The Command of the Foot Washer

The debate about the place of the Law (or not) rages on in the comments of yesterday’s post, whilst my life is flooded with non-cyber-life that has me engaged elsewhere.

But perhaps we might allow Maundy Thursday to direct a contribution to the discussion.

Depending on whom you ask, “maundy” may be derivative of the Latin form of Jesus’ statement, “A new command I give to you…” (mandatum novum do vobis). And that brings us to the heart of things–and the possible meanings we might affix to the later Johannine literature as well. What is the command of Jesus?

Full understanding of the command is unfolded over the course of the narrative.

John has made the footwashing itself an anticipation of Jesus’ coming death on the cross. It is the time when he “lays aside” his mastery and girds himself as a servant, the time when he “takes up again” his garments, laying his self-humility aside. In this, he illustrates the part of the Good Shepherd who lays aside his life for the sheep and then takes it up again.

The footwashing is a cleansing that enables the disciples to have a share in himself–and it is an illustration of the full extent of Jesus’ love.

The footwashing is what Jesus does when he knows that his time has come to depart from the world and return to the Father.

The footwashing opens up the Book of Glory with an enactment of the coming crucifixion.

Returning to his place, Jesus says, “Do you know what I have done for you? You call me master and teacher–and you’re right! For I am! So… If I, the master and teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example, so that you would do as I have done.”

Footwashing. Or, perhaps, laying down our lives for one another?

Keep reading in the passage, and Jesus predicts his departure, after which he gives his new command:

“I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:34-35, CEB)

John had told us that the footwashing was picturing the full extent of Jesus’ love. Might this, “love one another as I have loved you” be a command to love each other with the self-giving love of Christ?

Jesus closes the loop in John 15:

This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:12-14, CEB)

There is, of course, continuity with what came before: love of neighbor is nothing new.

But what is love? What does love look like? How do we know love when we see it?

On Maundy Thursday Jesus enacts the love that should define his people: a self-giving love, a laying down one’s life so that others might live.

The defining story of our salvation (Jesus died for us) becomes the defining story of Christian community (so ought we to die for one another).

This is why Christian love can be a testimony to all that we are Jesus’ disciples–not because only Christians can love, but because Christian love has a particular definition. And that definition is the cross.

One thought on “The Command of the Foot Washer”

  1. I would modify the statement below to say “other-centered” love of Christ. I see the God of the Scriptures as one who is totally “other-centered”. I think of self-giving as misleading.

    John had told us that the footwashing was picturing the full extent of Jesus’ love. Might this, “love one another as I have loved you” be a command to love each other with the self-giving love of Christ?

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