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Back in 2018 I taught a series from the book of John entitled “The Real Message of the Miracles“. I’ve always loved the Gospel of John and preferred it to all others. Perhaps it’s because John reflects back to the reader a swatch of light which is like a portal through which we can see beyond and through the storyline. In that series, we looked through that portal at the miracles Jesus performed in order allow the reader to view these stories again, but for the very first time.
Finishing that series has been in my heart for a long time and I’m excited to bring it to you. We are about to reenter the portal to experience a sort of punctuated time travel where it’s possible join those closest to Jesus just prior to being crucified. Like the first series, I am endeavoring to illuminate these familiar words so that we can hear them again, for the very first time.
Like the last study, this is an exegetical, word study where I do all the hermeneutical work, but I focus more on the contextualization than each verse. I say this only to avoid confusion if you are trying to follow along.
We begin this series in the thirteenth chapter of John where Jesus and his disciples had withdrawn from the crowd just prior to the Passover feast. Chapter twelve reflects the peak of Jesus’ public ministry where he really “pokes the bear” of institutional power and the region is reorienting politically. The risk of believing in him exposes everyone to great personal risk. Jesus has pulled back with his disciples and over the next few chapters, he is giving them his last words of instruction, before he departs from the world.
In the previous chapter the region was cheering and calling Jesus the King of Israel, and now he is stripped down to his tunic, and washing the feet of his disciples. From this gesture has arisen an entire leadership philosophy of servant leadership. As transformative as this kind of leadership is, there is more to this story. Jesus is not starting a new religion or philosophy for business development. He is revealing Ultimate Reality to a group of delusional followers. This is where we would do well to write ourselves into this story. How would you feel having Jesus wash your feet? Your reaction may be like Peters (v.8), “you shall never wash my feet.”
“If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” (John 13:8)
How many of us read this as a requirement to convert to Evangelical Christianity? That is NOT what the disciples heard. Like the world outside their walls, the world outside of ours lives in fear of the institutional powers that can take away our livelihoods. Our assumption is the same as the disciples, namely, that we must overpower the institutional powers that are oppressing us. The victorious king who was thrust into power by the people to free them via political or even military upheaval, is now naked and doing the work of a servant. What better way to say: “I’m not that kind of king.”
Jesus last words begin with the act of subversion.
Jesus undermines the disciple’s expectations of his rise to fame, not with a political rise to power, but with a descent into subversive power. The power Jesus is offering his disciples and any who would follow after him is not power from the top, but freedom from the bottom. Access to the Kingdom of God requires separation from the imperial overreach of religion. Divestment instead of control. Self-empty instead of self-promotion. The Kingdom of God, which Jesus reveals to the deluded world, runs on a counter-intuitive set of rules. Down is the way up. Giving is how we receive. Serving is how we lead. By flipping these assumptions on their head, he exposes the fiction of the world around and opens a constricted portal through which we are to follow him into a New World.
“If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” (John 13:8)
This is not a moral purity claim. If it were, Jesus would be consigned to eternal feet washer. The counter-intuitive Kingdom was fully present in that room just as it is fully present now. The “unwashed” are not those deemed as dirty sinners, or the unforgiven, or the unconverted. None of these terms apply within this context. That is an eisegetical insertion of Christian fundamentalism which came centuries later. The “unwashed” who will have no part in Christ are those who cannot wake up from the anesthesia and top down pride of principalities and powers. The unwashed is the “climber” who insists God is at the top of the ladder and cannot see God steadies us from the bottom. The example from this text is Judas Iscariot. Judas was “unclean” (even after his feet were washed) because he kept looking up. He wanted the validation from the top.
What does it mean to have a share or part (méros) in Christ?
It means that we cannot get the whole thing. It means we are at best only a partial believers. Only part of us will ever love him. There is always another part that won’t. We all possess some truth, none of us possess all of the truth. In the act of washing his disciples feet, Jesus is saying, if you want some aspect of me, If you want to know the Father, you must be served. For that part of us to love God and follow Christ is not an ascent, it’s not ritual or religion…ground zero is to be served, loved in our unworthiness.
But Keven, aren’t we supposed to worship Jesus? No where does Jesus ever say to worship him. But if we would see him, know him, and come to love him, and ultimately follow or imitate him, we must first be served by him. We must see the heart of God is not imperialistic, dominating, controlling, or threatening. The heart of God is loving service. Love empties. Love humbles. Love dies for its friends. Jesus claim of exclusivity here is that if your idea of God is not first that of a humble servant, then you will never really have a part (true understanding) of God, you’ll have an oppressive religion.
The context here (12:42-“but for fear of the Pharisees“) is that we all seek solidarity with the Power that we believe makes us. Betrayal is our inability to see our true Source. Betrayal is settling for the identity of immediacy-it’s myopic. This is the despair of the delusional world. Judas wanted to be validated by his religious and political institutions. He wanted to raise Jesus up to a similar place of power where he could do the most good. His delusion is the same as ours, he truly believed up was the way up. In Jesus’ kingdom, there is no temple (Rev 21:22), and the king himself washes the feet of all who would come to him.
If the thought of Christ washing your feet or serving you in such an intimate way makes you uncomfortable then you are close to entering, you’re getting warmer. Peter said: “Lord, do you wash my feet?” (v.6) If you think the order is backward and that we must bow first to Christ, then you’re getting colder. We all understand a king at the top of his power, but that’s not what Jesus reveals. Seeing the king at the bottom will destroy our framework for reality and that is exactly what we need.
How could 99% of the world identify with a superior, dominating, force of power? The suffering servant is identifiable and accessible to all but those who are bound to institutional power.
Religion tried (and is still trying) very hard to bring Jesus up to their pedestals and when Jesus refused, they put him up high on a cross. Since then, religion has controlled and secured the port of entry at a very high level and every building, song, and prayer has had us looking up. Jesus last words to his disciples and his word to us today is that if we want any real and lasting part of him, if we would have any true understanding of who God really is, then the discovery begins by first looking down at God.
The downward gaze is the only portal in human history which allows us to see the true heart of God, it’s the only view of God which humbles us completely and readies us for what is next.