A Table. A Basin. Some Food. Some Friends.
Selections from John 13 – 17 will be read to conclude this chapter
Let’s imagine ourselves near Jerusalem. It’s Thursday night, and we are walking the road with Jesus’ disciples on Thursday of this climactic week. What a week it has been!
It all started last Sunday as Jesus led us in that unforgettable parade into Jerusalem. And then there was that scene at the temple. That certainly stirred things up! Every night we have slept outside the city and returned the next morning for more drama. One day there were confrontations with the religious scholars and Pharisees; the next day, more controversy with the Sadducees.
Jesus has issued lots of dire warnings about the fate of the temple, which upsets many people because it’s the centre of their whole world. And earlier today, just as Jesus sent two of us to find that donkey for our parade last Sunday, he sent Peter and John to find a man carrying a water jar so they could prepare the Passover meal at his guest room tonight.
Every Passover all Jews remember the night before our ancestors were liberated from slavery in Egypt. We celebrate a night of great anticipation. We associate each element of the meal – bitter herbs, unleavened bread, a lamb, fruit and more – with different meanings from the liberation story. In that meal, we feast on meaning. But tonight, at this special Passover, the focus isn’t on the distant past. It’s on the present and what will soon happen. Jesus draws our attention not to the lamb, but to a simple loaf of bread and a cup of wine. Near the end of the meal, Jesus lifts the bread and gives thanks for it. He says, ‘This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ Then he lifts a cup of wine and says, ‘This cup is the new covenant by my blood, which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ He adds, ‘Whenever you take this bread and drink from this cup, do so in memory of me.’
Our first reaction is shock. To ask us to remember him suggests he will soon die. We know he has mentioned this several times, but now it hits us: he really means it, and it’s coming soon. Our second reaction? To speak of his body and blood this way sounds repulsive – like cannibalism! Why would we want to eat human flesh or drink human blood? That’s unkosher in our religion, and downright uncivilised! What could Jesus possibly mean by these strange words?
But before we can ponder the meaning of Jesus’ strange words any more, he adds to our shock by speaking about one of us being his betrayer. That quickly gets us arguing about which one of us would do such a terrible thing. Soon, we’ve moved on from arguing about which of us is the worst disciple to arguing about which of us is the greatest. It’s pretty pathetic, when you think about it. It says a lot about us disciples, and a lot about human nature too. Jesus is trying to tell us he’s about to suffer and die, and all we can do is think about ourselves, our egos, our status in the pecking order!
Even this becomes a teaching opportunity for Jesus. Gentiles, meaning the Romans who occupy our land and seek to dominate us in every way, play these kinds of status games, he says. They cover up their status games with all kinds of language games. ‘That’s not the way it will be with you,’ Jesus says. ‘Instead, the greatest among you must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant.’
Years from now, when the Fourth Gospel will tell the story, it will make this theme of service the focal point of this whole evening. It won’t even include the bread and the wine and Jesus’ solemn words about them. It will put centre stage the dramatic moment when Jesus strips off his normal clothing and puts a towel around his waist. He pours water in a basin, stoops as a servant would, and washes the dust from our feet, one by one. When he finishes, he explains that he has set an example – of humble service, not domination – and he means us to imitate his example. Later, after the meal, he will expand ‘Serve one another as I have served you’ to ‘Love one another as I have loved you’.
Both ways of telling the story of this night lead us to the same meaning. The original Passover recalled one kind of liberation - liberation from slavery in Egypt. This meal suggests another kind of liberation – liberation from playing the shame games of rivalry, pecking order, domination and competition to reach the top of the pyramid of pride. If the first Passover gets people out from under the heel of the slave-master, this holy meal leads people out from the desire to be slave-masters in the first place. This meal celebrates a new model of aliveness – a model of service, of self-giving, of being blessed, broken and given for the well-being of others.
It’s pretty predictable, I guess: to see how we disciples completely miss the point and turn that holy supper into an argument, a contest for who will be the greatest, who will have the most status at the table, who will be excluded. But in spite of our anxiety and rivalry . . .
Jesus, the patient teacher . . .
Jesus, the humble leader . . .
Jesus, the king of self-giving sets an example of service. And in that context, he asks us to remember him – not primarily for his great miracles, not primarily for his brilliant teaching, but primarily, essentially, for this: that he gives himself like food for us, and for the whole world.
Some people say that later on that unforgettable night, after the holy supper, after Jesus went to a garden to pray, after his disciples fell asleep, after Judas came to betray Jesus with a kiss, after Peter pulled out his sword and Jesus told him to put it away, after Jesus was taken into custody, after his disciples ran away, Jesus was whipped. They say he received thirty-nine lashes, one fewer than the forty lashes that constituted a death sentence. So let us conclude our time together by observing silence, extinguishing the lights, and pausing to remember thirty-nine of Jesus’ sayings from this holy, horrifying night.
1. If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet.
2. I give you a new commandment. Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.
3. This is how everyone will know you are my disciples, when you love each other.
4. Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me.
5. I am the way, and the truth, and the life.
6. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
7. I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.
8. If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 9. I won’t leave you as orphans. I will come to you.
10. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them loves me. Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.
11. Whoever loves me will keep my word. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.
12. The Companion, or the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you.
13. Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you.
14. I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. 15. Remain in me, and I will remain in you.
16. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine.
17. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will produce much fruit.
18. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.
19. As the Father has loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love.
20. This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you.
21. There is no greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.
22. I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you.
23. I assure you that it is better for you that I go away. If I don’t go away, the Companion won’t come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.
24. I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now. However, when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth.
25. Soon you won’t be able to see me; soon after that, you will see me.
26. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy will be complete.
27. I left the Father and came into the world. I tell you again: I am leaving the world and returning to the Father.
28. I have said these things to you so that you will have peace in me. In the world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world.
29. This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent.
30. Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one.
31. Make them holy in the truth. Your word is truth.
32. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.
33. I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.
34. I am in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.
35. I have made your name known to them and will continue to make it known so that your love for me will be in them, and I myself will be in them.
36. Put your sword away!
37. My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world.
38. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth.
39. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.