How do we give and receive love? (John 13)

The new edition of Scripture Union’s Encounter with God has just been published, and this is the third part of my contribution reflection on John 11–13.

Acceptable service (John 13:1–17)

Why do we find it so difficult to be served by others? Because it draws unwelcome attention to us? Or because we don’t feel we deserve the attention? Or do we simply find it hard to allow others to offer what they have? Peter must have felt some mixture of these. The disciples sensed that things were coming to a head between Jesus and the authorities. During the evening, Jesus will talk of the ‘new covenant in my blood’, a new Passover, with him as the sacrificial lamb. And now Jesus does something extraordinary—he takes up a towel, and washes the disciples’ feet. All the others accept this, but not Peter—headstrong, impetuous, embarrassingly honest Peter.

Peter is happy with grand gestures. Aware of his failings, he recognises his dependence on Jesus. He accepts the big things that Jesus does for him that he cannot do for himself—in particular, that ‘washing’ which signifies the change of direction and entering the kingdom of God. What he struggles with is the service of Jesus in the mundane, the everyday, that washing the feet signifies. We all find it easy to accept menial service—as long as it comes from someone menial—but not from the one we call ‘Lord and master’.

Is Jesus is here turning our ideas of status upside down? Or is he doing something more radical still—disregarding them altogether? Following his example, each of his new family is to serve all others. How is he able to do this? The clue comes at the beginning of the passage: Jesus knows that the time has come, that he is at one with his Father, and that he can trust him. As we grow in our confidence in God’s love for us, so we are set free to serve all those around us, even in the menial, just as Jesus did.

What are the day to day things for which you need to ask God’s help and provision? Where can you show love and care to others in the mundane and the menial?

Up Close and Personal (John 13:18–30)

Today’s passage offers a stark contrast in relationships with Jesus. At the centre of the scene is ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved.’ This most likely refers to John, the son of Zebedee and brother of James, not otherwise mentioned in this gospel. Tradition has it that he was the youngest of the disciples—perhaps an older teenager, which is why he outruns Peter to the tomb (20.4)—and the only one to live into old age. But if the mother of Zebedee’s children (Matt 27.56) was Salome (Mark 15.40) and this was Mary’s sister (John 19.25), then John was Jesus’ younger cousin.

In those days, slaves stood or sat, but free people reclined to eat, so Jesus and his friends were reclined next to each other around the U-shaped table celebrating God’s deliverance. Jesus was in the middle as host, his young cousin occupied the place of affection next to Jesus, so that he could lean back to ask him questions. A mere lad, he was no threat to the others, and his closeness to Jesus meant he could ask the personal, poignant question: who was the betrayer?

By contrast we have Judas, introduced from the beginning as the traitor. Jesus knew this, but the others have not suspected it; in contrast to depictions in art, he looked just like the rest of them. The gospel depicts him, not as ‘demon possessed’, but as succumbing to the power of ‘the ruler of this world’, walking out into the dark night of his decision to betray Jesus. Yet, despite the contrasts, disciple John and betrayer Judas have one thing in common: the love of Jesus. Though dipping the bread pointed John to the traitor, it was actually a sign of close friendship (Ps 41.9). And Jesus had just washed Judas’ feet, along with the others—he had indeed loved them all to the very end (13.1)

Jesus showed the same love to the one who betrayed him as to the one closest to him. Pray for the Spirit of God to grow such generosity in your own life.

The Way of Love (John 13:31–38)

With the door firmly closed behind Judas, Jesus begins his last substantial teaching of the remaining disciples. The ‘farewell discourse’ starts here (not at 14.1; chapter divisions are not always reliable guides) and continues to the end of chapter 16. John’s gospel offers a different perspective from the others; they see Jesus’ glory as coming after Jesus’ humiliation and death, but John sees it coming in his sacrifice and suffering. The wonder of God’s glory is not just that he triumphs over death, but that, in love, he enters it on our behalf.

Jesus then goes on to tell the disciples the ways in which they can follow him, and the ways they cannot, recalling his comments in 7.33–34. Although the revelation of God in Jesus stands in continuity with the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) it is also something radically new and unique. Where God commanded the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, in Jesus he offers himself as that sacrifice once and for all. We cannot ‘follow’ this, in the sense that there is nothing we can do to add to what he has done or repeat it.

But we can—and must—follow in the way of love. Just as we cannot come after him without walking the way of the cross (Mark 8.34) in giving up our lives, so we cannot claim to be his without loving the way he loved, washing one another’s feet. In one sense this is not ‘new’; we have already been commanded to ‘love our neighbour as ourselves’ (Lev 19.18). But it comes now with new quality and new clarity, as we have Jesus’ own example to follow. The disciples cannot do this yet (v 36) because the life of Jesus by his Spirit has not yet been poured out into them—and so the Spirit becomes the next focus of Jesus’ teaching.

How far have you come in learning to love like Jesus? In what areas do you need to ask for a fresh filling of the Spirit to form you more like him?

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7 thoughts on “How do we give and receive love? (John 13)”

  1. Surely we also find it difficult to accept service because we know that it’s virtuous to serve, so we are letting the server be better than us, and this offends our pride.

      The gulf between vastly differing statuses is crossed in rendering such a personal level of service to another. The action of foot-washing unveils a deep truth of salvation. Mere mental agreement to the truth of gospel is not enough, although that may well distinguish principled churchgoers from the wayward society that we live in.

      Nevertheless, each of us, in turn, must submit to the principle of Christ washing our feet. In effect, we must each accept and exalt His sacrificial act of cleansing our moral grime, however foul or undignified that might be.

      For Peter, the act was filled with unacceptable prospect of a role-reversing indignity towards his master. Yet, the foot-washing merely foreshadowed the next day’s horrendous indignity of Christ’s surrender to humiliation and death by execution on the cross. It was only after Christ’s sacrifice, resurrection and exaltation that the ritual would be understood by the apostles, not before.

      Paul put it this way:

      ‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!’ (Philippians 2:5 – 8)

      The service rendered by Christ towards us and that we, in turn, offer each other, is not just about embracing or broadcasting lofty morals of godly behaviour. That may dedicate us to God morally, but true Christian service begins by restoring each other’s fallen humanity to wholeness at the most basic practical level of human need, but this must be at the expense of preciously guarded status.

      In terms of foot washing, preachers are not merely required to engage in weekly tirades which graphically highlight the dangers of neglecting foot hygiene, the importance of regular foot care and the best podiatry products on offer.

      To make a difference as Christ did involves rolling up our sleeves and getting our own hands busy with the menial task of washing away daily detritus from each others’ dirty feet.

      It’s no mean feat, but if Christ does not engage with us at that practical level, we can have no part of Him. b>If we do not engage with each other at that practical level and at the expense of regard for status, we can have no part of each other. for it is this excessive regard for status which propagates division in today’s Church.

      Both my willingness to serve you and your willingness to serve me in this way provide the incontrovertible spiritual ‘tell’ by which we can easily differentiate between authentic friendship in Christ (as is appropriate to sharing God’s gift of eternal life) and the ersatz, stingily measured and mean-spirited ‘hospitality’ which Simon the Leper extended towards Jesus (Luke 7:40-44)

  2. As a recent follower, I am interested to connect around bible passages I find a challenge as and when. As well as enjoying your discussions around the readings for the week.
    I asked about John 13:31-34 as I find the words in vs 33 particularly challenging ‘Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.”
    I’m no theologian but this disturbed me as I absolutely believe that one day, I shall follow Christ. How and in what form, I have no idea, Like the water beetle becoming a dragon fly, we cannot know until it is our time. But I believe there is something wonderful to follow and that Christ will be at the heart of it.
    I’ve read your comments above and it certainly gives a different perspective to think on- not sure I’m there yet though. Will discuss with my ever patient husband.


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