Jesus Prepares the Disciples

February 18th, 2012

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

We come now to John’s account of the beginning of the end of Jesus’ earthly life. This is the beginning of his passion. John establishes the mood of Jesus, which will permeate everything that happens for the next twenty hours (John 12–19:30). “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father” (John 13:1). He stayed 101 April 13, 2006 focused and comforted in this knowledge until, on the cross, he said: “It is finished.” And “then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30b).

He wanted this final private session with the disciples. “He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’” (Luke 22:14b). The public proclamation and the debates are over, and Jesus devotes himself to “his own in this world” because, unbeknownst to them, they are about to face the most shattering experience of their lives. He wants to prepare them for what is about to happen, as much as anyone can be prepared for such a terrible ordeal.

Time is of the essence. He has already said many things to them, much of which they have not understood. He said: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12). He has spoken to them concerning his death, but they did not hear him because they did not want to hear that kind of news. It did not fit into their vision of what should be happening. It did not fit the messianic dream in which their minds had been marinated. After all he had said and done, after all they had hoped and dreamed, they could not face the possibility that death would be the final outcome. The idea of his absence from their world was completely unacceptable. Somehow Jesus had to help them face the stark reality of his death and give them something to hang on to until his resurrection.

There were problems that Jesus had to deal with in addition to time and apostolic imperviousness and denial. There was the attitude the disciples brought to the meeting. Luke gives us some insight into the reason for the mood of the disciples to which John does not refer. On the way to the meeting a dispute had arisen among the twelve as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest (Luke 22:24). This was probably continued contention resulting from an earlier occasion in which James and John had asked Jesus to give them places of eminence on his right and the other on his left (Mark 10:35-45). When the other disciples heard this they were indignant. It appears by the time of the Last Supper with Jesus the cancer of lust for power and prominence had spread to them all.

Like pouting children they arrived at the upper room with ill feelings and festering jealousy. They did not notice the basin, pitcher, and towel positioned there. It was customary that when people came as guests for dinner a servant (or slave) would wash the dirt and dust from the feet of the guests. Since they had no servant or slave to wait on them, it is likely their practice was to take turns at foot-washing duty. But not on this night. They had unsettled issues with one another. They went stubbornly to their appointed places at the table, not one of them willing to compromise his dignity by doing a menial task, which, in their collective misunderstanding, might lessen their chances of preference and prominence in this kingdom that was to come.

They began the meal with travel-stained feet because no one was willing to back down. Sensing the climate of anger and childishness, Jesus knew that he would not be able to accomplish what he had hoped with them unless he could empty the atmosphere of the palpable ill spirit of the twelve. Words would not work. He had to do something dramatic to get their attention. So, “During supper” (not “supper being ended,” as rendered in the King James Version), “Jesus . . . got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him” (John 13:3-5).

The disciples must have watched what Jesus was doing with a growing uneasiness. How embarrassed they must have been, but no one said anything until Jesus knelt down to wash the feet of Peter. The impulsive Peter asked in shock: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered: “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said: “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Peter said, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and head” (John 13:6-9). The wordless lesson got to all of them: he who is greatest among you must be servant of all.

One other pressing problem must be resolved before Jesus can get on with preparing them. Judas was sitting there. The implication in John (unlike the Synoptic) is that the deal with the devil had not been finalized, but that there had been preliminary negotiations. Jesus announced to them that one of the twelve would betray him, and the disciples began to question Jesus about who this might be. Jesus was troubled in spirit about this, which reads, angry at the betrayer. In answer to their question, Jesus said the betrayer is the one to whom he will give the bread he has dipped in the dish. He dipped the bread and offered it to Judas. Jesus said to Judas: “Do quickly what you are going to do” (John 13:27). The scene ends with Judas leaving. John’s closing sentence in the scene is worthy of a sermon by itself. “And it was night” (John 13:30b).

The New English Bible characterizes the five chapters of John, chapters thirteen through seventeen, as “farewell discourses.” Facing the death and absence of someone we love is painful beyond description. In a very short time life for the disciples was going to collapse into chaos. Darkness would come at midday and all would seem lost. It was against this that Jesus began to prepare his little company. There comes a time for all of us in which life cracks open at the seams—everything upon which we have counted falls to pieces. Few people get past mid-life without having their world crumble at their feet. This was what was about to happen to the disciples, and Jesus was giving them something to hang on to until the storm was over. How beautifully and with what great sensitivity Jesus comforts and prepares the twelve in these farewell discourses. Knowing Christians turn to this place in the Bible any time they face the death and absence of loved ones.

In the course of his discourse to the disciples Jesus offered a novel idea with which they had difficulty—and so do we. He said: “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate (Holy Spirit) will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). How could this be? How could they (or we) be better for his leaving, especially in the manner in which he left? They were to understand later, but at the moment it left question marks hanging like fishhooks at their throats. Jesus was essentially saying, “This new power that has been arranged for you is waiting in the wings, and he will not come here until I get there.” They would not understand until later.

Jesus was leaving because he had finished his work. The Bible teaches that he was born in “the fullness of time”—at the right time. Now he will leave in “the fullness of time”—at the right time. It was time for another level of development to take place. He must go and they would understand later.

I have a sign in my office that says: “When the pupil is ready the teacher will come.” There is a paradoxical reverse to this saying: “When the pupil is ready the teacher will go.” Students do not become teachers and disciples do not become leaders until the master is gone. Once one of the disciples marveled at what Jesus was doing and Jesus remarked: “These things you can do and greater things also when I go to the Father.”

Jesus said that it was to their advantage that he was going away. “When I am gone I will be with you more substantially than when I was here. Turn me loose. Let me go.”

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