The Spirit of Truth in Communion

John 13: 1-9

Jesus meets us today in the communion of service, and in the service of communion. Together let us listen for the gospel this Lent.

The strange world of the Bible includes no more mysterious, different country than these later chapters in John. If Antarctica is our most different continent in all the world, and the desert southwest the most geographically distinct region in our country, then, in like fashion, these chapters full of speech at the end of John are such a tract.

Our passage today makes two affirmations. One is about Jesus. The other is about his disciples.

Our passage reminds us of what we only with great difficulty continue to see: the Christ is incarnate in humility. For some reason, according to my gospel and yours, God has chosen the scandalous way of the cross, the path of humility in which to make God’s self known to us: a stumbling block to the religious spirit and sheer folly to the reason. Yet this is the witness of Scripture, tradition, and our own considered experience. It may have been that John, our latest Gospel (and much later in time, it may be, than has regularly been assumed) could already see the inevitable triumphalism that the sacraments would carry. The pride of place, the less than blessed assurance that can come with a signed, sealed, delivered grace, controllable grace, cheap grace. So John, throughout his Gospel, eliminates the sacraments. In the fourth gospel we find hardly any reference to sacrament: not to baptism by John the Baptist; not to the baptism of Jesus; not to the Lord’s Supper at the last supper; not to the words of institution; not to the memory of the upper room; not to the revision of the paschal meal. Just here, in John 13, as closer readers of the Gospel sense, just here where on the night of betrayal, and in Jerusalem, and in the quiet secrecy of the familiar gathering, just here where we are about to settle into another recollection of the sacrament of the last supper– John turns a corner. Where the holy meal has been, we have the stark, searing, unforgettable humiliation of the footwashing. Jesus Christ is known to us in the scandal of real incarnation, not in the magic of a mystery cult. His presence is found in absence, his power in weakness, his authority in service. The great tradition of growth and strength, found more in the other gospels and notoriously celebrated in Acts, is here rejected. Here, nakedness. Here a towel. Here a basin. Here the humility of a servant’s work. Here the grime of feet. Here, ministry. This is the word of faith, and for John anything, anything that stands in the way of the Word of faith, including the sacraments themselves, are to be set aside. There is no Last Supper in the Gospel of John. There is only Jesus the Christ, incarnate in humility. For some, the greatest dimension of sin is falsehood. For some it is sloth. For John, here, the demon is the sin of pride. Christ, the real Host, is the Servant.

It will take some further chapters for the second aspect of this teaching in John 13 fully to emerge. Here in John 13, there is a service of communion that is the communion of service, not Holy Communion. Then in 14, the spirit of truth is known in conversation. In 15, the same spirit in commandment. In 16, the same spirit of truth in catechesis. In 17, the same truth in consecration. But here, in John 13, there is the divine hand on the human foot. Not only Judas the sword bearer, but also Peter, especially Peter, Peter whom the writer of the fourth Gospel deprecates, Peter, first among the misinformed, expects something else and is horrified. He expects—what? A place? A name? Authority? And he is presented an emblem of humble service. There is to be forever in the community of love, which is the church, a serving humility, a humble service: So the cross. So the bowl and towel on the altar. So the stole, an ox yoke, to mock religious garb, so the collection plate, so the call to prayer, so the serving of meals, so the wiping of children, so the profound service of listening, so the quiet willingness to forgive, so the acknowledgement of ignorance, so the capacity to empathize, so the tithe, so the disciplines of discipleship, so the modest art of politics, so the artless labors of administration, so the season of Lent, so the pathetic simplicity of bread and cup, so the actual, earthly, incarnate, humble replication and resurrection of One, who on the night he was betrayed, took a towel, and when he had blessed it, he took it to his disciples, saying, take, wash, this is my labor given for you, do this as oft as ye shall gather, in remembrance of me. Communion, real communion, is service in truth.

A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. Even as I have loved you, so you also ought to love one another. This is my commandment, that you love one another.

This is your ministry, to love one another. Ministry is worshipping. Love one another in worship. Ministry is proclaiming. Love one another is speech. Ministry is teaching. Love one another in learning. Ministry is healing. Love one another in healing. Ministry is serving. Love one another in service. Ministry is liberating. Love one another in setting others free. Ministry is reconciling. Love one another in reconciliation.

One example. Parker Palmer writes movingly of his salvation from depression in Let Your Life Speak. Those who know depression up close and personal will appreciate his diligent honesty. Palmer painfully records those many attempts to help that were not helpful. Well meaning but ineffective. Sympathy that only led to greater sadness. Positive advice that made him more depressed. Reminders of his many talents, which left him in greater malaise. Those who said they knew what he was going through, which, of course, no one ever does. He concludes: Having not only been ‘comforted’ by friends, but having tried to comfort others in the same way, I think I understand what the syndrome is about: avoidance and denial. One of the hardest things we must do sometimes is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to ‘fix’ it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery and misery… Blessedly there were several people, family and friends, who had the courage to stand with me in a simple and healing way. One of them was a friend named Bill who, having asked my permission to do so, stopped by my home every afternoon, sat me down in a chair, knelt in front of me, removed my shoes and socks, and for half an hour simply massaged my feet. He found the one place in my body where I could still experience feeling—and feel somewhat reconnected with the human race. Bill rarely spok
e a word. When he did, he never gave advice but simply mirrored my condition. He would say, ‘I can sense your struggle today’, or, ‘It feels like you are getting stronger’. I could not always respond, but his words were deeply helpful: they reassured me that I could still be seen by someone—life giving knowledge in the midst of an experience that makes one feel annihilated and invisible. It is impossible to put into words what my friend’s ministry meant to me. Perhaps it is enough to say that I now have deep appreciation for the biblical story of Jesus and the washing of the feet. (64)

This is my prayer: that you in hearing or in receiving, today, may have ‘life giving knowledge’ in the face of whatever in life is making you feel annihilated and invisible. This is the spirit of truth in communion.

A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. Even as I have loved you, so you also ought to love one another. This is my commandment, that you love one another.

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