This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on April 24, 2016.
Our preaching of this text should take into account what precedes it. On this night before his death, Jesus is at table with his disciples. Unlike the other Gospels, John says nothing of bread and wine, but tells instead of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. More than a demonstration of servanthood, it is an acted parable of the laying down of his life for them. He tells them they should do the same for each other. Then he says that one of them will betray him, whereupon Judas departs into the night.
So as Jesus goes on to speak in our text, a basin of dirty water and a damp towel are close by, his listeners’ feet are freshly washed, and there is a conspicuously empty space at the table.
He tells them that he now been glorified. In two verses he says the word five times: he “has been glorified… God has been glorified… if God has been glorified… God will also glorify… and will glorify….” Such language may seem oddly timed, given that Judas is rushing to betray him to those who will shortly have him crucified. But this is precisely the meaning of Jesus’ glorification in John’s Gospel: being “lifted up” in death, resurrection, and ascension. These two verses are not easily accessible to most listeners, and may require more explaining than is useful for the larger impact of the text. Preachers who mean to preach the entire text will likely choose not to linger on verses 31-32, but to focus on verses 33-35, which are more substantially related to the surrounding material.
Verse 33 is crucial for understanding not only the context, but the tone of the commandment to love one another. The tone is a great tenderness. “Little children,” he calls them, then breaks the news that he is leaving them, that they will look for him but not find him, that where he is going they cannot come. It is poignant, disorienting, and heartbreaking news, and he gives it with the simple, gentle directness that might indeed be used in telling “little children” of an impending separation, even of a death.
In at least two respects, preachers should be mindful of the character of those words. First, we should probably take our cue from them as to the manner and tone of the sermon. Being true to this text will mean that we do not preach the love commandment in tones that are admonishing or severe or in the manner of an ethics lesson, but as a pastoral word addressed to our mutual vulnerability and need. Further, we should understand that in a fundamental way, the love commandment rises directly from the fact of Jesus’ absence. In large part, we are to love each other because we need Jesus’ embodied presence and do not have it apart from embodying his love toward each other.
It may surprise or even disappoint us that the “new commandment” concerns only love for each other within the community of faith. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus commands love for our enemies and our neighbors, clearly including the stranger and the outcast. There is none of that in the Gospel of John, only the directive that followers of Jesus must love each other. But is this not precisely the problem with the church, that we are turned inward, intent on our togetherness, when the gospel’s mandate is to serve and bear witness to the world beyond our walls? Why, then, is the love command in John so exclusively focused on mutual love within the church?
Consider the context: Jesus is leaving them, the powers of darkness are closing in, betrayal from within the ranks has occurred, uncertainty and grief await them, terrible pressures are upon them—and to one extent or another this will always be the circumstance of the community of Jesus. How can all of this be faithfully endured unless we love each other? Moreover, after Jesus’ death he will return and tell them, “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” (20:21) How can such a mission be sustained unless those who undertake it are bound together in strengthening love? For these and other reasons, love for each other is not only essential, but urgent.
Why call this a new commandment when the Bible is full of commands to love? Perhaps in part because the circumstances are new—new community, new mission, new hazards, new sense of love, and new empowerments to share it. But ultimately the commandment is new because this love must be “just as I have loved you.” He requires a love far greater than wanting the best for each other or feeling tenderness for each other or showing kindness to each other. To love as he has loved us is to be utterly self-giving, to abide together no matter what, and, in whatever sense is called for, to lay down our lives for each other. So radical is such love and so rare and so like Jesus, that if we were to live in the ongoing practice of it, those who observe us would notice and conclude that, right or wrong, we are disciples of Jesus.
Preaching about love must avoid two traps: being too sentimental or being too abstract. Fortunately, our text steers us away from both mistakes. If the command is to love each other as Jesus has loved us, our love goes far beyond sentiment into concrete, self-giving action. The preacher would do well to imagine what practices might be undertaken so as to love in the manner of Jesus: in how we listen to each other, serve each other, forgive each other, support each other, and call forth the best from each other—all of it with a sense of our mutual need and, as it were, on our knees, as if washing each other’s feet.
Dr. Paul Simpson Duke
First Baptist Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Tags: absence, footwashing, mutual love, new commandment