me wash your feet, you will have no part in the kingdom.” Peter eventually capitulates and says, “Not my feet only Lord, but all of me.”
What is going on in this discourse? Why does Jesus get so agitated with Peter? Is it that he under so much stress, knowing his pending crucifixion is near and that Peter seems so oblivious to it all? Or is it something much deeper and profound?
And why does John, who obviously has a profound understanding of the centrality of the Eucharistic meal in his own theology, leave out that event in the life of our Lord, so that he could insert this foot-washing story?
Many commentators have answered these questions by stating that Jesus is giving one last effort at commutating the absolute importance of service to humanity. There certainly is much truth in this interpretation of the event, but I don’t think it begins to exhaust the meaning that John would have us understand.
We live in a society in which “service” has replaced “manufacturing” as the principal economic driving force. While I was Director of the Library at Asbury, we divided our staff in two departments: Technical Services and Public Services. Our motto was “we are here to serve you.”
As I reflect on this, I see two principal relationships by which service is rendered. In the first instance, the lesser serves the greater. And in the second, the greater serves the lesser.
Let me illustrate what I mean. In the first instance it is the relationship of a servant to the master, a child to a parent, or a pupil to a teacher. In such relationships, service is perceived to be the natural order of things. It is simply giving what is due, what is expected.
Such a relationship is the kind that Peter understood. That is why he is so scandalized by Jesus’ action. In Peter’s world, he should be washing Jesus’ feet. I remember so well how startled I was when I was teaching at a seminary in Africa several years ago. My apartment was across the street from the classroom where I taught. Every morning as I left the apartment one or two students would see me and hustle over, insisting on carrying my brief case. If I offered to carry a young lady’s handful of books, which would have been appropriate in Kentucky or Washington DC where I taught, but in Africa they would have been scandalized.
In the second type of service it is the relationship of the greater tending to the needs of the lesser. The parent caring for the needs of the child until she or he is able to be on her/his own. It is the professor mentoring the star student, the doctor tending the patient, the lawyer serving the client. Was this Jesus understanding of service? At first glance it would appear to be so. Mark quotes Jesus as saying “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to service and give his life as a ransom for many.”
This was Jesus’ mode of operation in coming into the world, now by this example, He is telling Peter, that the disciples are to go and do likewise.
But does this capture the full understanding of what Jesus was illustrating? Is this what He meant, when he said, “Even as I have washed your feet, so you ought to wash one another’s feet?” I would suggest not.
All too often such seemingly altruistic situations get perverted. In too many cases a mother turns her child into the answer to her own need to be needed. In too many instances the teacher makes his students into star trophies. Rectors can turn their congregations into “needy sheep” over whom they exercise control.
John opens tonight’s Gospel by stating: “Jesus knowing that the hour had come...” John presents Jesus as acting in full awareness of his origin and destination. Jesus knows who he is and what he had been sent to accomplish. This introduction makes it clear that what follows is not simply a good example in humility. Rather it is a prophetic action which will reveal the true meaning of Jesus “loving his own until the end in fulfillment of his mission."
This bring us to the third type of relationship that we have yet to consider. It is the relationship of friendship. Such a relationship does not count equality of any significance. Any inequality is rendered irrelevant. Actions are based on mutual love, not on a pre-existing natural order of things.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus goes on to say: “You call me servant and lord, and it is right that you do this for so I am." But later in his discourse, in chapter 15, he states: “But no longer do I call you servants, you are my friends. By washing His disciples’ feet Jesus overcame the inequality. Those whom He had chosen to be his disciples he now calls friends.
Jesus established an intimacy with them that superseded His superiority and signaled their access to everything which He had received from the Father. At last Peter understood. He replies, not my feet only, but my head and my hands also.
I experienced both the shock and the joy of such a changed relationship when I graduated from the University of Birmingham. My doctor professor, Walter Hollenweger, was a typical German professor. He would march into class on the appointed hour, open his notebook and begin to lecture. At the end of the hour he would close his notebook and march out. The students would then leave. We stood in awe when he addressed us personally.
When I graduated, he held a small party for me afterward in his home. Finally, it was time to leave. “Professor Hollenweger,” I said, as stumbled to try to find the words to thank him for all that he had taught me. “No,” he said as he shook his head. He extend his hand to me, and said “My name is Walter.”
I think the hymn writer captured the theology of John perfectly when he penned the words: “Friendship with Jesus Fellowship divine, Oh what precious sweet communion, Jesus is a friend of mine.”