Uniform Lesson for November 1, 2020
Scripture passage and lesson focus: John 13:1-15, 34-35
The final unit in our series on loving one another is titled “Godly Love Among Believers.” While one might think this is easy compared to loving a stranger or loving an enemy, all one has to do is think about civil wars and denominational fights to know how vicious such infighting can be. The congregations in John’s day knew this as well, as the early church was in the process of separating from the synagogue. It’s one thing to love people across the oceans. It’s another thing to love the people just down the pew.
John 13:1-11 — Sacrificial love
Our passage leads off with Jesus’ awareness that “his hour had come.” In the Gospel of John, this is a direct reference to Jesus’ imminent death on the cross, the sacrificial act by which Jesus is glorified and the sins of the world taken away (John 1:29). So, from the beginning of our lesson, the love required among believers is not just emotional or kindly or supportive, but love as rugged as the wood of a cross. Jesus is about to show the disciples how much God incarnate loves them, and so he now enacts such love in a surprising and unexpected way. It may not be as obvious as the bread and the cup Jesus uses in the other Gospels, but it is startling and memorable enough that it has been passed down and observed by the church to this day.
So, we must begin our discussion of love among believers by pushing past casseroles and cards and cookouts on the lawn toward the kind of love that might cost us our very lives. If the church of Jesus Christ would care about unity among its members as much as about survival or growth or budgets, then we Christians might indeed be known by our love. When Jesus says toward the end of our passage, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (emphasis added), we might ponder that “just” for a little while. Just as God in Christ has loved us with blood and bone and the bowing of his head (John 19:30), so we are called to love one another — not because we want to or feel like it, but because God’s love in Christ requires it. Indeed, Jesus calls this a “new commandment.”
John 13:12-15 — Hands-on love
In order to get the disciples’ attention and begin to focus their hearts and minds on the main event just ahead, Jesus decides to enact his love for them “to the end.” He gets up from the table, takes off his outer robe, and ties a towel around himself. The disciples recognize these cues. They are the actions of a disciple toward a rabbi, or a slave toward a master — and so they object: “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus is taking his love for these disciples (including his betrayer!) way past their level of comfort. It’s more than just the exposure of their dirty feet (a source of discomfort and embarrassment), but a radical reversal of their understanding of status and shame (where the lesser always serves the greater). But Jesus is clear with them, and thereby with us: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” As Jesus is about to wash the world in the water that flows from his side (John 19:34), he now insists on washing the disciples’ feet with the water in his basin. While it is understandable that today’s church might modify and adapt this ritual (substituting lotion on the hands or a mark of oil on the forehead), the scandal of God doing this for us is unavoidable. We cannot wash ourselves from sin, and we cannot simply summon up this kind of sacrificial love on our own. Only God can, and God does, first with a basin and later with a cross.
John 13:34-35 — Sacramental love
This is the reason that this commanded action is still celebrated on Maundy [Commandment] Thursday. It is the reason some branches of the Protestant faith claim foot-washing as a sacrament (performed and commanded by Christ). But it is also the reason that all our conversations about following the commandment to love one another take on a sacramental hue. Jesus acts out and requires similar hands-on and sacrificial love from us toward one another. Surely when we disciples do so, our Lord and Teacher is present (verse 14).
Which of God’s loving actions make us most uncomfortable — God’s foot-washing or God’s cross?
RICHARD BOYCE is the dean of the Charlotte campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, and associate professor of preaching and pastoral leadership. He is a minister member of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.
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