Text Study for John 13:31-35 (Part One)

5 Easter C 2022

Difficult times can drive us apart or bind us together.

We have passed the midpoint of the Easter seasonal journey and are beginning the move toward Ascension Day and Pentecost. In the Johannine account, this means that along with the disciples, we are reflecting on what it means for Jesus to “leave” us and return to the Father. That reflection is the basis for the Farewell Discourse in John 13-17. In our text this week, we have the words that introduce the Farewell Discourse proper.

Karoline Lewis suggests that the sign, dialogue, and discourse that make up the narration of the Foot Washing (John 13:1-30) “should function as the prologue to the Farewell Discourse, that is, an introduction to the tone and themes that will unfold in the following chapters” (pages 177-178). While I don’t recommend that we read those verses aloud in addition to the appointed text, if we’re preaching on the gospel text, then we should take this narrative context into account.

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In John 13:1b, we get the superscription that describes the love Jesus has for the disciples. Jesus loves his disciples “into the end,” that is, both through the fulfillment of events and to the uttermost. In verse 2, we get the certain signal that Judas will hand Jesus over – although we know from John 10 that this is according to Jesus’ intention and plan, because only he can lay down his life and take it up again.

I think we need to tell our listeners that the immediate framing of our text is Judas’ journey into the darkness of betrayal on the one side (John 13:21-30) and the prediction of Peter’s craven denial on the other side (John 13:36-38). In the center of this frame is the command to the disciples to love one another just as Jesus has loved them. This is not the sweet script for a cross-stitch project. This is a description of the only ethic by which the disciple community under existential threat can survive.

In John 13:30 we read that Judas, perhaps still chewing on a chunk of bread from Jesus’ hand, “went out immediately.” We get three more chilling Greek words to follow – “but it was night.” Lewis notes that these two details ring down the curtain on Judas as disciple and introduce him as an agent of the Evil One. “Judas has left the fold,” Lewis writes. “Judas has entered the darkness,” she continues, “He has gone to the dark side” (page 183).

This is the scene that leads us into our text for Sunday. If I were performing this chapter of the Johannine account, I think that I would leave some silence between John 13:30 and 13:31. The language of the Johannine narrator encourages this move to shocked silence. “When, therefore, [Judas] went out, Jesus says…” (John 13:31a, my translation). The narrator draws a deep and pained breath as those words are uttered. There are too many emotions wrapped in too few words to skip forward blithely.

I think it would be appropriate to leave enough silence for the crowd to grow restless and uncomfortable. In the narrative itself, I imagine this was the situation. While the Johannine account moves on to Jesus’ words, Judas’ abrupt departure was a troubling and destabilizing event. And yet, Jesus’ next words are perhaps even more troubling and destabilizing.

“Now the Son of Man shall be glorified,” Jesus tells the remaining disciples, and God shall be glorified in him” (John 13:31b, my translation). We know from the words in John 12 that when the Son of Man is “glorified,” a grain of wheat must fall into the earth and die. Those who serve Jesus must follow him into that death and will be honored by the Father for that service.

Jesus recognized at the beginning of chapter 13 that the hour of his glorification had arrived. Judas may have left the building and entered the darkness. But now it was time for Jesus to leave the disciples and return to the Light. What precedes the commandment to love one another is this clear statement about Jesus’ departure.

“As a result,” Lewis writes, “this is not a general, generic claim to love one another; it is rather, an essential injunction to know and feel Jesus’ presence when he is gone” (page 184). Difficult times can drive us apart or bind us together. This new situation, when the disciples must continue their life together in Jesus’ absence, calls forth a “new commandment,” to love one another. “What is new about the commandment,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “is that it directs disciples toward one another; up until now,” they continue, it was mutual love between Jesus and the disciples that was underscored” (page 226).

“In the Mediterranean world,” Malina and Rohrbaugh note, “love always had the underlying meaning of attachment to some group,” including a fictive kinship group such as that of Jesus and the disciples. “Since in first-century Mediterranean society there was no term for an internal state that did not entail a corresponding external action, love always meant doing something that revealed one’s attachment,” they continue, “that is, actions supporting the well-being of the persons to whom one was attached” (page 228).

This is a demanding text to preach in our time of radical individualism, toxic partisanship, and deep divisions – in the larger society, in the American church, and in particular congregations. The love to which Jesus points, according to Malina and Rohrbaugh “is reliability in interpersonal relations; it takes on the value of enduring personal loyalty, of personal faithfulness. The phrase ‘love one another,’” they suggest, “presumes the social glue that binds one person to another” (page 228).

“A new commandment I am giving you, in order that you may love one another,” Jesus says, “just as I have loved you, in order that you also may love one another” (John 13:34, my translation). It should be clear from a reading of John 13 that this “love” is most clearly demonstrated in the foot washing. Jesus says he has given an “example” – a type, model, or pattern for what it looks like to love one another. I don’t think we can preach on this love without helping our listeners remember the model.

It is a model of humble and self-giving proximity – literally getting in touch with the one whom I am called to love. Personally, I’m not comfortable with any of this. I know lots of people have been damaged and devastated by the lack of interpersonal contact and connection during the pandemic lockdowns. I’m wired in such a way emotionally and was situated in such a way relationally that I wasn’t the least bit troubled by this separation. The hard part for me comes now – when we start to get back together.

What I know is that the lack of proximity, as necessary as it has been and perhaps continues to be, is damaging to my capacity to love others. There is just no substitute for being together in one fashion or another as the community of disciples. I’m starting to participate again in face-to-face worship. We’ve been involved in the restart of adult education activities in our home congregation. We’ve gone to meetings in person and not just on Zoom. We’ve even been to a congregational potluck (and I enjoyed it!).

I’m not a complete misanthrope (no matter what some people might say). I’m just an introvert, and increasingly so as I get older. But without proximity, contact, conversation, ministry together – I cannot find myself in the place to love others as I am loved. So, loving in the way Jesus loves the disciples means, at the very least, being “in touch” with one another (whatever the safety precautions and vaccination doses might be necessary to make such proximity possible).

Of course, being in the same space with others means that I cannot avoid my differences with and dislikes of some of my colleague disciples. Nor can they avoid my objectionable and off-putting characteristics. I know that I have gotten out of practice in applying the skills of interpersonal tolerance of irritating differences (and the habits of keeping my most unnecessary and offensive thoughts and behaviors to myself). I assume that many others are as out of practice in dealing with me. Difficult times can drive us apart or bind us together. We disciples are called to respond to the difficulties by going toward one another rather than away from one another.

I know from our text that going away from one another means going “into the darkness.” And it is certainly possible to enter that darkness even with a mouth still full of bread from Jesus’ hand. For me, it’s the easiest thing in the world to whip up a self-righteous snit and storm out a door, certain that I’m right and the rest of those idiots can just go to hell (my interior ruminations are often not a pretty item upon which to report). The result of that going out, of course, is increased isolation – the opposite of the abundant life which Jesus promises.

Our text is an invitation, a command, and a plea to draw near to one another in love – particularly in the most challenging of times. If the church and individual disciples could do that in such a time as this, perhaps we would do something really countercultural and world-changing.

References and Resources

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

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