John 13:1-20: Jesus' public ministry of teaching and signs is over. The following chapters are comprised of Jesus teaching and interacting with his disciples, followed by his arrest, trial, execution and resurrection. In this chapter we are presented with a recounting of Jesus final meal with his disciples (here on the evening before Passover, in contrast to the other gospels where this is a Passover meal). There will be no sharing of bread and wine as a way to talk about Jesus death and the disciples sharing in his life, however. Instead, Jesus demonstrates what life together in the Jesus community should be like. He offers a “living parable” and a few words to go with it.
In John, Jesus confidently knows what is going to happen to him. In the midst of this impending event, Jesus' love for his disciples will continue to the very end – enduring love. Jesus is not only knowledgeable about what is to come, he knows who he is – the one who has come from God and is going to God, and the one into whose life God has given all things. This is a remarkable claim about the identity of Jesus, but what is most remarkable is the action that follows. Knowing who he was in relationship to God, Jesus ties a towel around himself and begins to wash the disciples’ feet. Jesus is enacting hospitality and taking on the role of host and servant. It is too much for Peter who objects, but Jesus counters. “To have Jesus wash one’s feet is to receive an act of hospitality that alters one’s relationship to Jesus and, through him, to God” (New Interpreters Study Bible). As has often happened in the Gospel, a literalism gets in the way of true understanding. Peter figures if having feet washed helps him participate in new life with Jesus, then certainly washing more is better. Having one’s life touched by Jesus, the living water, is enough.
Jesus finishes washing the disciples’ feet and then returns to explain what has happened. His living parable, his symbolic act, is to be repeated. Jesus has given them an example, and example of leadership and servanthood in their life together, an example that runs deeply counter to the prevailing understandings of the roles of teacher and Lord in Roman culture. “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (verse 17). Our spiritual lives are more than knowing, they are knowing and doing. Jesus then begins to talk about where this servant leadership will lead him next – toward being betrayed.
John 13:21-30: Jesus servant leadership will lead him to be betrayed, by one of his own disciples. Even John admits that this makes Jesus “troubled in spirit.” “And it was night” – another way John uses symbolic language. It may have been dark outside, literally, but another kind of night was falling in which the light of the world would be extinguished, but only for a time. Sometimes, we, too, must walk through dark nights.
John 13:31-35: For John, Jesus’ final glorification will come in his crucifixion and resurrection, but God is glorified when God becomes more visible to the world. John’s contention is that Jesus has done just that. But his time is short, so Jesus wants to make sure they know what it means to live a life that glorifies God – love. The heart of Jesus’ revelation of God is the way in which Jesus makes God’s love visible in and for the world. Jesus loves his disciples “to the utmost.” This love is modeled in the foot washing and enacted fully in his death. His disciples are to love one another the same way. (New Interpreters Study Bible). Love will be the characteristic mark of being a disciple of Jesus. Christians are not merely “nice people,” but agents of God’s love for the world revealed in Christ (People’s New Testament Commentary). If we grapple with no other words in the entire New Testament, trying to live up to this “new commandment” would keep us occupied for the rest of our lives. What do we need to do to cultivate love within? What do we need to do so that our actions and relationships demonstrate that love? “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (verse 17). In Christian faith, love is more than a feeling. It has to do with action and with intention. It has to do with willing the good of another and acting on that impulse. Even with this understanding, there remains something of an anomaly in a “command” to love. John Sanford notes that and says that the Greek here, in addition to commanding love, could also mean “that part of our ability to fulfill the commandment is to become the kind of person who is capable of that love” (Mystical Christianity, 260).
John 13:36-38: As in the other gospels, Peter boldly declares that he will follow Jesus anywhere, even to the death. Instead, Peter will deny Jesus – not just once, but three times. It is interesting that this story is told in each gospel. Peter may have wished it otherwise, but here it is again. Yet Peter is remembered as one of the most important disciples of Jesus in the early church, and is celebrated as the first “pope” in Roman Catholic Christianity. In spite of our own failures, we can rise up and try again.