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

“A new creation comes to life and grows,” John Geyer wrote in verse four of the hymn “We Know That Christ Is Raised.” Geyer continues, “as Christ’s new body takes on flesh and blood. The universe restored and whole will sing: Hallelujah!” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #449). Geyer’s words are set to Charles Stanford’s tune, “Engelberg.” It’s a great hymn for the Easter season and moves us from Jesus’ resurrection as an historical event to Jesus’ resurrection as a cosmic reality.

The same tune serves as the setting for words by Delores Dufner. “To be your presence is our mission here,” Dufner writes. She goes on to declare that this presence means to be Christ’s heart of mercy, hands of justice, voice of hope, and love expressed. She summarizes the call in the fourth verse: “We are your heart, O Christ, your hands and voice, to serve your people is our call and choice, and in this mission we, the church rejoice, alleluia!” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #546).

Studies of Hands and Feet by Franu00e7ois Le Moyne is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

It is not unusual for different hymn texts to be set to the same tune. As a general practice, I don’t use such hymnic twins in the same worship service for the sake of melodic variety. But I might make an exception in worship this coming Sunday if I were doing the worship planning. If one reads the texts of the hymns, the flow from Geyer’s poetry into Dufner’s proclamation is clear and seamless. Using the same melody might help worshipers to experience that connection and progression in a more visceral way.

I begin with this liturgical commentary because I think this is one of the possible emphases in preaching on John 13:31-35. In the Farewell Discourse, the Johannine Jesus is preparing the disciples for his departure and absence. Where he is going, they cannot come. In chapter fourteen he will remind them that they already know and have seen the Way to the Father in him. A major part of the preparation in the Farewell Discourse is, I think, preparing the disciples not only to witness to Jesus’ presence among them even when he appears to be absent but, more importantly, to be that presence for one another and for the cosmos.

Conversation about the “presence” of the risen Christ to, in, and/or through the community of disciples leads me to thinking about a sacramental understanding of that presence. That is certainly not a required or universal direction for the text. It also requires a subtle examination of the Johannine account since the possible presence of a sacramental sensibility is a matter for both scholarly and confessional debate and disagreement.

That being said, it seems to me that one of the arcs of John 13 is this preparation of the disciples to be the ongoing presence of Jesus to and for one another. Frances Moloney discusses the sacramental sensibilities in the Johannine account in his article. I want to spend some time reviewing and reflecting on that article here.

Moloney notes that the Eucharistic themes of the Johannine account are mostly absent from chapter 13. These themes show up most clearly in the Bread of Life discourse in John 6. They also show up, Moloney suggests, in John 19. This is the moment when the soldiers pierce Jesus’ side and blood and water flow out (see John 19:34). “The community is linked with Calvary,” Moloney writes, “through the presence of the pierced one in their eucharistic celebrations” (page 238).

Moloney argues that these eucharistic anchor points in the Johannine account develop a sacramental understanding of the eucharist as “presence.” It’s clear that the Johannine community addressed by the gospel account is struggling with an experience of the “absence” of the risen Christ. This sense of absence is perhaps increasing as they become more distant in time from Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. And, I would add, that sense of distance is also perhaps increasing as the community experiences conflict with and then rejection by the synagogue communities in which these Jewish Christians have lived since the Ascension.

Moloney suggests that the Johannine author wants to assure the believing community that they can find the presence of the “absent” Jesus in their sacramental life – in Baptism and the Eucharist. “This message was addressed to a community wondering,” Moloney writes, “at the end of the first century – where they might encounter Christ, the Son of God, so that they might come to a deeper faith in him (20:31)” (page 239). The Johannine author is pointing to the ongoing “presence of the absent one.”

You might recall that many of the Johannine verbs related to believing are in the present or imperfect tense. These tenses have to do with either continuing action in the present or action that began in the past but continues into the present. In the Johannine purpose statement, we know that we can readily translate John 20:30-31 as encouraging us to continue to put our trust in the fact that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus.

Do the sign, dialogue, and discourse in John 13 support this proposed emphasis on sacramental presence in the Johannine account? Moloney argues in favor of that notion. There is the possible connection between the foot-washing and the Johannine understanding and practice of Baptism. In addition, Moloney makes a strong exegetical argument for a Eucharistic connection in the scene when Jesus gives a chunk of bread to Judas. There are strong verbal connections between John 13 and the Bread of Life discourse in John 6.

“The whole of [John] 13:1-38 indicates that Jesus shows the quality of his love,” Moloney writes, “a love which makes God known – by choosing, forming, sending out, and nourishing his disciples of all times, catching them up in the rhythm of his own self-giving life and death” (page 254). The disciples who are “caught up” in the rhythm in the Johannine account show ignorance, fail Jesus, deny him, and even betray him. After all, in John 13, Judas is the one who receives the bread from Jesus’ hand and then goes out to hand Jesus over.

“It is in Jesus’ never-failing love for such disciples, a love which even reached out to the archetype of the evil disciple,” Moloney argues, “that he shows that he is the unique revelation of God among us. The text calls,” Moloney continues, “for the reader’s response to this God through a commitment to a similar quality of love (vv. 15-17, 34-35)” (page 254). Washing feet and feeding even the worst betrayer are practices that embody Jesus’ presence in, to, and through the disciple community. These practices of mutual love will demonstrate Jesus’ presence to the world, as we read in John 13:35.

“It is critical for the interpretation of this commandment to recognize that it follows Jesus’ very direct statement about his departure,” Karoline Lewis writes. “To love one another is for the sake of remembering the feeling of how Jesus loved them,” she continues. “Love is a mark of discipleship, for the outside world to see, but it is also necessary for them to show each other” (page 184). This ministry of disciples washing and feeding one another is Jesus’ response to the community’s anxiety about his apparent absence.

I have been physically absent from the worshiping community for most of the last two years. As I return to a much more physical presence, I find this text (when taken in the whole sweep of John 13) to be challenging and invigorating. I know that even when most of us were physically present at worship in “the before times,” we didn’t really show up as who we truly were. We put on our church personas and were always “just fine” or “blessed” or “grateful,” when asked how we were. We brought our bodies to church and checked our lives at the door.

That’s not being present to one another or to Jesus. I find it so easy to slip right back into that way of appearing in my body without being present to the Body. I may arrive ignorant, failed, cowardly, and self-serving. But I certainly don’t wish for anyone else to see what is so painfully obvious to me. Part of the challenge of coming back, for me, is to be present as I am and to trust that we as the Body can be present to one another in ways that give life.

Perhaps this is a bit of what it means to move from the “Age of Association” to the “Age of Authenticity.” Dwight Zscheile offers a quick summary of those ideas in his recent Living Lutheran article. Checking my real life at the door and assimilating to the expectations of the social club is a hallmark of behavior in the Age of Association. But we live in a different culture now.

Zscheile describes what he calls the opportunities of the Age of Authenticity. “This age is full of yearning for deeper connections than those facilitated by social media, for more adequate stories than those provided by consumerism, and for more just and sustainable ways of patterning human life than people see around and within themselves. There is isolation, despair and division,” he continues, “What an opportune moment for the promises of God in Jesus to be made known!”

While Zscheile doesn’t offer much in the way of paths into this age, he does talk a bit about presence. He encourages us to take a shot at “faithful innovation…investing presence and relationship in community spaces where people already spend time (both virtually and physically) so that we might listen to their stories and learn how to connect the gospel with their longings and losses.”

So, we wash feet, share bread, and tell true stories. We live John 13 lives, perhaps…

References and Resources

Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Augsburg Fortress, 2006.

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.

MOLONEY, FRANCIS J. “A Sacramental Reading of John 13:1-38.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 53, no. 2 (1991): 237–56. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43719525.

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