By Zac Koons
This week’s readings for the Good Book Club’s journey through John’s Gospel move us ever-closer to the Gospel’s climax, and the end of Jesus’s earthly life and ministry.
Jesus Fails to Read the Room (John 12:12–50)
At this moment, Jesus’ public reputation is at its peak. He has just raised a man from the dead for God’s sake, and lots of people saw it happen (11:45). The rumors are true. Jesus is the real deal. And his opponents know it. “Some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. … ‘What are we to do?’ say the Pharisees and the chief priests, ‘For this man performs signs. If we let him go on thus, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’” The loyalty of the masses is shifting underneath the feet of the powerful, and the Jesus revolution is poised for a takeover.
And that’s exactly what appears to be happening in what’s often called the “triumphal entry”: a revolutionary and his rabble are marching on the capital city. A FiveThirtyEight poll shows promising chances of a successful coup. Remember, Jesus has been hiding in Galilee. In Pokémon terms, he fled Jerusalem in chapter 6 as a Charmander, but now he’s returned as a Charizard. And by the looks of it, he’s about to burn the place down.
But then Jesus opens his mouth and ruins everything. His social media manager must be furious. One has the sense that all it would’ve taken for this mass to start kicking in doors and flipping over tables would have been a nod from their new leader. But no, Jesus starts in again with his self-deprecating metaphors and impenetrable prophecies. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.” He slips into an Upper Room and the crowds dissipate. This isn’t what they thought. Jesus knows he’s not there to take power. Jesus already has it. And he knows he is there to give it up. The crowds that laid down their cloaks for Jesus will soon be the same crowds that call for his crucifixion — and yet they remain in both cases the same persons for whom Jesus will lay down his life.
The Marginalized Sacrament? (John 13)
Jesus hides with his disciples. And he washes their feet. Then he says, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (13:14). Jesus really couldn’t have been clearer. It has always been interesting to me that this instruction that Jesus gives his disciples to wash one another’s feet is far more direct and clearer than the instructions Jesus gives in the Gospel of Luke or Matthew about that thing the Church will come to call Holy Communion. In fact, in John’s Gospel there is no ritualized bread and wine. This is it. Foot-washing is the climactic moment of the Passover meal for John. This, it seems, is the ritual John intended for us to imitate. Yet it’s the Eucharist, rather than foot-washing, that has become the sacrament at the heart of our worship. Can you imagine a church that celebrated foot-washing every Sunday and the Eucharist only once a year? I don’t know how common it is, but I know of one local Mennonite church that actually won’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper unless it’s also accompanied by foot-washing.
Maybe that is taking it too far, but it’s worth considering whether or not we are missing something important that God intended for us when we relegate this ritual to once-a-year on the Thursday before Easter. It is an interesting thought experiment to think about how the life of the institutional church might have developed differently had it more deeply integrated the practice of ritual foot-washing within its liturgy more often.
Famous Last Words (John 14–15)
The organizational pattern of John’s Gospel argues that what’s happening right now is of immense importance. Each chapter up to this point has contained one or two isolated narrative episodes in the public ministry of Jesus. Here the lens zooms in and expands. Chapters 13–17 are one scene. The foot washing is the narrative action that sets the stage for Jesus’s longest monologue in all of Scripture. I imagine this scene unfolding on a stage: John as Shakespeare, both playwright and stage director. All the other actors move ever-so-slowly off-stage, while the light changes ever-so-gradually, until the scene has transitioned imperceptibly to a single spotlight highlighting a solo Jesus on an otherwise dark stage. On one level still talking to his disciples, but on another he’s talking directly to us throughout all time. What these chapters contain are Jesus’s famous last words.
These are words of substance and mystery, words that mostly make sense on the surface, but words that contain jewels beyond compare if you travel down into their mines. The tone — maybe even the thesis statement — for all that follows comes right at the beginning of chapter 14 when Thomas asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” To which Jesus responds, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” This already is a balm to every anxious disciple, then and now. Jesus has freed us from the calculus of ends vs. means. Jesus says: All you need to do is worry about the next step. All you need to do is follow me. Let me be in charge of the direction in which we’re heading. I promise the story will come out right in the end. That part is not up to you. The part that’s up to you is whether or not with your next step you will follow me.
This week’s Good Book Club readings end with some of my favorite words in all of Scripture. Jesus says, “Abide in me, and I will abide in you.” This is good advice for reading through this section of John’s Gospel too. It need not be so much about understanding it with precision as much as it can be about soaking in it and receiving God’s grace and truth by osmosis. Read. Abide. Rest.
The Rev. Zac Koons is rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas.