I wonder if there might be something of a “bait and switch” maneuver in the Gospel of John. Where we’re lead to expect one thing, but get something else. We’re lured into the store drawn by one thing, but, somehow, we end up leaving with what the merchant really wants us to buy. “Bait and switch”: we’ve all fallen for it. Perhaps we’ve been taken in by the Gospel of John, too, but in a benign way.
John’s Gospel is full of allusions to the Christian sacred meal: the breaking of bread together, the drinking of wine together. The wedding at Cana, where water is turned into wine comes to mind. The feeding of the five thousand, where Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks the bread and gives it to the people. And it’s in John that he says we must eat his flesh and drink his blood. And he speaks of the bread of God which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. And, as we heard, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never by hungry…”
Surely we can conclude from all this that John’s community was practicing some version of the Lord’s Supper. So, if we were reading the Gospel for the first time and picking up on all these cues, we would probably expect some account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, as there is in the other Gospels and in Paul. And, given the highly poetic and even mystical qualities of the Gospel of John, we would reasonably expect something rather profound, perhaps even mystical about the breaking of bread and drinking of wine.
As it happens the Last Supper in John goes on for five whole chapters, but there is no “institution narrative”; there is no account of Jesus instituting the Christian sacred meal. It’s not there. What we get instead is feet being washed [John 13]. Bait and switch? We expect something about the breaking of bread and drinking of wine, something profound, perhaps, even poetical, even mystical. But, ha ha! We get the washing of dirty feet. And the request that we wash one another’s feet.
What is the connection? Why might one and not the other? We may never know for sure, but there are clues in the text.
“…it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” [John 6:32b-33]
And, in another place: “…my food is to do the will of him who sent me…” Words of Jesus in John 4.
If it is God’s will that we wash one another’s feet (literally or figuratively), washing one another’s feet is our “food”. In washing feet we receive the true bread, the bread from heaven which gives life to the world. Like Jesus, our “food” is to do the will of the One who sent him.
We expect something profound in the Gospel of John. What we get is not what we expected, but something profound nevertheless. The impulse to do good, to love, to serve is the living Spirit of Christ within us. That living Spirit is the Bread of Life, nourishing us richly from the very heart of God, the heart of Love himself. It is in loving service to others that we know the life-giving presence of God, the life-giving bread.
We go to a lot of effort to make our Eucharistic celebrations beautiful, even poetic, with an aura of mystery. This is right and good and surely pleasing to God who gave us the capacity to be beautiful, poetic and mysterious. It is very right and good.
But unless these celebrations emerge from lives of loving service to others, they are incomplete. The bread of life has not come to us in all its fullness. The more our lives give expression to loving service to others, the richer the food is, the fuller the celebration.
The impulse to serve, the impulse to love, to kindness, to justice is planted deep within us. In giving expression to this impulse to serve, we are fed. This is our food, our bread from heaven. This is our food, the bread from heaven that gives life to the world. It is the Spirit within us, God’s very presence, God’s very life that is our life-giving bread. He abides in us as we abide in him—and, so, we are inspired to serve. To wash feet.
One final thing. He said somewhere that the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve [Mt. 20:28]. Jesus came to serve. But, this is important: Jesus is Jesus and we’re not. Not quite, anyway. We’re not here just to serve. We’re here also to be served. We are here in this world to allow ourselves to be served. We’re here to allow ourselves to be served by Christ—and by those who would serve in Christ’s name and in Christ’s love. Unto everything there is a season. A time to serve and a time to be served.
That may well be why you are here in this place just now, whether you’re on retreat or here to worship with us. You may have come to this place this evening having already served many. And this may well be your time to be served.
May we all be as Christ to one another, for that is our life-giving bread. Serving or being served, may we all be as Christ to one another. Serving or being served, washing feet or having them washed, this is our living bread, come down from heaven. The true bread which gives life to the world.
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