Tonight’s Gospel begins: ‘Now before the feast of the Passover, Jesus, knowing that his hour had come — when he would pass from this world to the Father’ (John 13:1) This situates Jesus’ story within a much wider context. Jesus knew himself as one who has come from God and is now returning to God, having done what he was sent to do. (John 7:28; 13:3; 17:1, 4) It is as the prophet Isaiah put it: “The word that I speak does not return to me unfulfilled. My word performs my purpose and fulfils the mission I sent it out to accomplish.” (Isaiah 55:11. See also 45:23) For, at the beginning of John’s Gospel, we are told: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ And this ‘Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ (John 1:1, 14) ‘The Word made flesh living among us,’ of course, is Jesus, and ‘In the beginning’ stretches Jesus’ story right back to the beginning before Creation, when the Word was with God. (Genesis 1:1; John 1:1-3) It is this Word that does not return to God without accomplishing what it was sent to do.
This evening’s Gospel continues: ‘They were at supper, and the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him.’ (John 13:2) In this wider context, then, what is being played out here, now that the ‘hour has come’ (John 13:1), is the finale of the contest between Good and Evil in the world (Matthew 4:1-11. C.f.: Genesis 3-6, esp. 3:16), which had already seen Humankind as an early casualty. (Genesis 3) John’s Gospel had already told us: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:16) Here we are told: ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’ (John 13:1) The Word that comes to us in Jesus speaks of God’s great love for us (Romans 8:31) — as Jesus puts it later: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13. C.f.: 1:18; 14:7) The playing out of this great love for the world is what we are seeing here, culminating in our celebration of Easter on Sunday, but not without first going through the climatic battle scene on Friday’s Calvary, in which Jesus (one like us (C.f.: 1 Samuel 17)) is our champion. (John 19:30. C.f.: Luke 22:44-44; 23:44-46; Exodus 17:8-13)
Tonight, in the context of his coming from God and returning to God, we are told: Jesus ‘got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.’ (John 13:4-6) That is, as St Paul puts it: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:6-7) What we have here in Jesus getting up from table where he is the host at supper, stripping himself to his loincloth, and then proceeding to wash his disciples’ feet as a slave would, is a metaphor for the Incarnation. Then we are told: ‘After he had washed their feet, he put on his robe, and returned to the table.’ (John 13:12) His getting up from table, disrobing and then redressing and returning to table is another way of saying that ‘he came from God and was returning to God.’ (John 13:3. C.f.: Isaiah 25:6) If we want to pierce what we refer to as the Mystery of the Incarnation, all we need do is ponder this scene here tonight, where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. (C.f.: Luke 2:19; Psalm 73:17)
In this lowly and humble service — so demeaning was this customary service of hospitality in Jewish households that it was performed only by Gentile slaves, Jewish slaves being exempt, for it was beneath any Jew to do it — what we have here, then, is God washing the feet of mere humans … and such a poor lot at that: one, as we have already noted, will betray him (John 13:2, ), and later, when the chips are down, another will deny him (John 18:15-27) while the rest run away. (Mark 14:50) (We never need worry about our place at the Lord’s table. (C.f.: Matthew 11:12; Mark 2:16)) In the very hierarchical times of Jesus’ day, what he does here is absolutely shocking. Tonight’s story is without precedence in ancient literature: never was it known for a social superior to wash the feet of a social inferior. It turns all notions of what is great and divine on its head. This Peter cannot accept: acknowledging him as ‘Lord,’ Peter says to him, “You will never wash my feet.” (John 13:6-8. C.f.: Luke 5:8) On Jesus’ part, it was a very deliberate act. For normally foot-washing would have been done by the slaves as a person enters the house. Yet here Jesus waits until they are all seated at table, where he is very much the host and all the rest are seated according to honour and status. (C.f.: Luke 14:8; John 13:23) What Jesus does here is about Revelation, the Revelation of the greatness of God’s love for us (John 1:18): there is nothing he will not do for us — not the washing of our feet, nor ‘even death on a cross,’ that supreme Revelation of God’s love which Jesus will not shrink from doing tomorrow. (Philippians 2:7-8; John 15:13)
At the end of this meal Jesus will say to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) He means for us to love one another in the same way he does — without regard for who we are; there is to be no high and low among us. (Luke 22:25-27; Galatians 3:28. C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 2:16-18; 60:7; 63:5; 7:1; 72:8) When Jesus told us that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for friends, he went on to say, “You are my friends, if you do what I command you. I shall not call you servants any more … I call you friends” (John 15:14-15); there is no hierarchy here. His call to love as he loves, is a call to friendship. In doing what he does, does not mean that we need go around washing one another’s feet. Instead, he calls us/command us to be friends who love each other, as he loved us, such that there is nothing we will not do for one another. What this means is adequately put by St Benedict at the end of his Rule where he contrasts ‘a wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell’ (c.f.: Matthew 27:5) with ‘a good zeal which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life.’ (Rule of St Benedict 72:1-2) Like our Gospel tonight, Benedict wants us choose life by fostering this good zeal with fervent love. (Rule of St Benedict 72:3. C.f.: Deuteronomy 30:19-20) Benedict then outlines what this entails: “They should each try to be the first to show respect for the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead what he judges better for someone else.” Is this not what friends do? In this way, says Benedict, we will show each other and God what he terms a ‘pure love.’ (Rule of St Benedict 72:8-10) By fostering our good zeal in this way, then, we can love one another as Jesus loved us, and so become his friends … that is, his social equals — which is, in effect, to become the social equal of God! (John 1:12) Yet, this should not be as astounding as it sounds.
For ‘in the beginning,’ which is where tonight’s story takes us back to (John 13:3), we are told that God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ (Genesis 1:26-27) What Jesus has done for us this night is to ‘set before us an example’ of how we might do just that: become an image of God, become his son/daughter (c.f.: John 14:7, 9) … by doing what he does/loving each other, as he loved us. (John 13:15, 34; 1;12; 1 John 3:2; Galatians 4:7) Through his example Jesus draws all Creation to its completion (Romans 8:19-21; John 1:3) by showing us how to be friends: to be his friends, to be friends of God, and to be friends of one another (c.f.: Genesis 3:8; Matthew 25:34-36) — this is his call to us on this night; it was for this that he came. (John 1:12)