Year A | Maundy Thursday | Exodus 12.1-14, 1 Corinthians 11.23-26, John 13.1-17,31b-35
May I speak in the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I want to look tonight about what John’s gospel says. And why it says what it does.
That might be a short sermon, you think, possibly with relief.
Because it’s obvious, isn’t it? Thursday of Holy Week. Maundy Thursday. Passover, betrayal, arrest. We know the story.
And yes. Our familiar landmarks along the way are there in our readings.
But what does John say? Why does he say what he says?
We probably all know that the gospel writers describe the life and ministry of Jesus differently.
There is a general theory that Matthew, Mark and Luke shared some sources when writing their accounts; but had independent sources as well.
So that’s why there’s overlap and difference between the three synoptic gospels. They’re called synoptic because they take a common view. That prefix – syn – means ‘together’. We see it in words like synagogue and synchrony and synergy.
It’s also thought that the writer of the Fourth Gospel knew at least one of the others and based his material on them.
But John’s view is different.
John’s Gospel has been described as the ‘theological gospel’ as if the other three were merely narrative. A useful starting point, perhaps, to measure John’s text, but ultimately not a true distinction. Both John and the synoptics have both detail and theology.
John has been selective.
John gives us many small, significant hints at his message. All kinds of imagery that we perhaps don’t notice or don’t get in translation.
For example, the verb used when we hear of Jesus laying aside his outer robe, is the same as used in John 10 when we hear of the shepherd laying down his life for the sheep. The verb τιθημι that’s used is quite specific, not normally associated with undressing, but laying aside. Echoes in the text reminding us of what has been said previously.
Or, throughout John, the words “coming from”, going to, going up, coming down; are used to describe Jesus’ origins.
John shows us the comparison with manna – the bread that come down from heaven – and the bread of life – that came down from the Father.
Water, bread, and wine are threads that run through the tapestry of John’s gospel.
What is the first sign in the fourth gospel?
Jesus turns a lot of water into a lot of wine.
The conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4 is about living water.
John 6 tells us Jesus fed more than five thousand people, with leftovers. Twelve baskets. A lot of bread. Twelve – probably not a number chosen at random.
And that sign is immediately followed by Jesus walking on water.
Which is followed by Jesus saying that he is the bread of life.
In John 15 he talks of needing to be part of the true vine.
The gospel reading this evening talks of water cleansing feet, and cleansing lives.
Wine, bread, and water. The elements of the Eucharist. John’s gospel is awash with the stuff.
But John’s description of Jesus’ last meal doesn’t include the sharing of the bread or the cup. It’s in the synoptics.
And we think the writer of the Fourth Gospel knew those other accounts. The letter to the Corinthians is one of the earliest parts of the new testament, so the ritual meal was well known relatively quickly.
So why not mention it?
Perhaps because he knew that the Corinthian Christians had already corrupted it. The letter Paul was writing was to tell them off for making the shared meal a place of inequality.
And John wanted us to think more about what Jesus was like and the legacy he left us, than just a special meal.
I think he is saying that Jesus’ giving of himself was greater. That the incarnation changed everything. The implications are too great to be limited to one sacrament. That the love of God for his creation surpasses everything. Those threads of water, bread and wine in the tapestry of the gospel point to the threads of God incarnate in our world. We sometimes need hints to be able to see them.
We have signs and symbols in sacraments. An outward sign of an invisible grace. The ordinary is blessed and made holy. The oil I gave out this morning at the Cathedral was ordinary oil before it was blessed.
Those signs and symbols are ways to experience and remember God’s love for us.
But they are only signs. They cannot grasp the vastness of the encounter of the word made flesh. We can only see the back of the tapestry…not the full glorious picture on the other side.
John is far more concerned with telling us who Jesus was, than the things he did.
Only John’s Jesus washes his disciples feet.
So if John chooses what he includes for a reason, why include the washing of feet and not the institution of the Eucharist?
It is amusing, perhaps, to imagine different ways in which our faith might have evolved if footwashing was the thing we focused on.
Would our basilicas and churches have reredos and artworks not celebrating the Eucharist, but the washing of feet? Would there be whole swathes of plastic foot buckets for sale with inspirational quotes? Would it feel natural to share in the washing of one another’s feet, not something awkward that we shy away from?
Why include it?
I think because it’s an act of humble service. It puts Jesus in the role of ο διακονος – the word for servant – the root of our word ‘deacon.’ Peter’s reaction demonstrates how difficult it would have been for the disciples to have their feet washed by their teacher.
And like everything else in the gospel this private act of service points us forward to the public, ultimate service, the ultimate humiliation in Jesus’ death on the cross.
It points to Jesus’ love for his friends.
Those friends were the ones from the world. Κοσμος – the world – os another word that is used a lot in John’s gospel. Jesus loved his own. They were chosen from the world; in contrast to Jesus coming from the Father.
Note how the disciples are called Jesus’s own. The text doesn’t say “disciples” here. It says ‘his own.’ If we say yes to Jesus, we are his own.
And what does it mean to say yes to Jesus?
Love one another as I have loved you.
By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Jesus is about to be betrayed. His friends are about to betray him. He knows what will happen. He knows he is going to the cross.
He laid aside his life for us.
He loved us to the end.