Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.
John 13 presents us with the story of Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet. This well-known story is related only in John’s Gospel. In many churches we re-enact the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. It is, for us, symbolic of servanthood and humility. Of course, in Jesus’ time and context, feet needed to be washed – they would have been dusty and dirty from walking in sandals on dry dusty roads, and servants would have washed guests’ feet. In our church, feet are probably in less need of washing. Nevertheless, we do it every year, because it gives us a picture of the humility and servanthood of Jesus, which he calls us to emulate: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:14-15).
I have come to think of this story as an enacted parable. Jesus told many parables – indeed, he was renowned for using parables in his teachings. They were earthy, relevant, vivid and practical. Moreover, they made for interesting listening. And helped people remember his message. But we do not get any parables in John’s Gospel (though some do consider the Vine and the Good Shepherd to be parables). The Jesus we meet in John is much more inclined towards long, deep speeches and sermons. Nevertheless, I think this is a parable acted out – not a story told, but a story demonstrated.
A parable tells a story at two levels. On the surface is a story about something that did or could have actually happened. It is a story in its own right. Below the surface is a second story that has some spiritually important meaning. The story can be understood at either or both levels, but the second story is not always that obvious, which is why Jesus is often asked to explain the parables (e.g. Matthew 13:1-23).
An enacted parable is not a story that is told, but something that is done. The actions have two levels of meaning, which is what makes them a parable. On the surface, the actions are what they are – the doing of something that may be functional and purposeful. But below the surface the actions have another meaning that is spiritually important. I think of the foot washing in this way – on the surface, Jesus was cleaning his disciples’ feet, which is something that needed to be done, and in so doing he took on the role of a servant, which made the disciples uncomfortable. But at another level, Jesus was telling the disciples a story about his whole life, a story that we yesterday called the Kenotic U (based on Philippians 2:5-11).
It seems that John understood that this was an enacted parable, because he opens the story with a commentary:
“It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. … Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God” (John 13:1-3).
John says that Jesus “now showed them the full extent of his love.” But washing someone’s feet, even if they are smelly and dirty, is not really a demonstration of the full extent of Christ’s love. We know that Christ’s love was much larger than just that. And within their time and culture, foot washing was not uncommon – it was just that someone of a higher status would not have washed the feet of those who were subordinate. So, it is likely that John is giving us a clue that there is more to this story than just feet being washed.
The text around this phrase speaks about Jesus’ reflecting on the fact that he had come from God and was soon to return to God. This is very reminiscent of the U is it not? John sets up the enacted parable with reflection on where Jesus comes from and where he is soon to go, related to his great love for humanity.
John now steps into telling the story itself – the parable:
“[Jesus] got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:4-5).
What we have here is the first half of the U, the left side, the descent. Jesus would have been reclining at the senior position at the table, at his place of authority as Teacher. This is like Jesus enjoying equality with God in Philippians 2:6. The Trinity is where the Son belonged – this was his rightful place.
But Jesus gets up from this place – the Son did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. Jesus is willing to relinquish his status as Rabbi, Teacher, in order to begin a descent towards humility. Similarly, the Son was willing to give up perfect fellowship and Deity.
Jesus takes off his outer clothing – the Son emptied himself, making himself nothing. Our clothing is a sign of who we are. When I serve as a lay minister in church I wear a white robe and a medallion, which serve as signs to parishioners that I am licensed to perform sacred duties in the sanctuary. When I attend a graduation ceremony at the university I wear a red robe, which serves as a sign to the students and their parents that I am a professor. Our clothes are signs of who we are, and some clothes are signs of status and power. Jesus divests himself of his outer clothing, thereby casting aside any sign of his status and role. Similarly, the Son emptied himself of his privilege, power and attributes as the Second Person of the Trinity.
Jesus wraps a towel around his waist – the Son took on the form of a servant, being made in human likeness. As much as clothes can signify status, clothes can also signify the lack of status. We may think of a domestic worker’s (maid’s) uniform – no-one would wear clothes like that to give the impression of wealth or status! Jesus, having removed his outer clothing, dons a towel around his waist, which is what a servant would wear. Similarly, the Son took on the form of a servant and humbled himself, becoming far less than he had been before.
Jesus begins to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel – the Son became obedient to death, even death on a cross. The course of action that Jesus had initiated reaches its natural outcome – he does, in fact, wash the disciples’ feet. He does not merely give the impression that he might wash them, expecting that someone else will take over. Instead, he does what he set out to do. Similarly, the Son continued the downward curve of the U to its natural outcome – he offended the Jewish leaders to such an extent that they eventually agreed to get him killed. The Son did not merely move towards the cross, expecting God to rescue him. Instead, he was resolute and did what he set out to do.
In these two verses, Jesus enacts the downward curve of the Kenotic U, symbolising his incarnation, life and death as a humble human. John, in writing this, recognises that this is obscure, but he recalls Jesus explaining to a confused Peter, “You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand” (John 13:7). This is a strong clue that there are two levels to this story – foot washing is the upper level and obvious; the Kenotic U is the basement story, not so obvious and needing time to recognise. John is widely recognised to be the New Testament writer who really grasped the deeper meanings of Christ’s earthly sojourn.
John 13:12 tells us the rest of the story:
“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them.”
Jesus finishes washing their feet – God therefore turned the tide of events towards the Son’s glorification. There is no ‘therefore’ in John’s narrative, but it is clear that now that the feet are washed, Jesus is finished with this act of servanthood, with this emptying out of himself, with this kenosis. Similarly, once the Son had completed his work on earth, which resulted in his death, God was ready to start the second half of the Son’s journey, back to glory.
Jesus puts on his clothes – the Son was exalted to highest place. By putting on his clothes, which requires removing the now soiled towel, Jesus takes back his former role and status. Similarly, the Son, after being humiliated and cruelly treated, regained his former glory, exalted to the highest place, recognised as an important person in the eyes of every creature.
Jesus returns to his place – the Son was proclaimed as Lord, to the glory of the Father. Having reclaimed his clothes, Jesus resumes his place at the head of the table, takes up again his rightful position of authority among the disciples. Similarly, the Son was given not just a meaningful name, but also a title, “Lord”, and resumed his rightful place in the glory of God the Father, reunited in the Holy Trinity.
Immediately, Jesus asks if the disciples now understand what he has done for them, echoing his earlier comment to Peter. Of course, they did not. At most they heard Jesus’ message that they, like him, must be willing to serve others. But what was only later understood, and related to us by John, was that Jesus had here enacted the whole of the Kenotic U – the descent of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son, from the side of the Father, into human form, into humility and to death, after which he was glorified and reinstated in the heart of the Triune God.
The importance of this for us is to reinforce Jesus’ demonstration of love in the incarnation, cross and resurrection. We return to John’s opening words: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love” (John 13:1b).
Meditation for the Day
Continue your reflection, started yesterday, on the kenosis, on God’s emptying out of God’s self, in order become one of us, in order to redeem us. Reflect on the full extent of God’s love that this demonstrates.
Prayer for the Day
Three-in-one God, I am deeply grateful for the great sacrifice that you have made for me in sending the Son into the world as my brother and Saviour.