We are revisiting the final words of Jesus to his disciples in those pivotal moments following the completion of his public ministry, and prior to his arrest and crucifixion. Last week we examined what it meant for Jesus to say: “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” If you were endeavoring to follow along in the story, we are now in John 13:12 where Jesus has put his clothes back on and they are all reclining together around the table.
“Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” (John 13:12-15)
The casual reading will capture about half of what Jesus is saying. Jesus is appealing to the foundational principal of his Kingdom, namely, that true leadership is influence. A leader who gains influence through power plays, and leverages title and position, doesn’t have influence, they have authority. A true leader has influence because he or she serves and self-empties into his or her sphere of people. The former is known as “the world system” (kosmos-general, oikomene-specific), the latter is known as “the kingdom.” Remember, the world outside their walls was in racial, religious, political, and military upheaval. Institutional powers and their posture has only been that of “power over.” Jesus is revealing the power of subversion with love.
The famous last words: “You also shall do just as I have done to you.” are vital to these men and women who will go out into the world after Jesus departs from them. The power of love to subvert institutional evil and liberate the world, will be and has been to this day, the single indicator of whether a group of people is an ecclesia (kingdom assembly) or as the kosmos (world system). This is not just a leadership strategy. This is the new definition or litmus test to discern the people of God.
From the modern viewpoint, we can now see how modern religion has completely got this wrong. Today, the Church (ecclesia) has become the place where Christ is against the culture with a narrative that the Messiah will return with a “power over” ethos and the Kingdom of God is a place we are hoping to get to after we die. Compare that to what Jesus is revealing. Christ is not evacuating or fighting the culture, he is redeeming and restoring it with the narrative that the Messiah has already come with a “subversive power of love” and the ethos the Kingdom of God is the place from which we already live.
These are watershed philosophies and distinctions. By Jesus model, which we are to follow, the Church is any assembly which places others as greater than oneself. It is not the modern cultural definition of Church with it’s 503(b) designation, or it’s denominational affiliation, or its theological distinctives. These have each become adulterated and the proof of their corruption is that they seek people to serve the institution rather than the institution existing to serve people. We are to “BE” the “church” not “GO” to “church.” We need not evangelize the world and create new little churches which hate the culture. We need only serve wherever we find ourselves in the world, and watch as each group morphs into the church as it comes to trust kingdom distinctives.
This also means that any organization (club, gathering, business, government, sports, arts, education, etc..) can immediately become the church, if those leading it, divest themselves for the sake of others rather than for the sake of the institution. This very act subverts institutional evil, and transforms everything. This will come up in a later installment, but the single aspect of self-emptying love will be the only measurement to determine who is following in Jesus footsteps (v.35) or who is operating from the Kingdom ethos.
Let this sink in. If it’s really hard to accept, it is likely due to your over-identification with religion or with institutional power.
One final thought about betrayal.
Verses 18-30 of chapter 13 are not incidental. Most readers and bible teachers fail to connect these streams of thought and therefore they are isolated from each other. We presuppose a definition on betrayal, especially in this story, because we all have some sense and even experience with being betrayed. To see between the verses, try writing yourself into the text in verse 22. “The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke.”
Jesus reveals the betrayer to be Judas. Now given the pretext of the conversation is Christ following by way of Kenosis (self-emptying) or leaders serving at the bottom, the betrayal of Jesus (exemplified in Judas), is to remain steadfast in one’s loyalty to institutional power and religion.
When this content finds its way into fundamental Christian circles, it invariably meets resistance, and in many cases I’m called a heretic, a false teacher, or worse. Two weeks ago, a gentleman told me that I hated the gospel and God was going to judge me severely. For such people, they are not capable of envisioning themselves apart from the identity and certainty given to them by institutionalized religion. Given the context of this passage, over-identifying with institutional power is the thread that illuminates the true meaning of betrayal. To be devoutly certain is to be the known betrayer because ones “Maker” or “Creator” is derived by the institution, rather than God.
The application here is that anytime we derive a sense of identity from any institution (Family, Community, Vocation, Hobby, Religion, Country, Race, Politics, or Government) we betray our true Creator and we live according the rules of the world rather than those of the kingdom. The former is captivity, confusion and death, the later is freedom, truth and life (More on this later).
Ultimate betrayal has to be based in ontological truth, not in religious truth or practice. Otherwise, Judas’ actions could not have been seen as betrayal, because he sought to do according to the teaching and traditions. He revealed Jesus to institutional leaders because he was found his identity in the trading who he truly was in Christ for who the institution could make him into. Pastors and parishioners do this all the time when they insist on alignment based on theology, doctrine, or historical practice, rather than the living, spirit illumined, Word in practice. In a sense, Judas was arguing the bible with Jesus, while Jesus was inviting him to “disrobe” from the garments that defined him.
We must strip ourselves from anything which would define us as other than our naked being before our Maker. That is how we follow Christ.
Now we see how Judas betrayal is his refusal to be himself found in Christ. This portion of the scripture rather than being a separate thought, is actually the lens through which we understand Jesus’ last words: “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” Just as Jesus refused to be lifted up and identified as a worldly king, just as he refused to be identified with the ruling class, or with religious obedience, he insisted only on being identified as the Son of Man (the human) the lower portion of his dialectic reality (spirit and flesh), so we would do well to follow in his steps.
Christ following then is not an alternative religion and it was never intended to be. Imitating Christ is doing the right thing for the right reason, and from the right disposition of heart. Christ following redefines how we see everything in the world and allows us a kingdom field of view. It’s not a view from the top which is limited to the learned or the elite, but a true view from and through the bottom. This means it is possible to be a Christ follower, even if one doesn’t identify as a Christian. That may sound shocking until we realize none of Jesus’ disciples or “followers/students” would have called themselves Christians, only Christ followers, or people who try to model their life after his.