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Clean by the Word


The gospel According to John is full of surprises. It might be better to say that it charts a course of its own, and both its novelties and language cause readers to take a second look. Reading this gospel is to sense there is something under the surface that needs to be uncovered. To interpret its peculiarities is not easy and, as a result its various interpretations are quite different.

Perhaps this characteristic of the gospel is best displayed in what it says about the sacraments, as they came to be known in the history of Christianity. Sometimes a difference is made between a sacrament and a sacramental act. Thus, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are considered sacraments, while the washing of feet is a sacramental act. Sacraments are acts that when performed carry in themselves saving grace. In the mainstream Christian tradition, sacraments can be administered only by an ecclesiastical official while lay people may administer sacramental acts. According to John distinguishes itself by not mentioning that Jesus participated in sacraments and by being the only one reporting that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.

In a previous column we noticed that in this gospel it is not said that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. According to John says that Jesus began his ministry as a baptizer. As such he attracted more people wishing to be baptized than John (3: 22; 4: 1). This caused the disciples of John to complain that Jesus, who had been endorsed by John’s powerful witness, was now competing with him and taking away his public (3: 26).

The sacraments were established toward the end of the first century, when Christianity was becoming institutionalized and starting to create official channels through which the Holy Spirit could flow under ecclesiastical control. Within this framework, the notion that Jesus had been a baptizer in competition with John became problematic. As a result, an editor of the gospel added the explanation that “Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples” (4: 2). From the Johannine perspective it was also problematic that Jesus had been baptized by John. The baptism of John was “of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk. 1: 4). According to Mark says that those who came to John to be baptized did it “confessing their sins” (Mk. 1: 5). Surely those who considered Jesus to be the incarnate Logos could not envision his confessing sins to John. They could, however, think of him as the one who initiated the baptism of water and the Spirit.

According to John makes a clear distinction between the baptism of water administered by John and the baptism administered by Jesus. Jesus’ baptism, John the Baptist points out, is “with the Holy Spirit” (1: 33). Also to be noticed is that no mention is made of the purpose of John’s baptism or of his apocalyptic message (Mt. 3: 10). John the Baptist declares: “I came baptizing with water that he might be revealed to Israel” (`1: 31). John’s mission is limited to announcing to Israel the coming of the Holy Spirit and the Lamb of God. That is, his mission is totally incorporated in the Johannine theology of the descent of the Son of Man.

It is a bit disconcerting, therefore, to find that most commentators consider this gospel as the New Testament document that provides the basic source for sacramental theology. This judgment is based on interpretations which see the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus as supporting the sacrament of baptism, and the discourse following the feeding of the five thousand as supporting the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The texts, however, do not support these interpretations.

The conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus presupposes that Jesus had baptized others and gives the significance of what he had done. Nicodemus does not understand when Jesus says to him: “Unless one is born anew [from above], he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3: 3) To make his saying plain, Jesus repeats it with different words: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (3: 5). To be born from above and to be born of water and the Spirit is one and the same thing. In other words, the baptism of Jesus is not a rite for the remission of sins. It is the creation of a new being by the Spirit.

Here we must pay attention to an aside that seems disconnected from the context. This concerns a controversy between the disciples of John and “the Jews” over purifying (3: 25). “The Jews” carried out various rites of purification such as lustrations, ritual baths, washing of feet at the court of the temple before approaching the altar, etc. John’s baptism was also a rite for the purification from sins. It is not clear which practices were being debated. It would appear that the reference to this dispute intends to alert the reader of the difference between the baptism of John and the “baptisms” of “the Jews”, and to distinguish the “birth from above” from all rites of purification.

While the disciples of John and “the Jews” are involved in a discussion about purifications, Jesus is above it all. His mission is to enable a “birth from above” that triumphs over death, not to introduce means of purification from sin. That According to John devalues purification rites is clear by the way in which the water that Jesus changed into wine is characterized. It was an impressive quantity kept in “stone” containers “for the Jewish rites of purification” (3: 6). This attitude is also in evidence in the anointing of the body of Jesus with an extraordinary amount of ointment for its purification “as is the burial custom of the Jews” (19: 40). We must also note that the narrator says that some days before Passover “many went up . . . to Jerusalem . . . to purify themselves” (11: 55). This gospel looks down on the preoccupation “the Jews” have with purification rites.

According to John says that Jesus had a last supper with his disciples (13: 1), and that during it he washed the feet of his disciples and identified Judas as the one who would betray him. This supper, however, did not include the institution of the bread and the wine as symbols of his blood and flesh. The last supper, in other words, was not a Lord’s Supper. Neither was it a Passover meal, since on the following morning, when Jesus was taken before Pilate, the Jews refused to enter the praetorium in order not to be defiled and thereby be unable to eat the Passover meal that night (18: 28). This is another reference to misguided concerns with purity.

In the discourse of chapter six, Jesus declares himself to be the bread of life that came down from heaven, which is superior to the manna provided by Moses (6: 48 – 49). He had already promised that “he who comes to me shall never hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (6: 35). Those who ate manna in the desert, of course, soon became hungry again. This promise is repeated with different words: “If any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6: 51). The theme reaches its climax with the following explanation: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him . . . he who eats me will live because of me” (6: 56 – 57).

The elaboration of the notion that Jesus is the bread from heaven is noteworthy for the way in which the verbs follow a predictable sequence. It begins with “he who comes” and “he who believes”, then identifies “he who eats” and culminates with “he who abides”. To come, to see, to believe, to eat and to abide are all technical terms in the Johannine vocabulary. (I plan to elaborate on them in future columns.) Here we do not have an explanation of a ritual with material symbols. Here the concern is with a life that abides in the reality of the birth from water and the Spirit. Therefore, when the disciples who fail to understand what Jesus has said complain, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (6: 60), Jesus gives to the whole discourse its proper context: “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life” (6: 63). These words echo what Jesus had said to Nicodemus when he did not understand: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (3: 6).

Both declarations deny value to the flesh. It is not effective even as a symbol or agent of life, that is, as a sacrament. To come, to see, to believe, to eat and to abide can only be done in the realm of the Spirit, where the words of him who is The Word (Logos) work as agents of eternal life. It is only in the Spirit that those who believe abide in Jesus and Jesus in them. Neither the birth from above nor the bread that descended from heaven and abides without spoiling from one day to the next are repeatable events; they are endowments that constitute a life that abides without fleshly supports.

The account of the supper, in fact, says nothing about the supper. It is concerned with things that happened during it. These events are introduced with a complicated periodic sentence:

Before the feast of Passover,

Jesus knowing that his hour had come

            for him to go up from this world to the Father

            loving his own who were in the world he loved them to the end,


and while supper was going on

knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands

and that he had come from God and was going to God,


He rises himself from supper and placing his garments aside

and taking a piece of coarse cloth he girded himself.  (13: 1 – 2, 4, my translation)

This tells us that Jesus’ hour to return to the Father had come, and he dressed for the trip. With typical irony, the one who is acknowledged by all to be Teacher and Lord (13: 13) dresses himself as servant. It is a radical demonstration that his “hour” does not only involve his “glorification” (12: 23) — it also calls for his servitude. After having performed the washing of the feet which should have taken place before supper, at the arrival of the guests, Jesus explains the didactic function of what he has done: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (13: 14 – 15).

            The meaning of the action is given in the dialogue between Jesus and Peter. When Peter declares: “You shall never wash my feet”, Jesus makes the washing of the feet indispensable: “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me” (13: 8). It turns out, then, that without the washing of the feet, as without the birth from above, it is impossible to enter into the kingdom and have a part in Jesus. The reason is that this washing leaves the one who receives it clean: “He who is washed . . . is clean all over” (13: 10).

            That select group of disciples received the washing of their feet by the hands of Jesus, but since then Christians normally do not receive the washing of their feet by an ecclesiastical official. After washing their feet Jesus explained that what he had done was to give an example. Then he gave them a command: “you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (13: 14). To give his example even more significance, Jesus added a beatitude: “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (13: 17). This beatitude is anchored on a conditional sentence which tells us that doing is more important than knowing.

            In According to John Jesus is not baptized, does not celebrate a Lord’s Supper and does not institute bread and wine as sacraments that need to be administered by authorized clergy. Jesus only institutes the washing of the feet which must be administered by everyone to everyone, in this way democratizing the kingdom of heaven. As explanation, he said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent [an apostle] greater than he who sent him” (13: 16). It is somewhat baffling that the commandment to enact the example given by Jesus is justified by a declaration which, though introduced with the rhetorical force of “Truly, truly I say to you”, is, after all, quite banal. Who does not know that the servant is not greater than his master? The more specific repetition of the idea, however, seems to reveal its import. For this Christian community it is important to emphasize that the apostle is not greater than the one sending him. No doubt these words are aimed at the apostles who took themselves too seriously and had illusions of grandeur. Paul also had to deal with such “super apostles” (2 Cor. 11: 5). Toward the end of the first century, when the Christian movement was turning into an ecclesiastical institution, and divine grace was beginning to be “controlled” by clergy who could administer sacraments, the Johannine community insisted that “it is not by measure that God gives the Spirit” (3: 34).

            Jesus ended his discourse about eating the bread that descended from heaven by declaring that the flesh is of no avail, but “the words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life” (6: 63). Later he said: “If any one keeps my word, he will never see death” (8:51). In the same manner, most likely in reference to the washing of the feet that makes the whole person clean, Jesus tells the disciples: “You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you . . . If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you” (15: 3, 7).

            If as servants they wash each other’s feet, making them clean, they abide in him, and his words abide in them. Then Jesus no longer considers them servants. They consider him Teacher and Lord, and he considers them now “friends, for all I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (15: 15). In this way those who wash each other’s feet are identified with the one who has returned to his God and our God. The cleansing carried out by the words that Jesus has spoken to us allows us to come, to see, to believe, to eat and to abide as friends who know what their Teacher and Lord does. As Peter would understand later, now we also understand. No rite of purification, argues According to John, can produce the mutual abiding that the Word can produce. The Johannine community is a sisterhood and brotherhood (20: 17) of “friends” (15: 15) of Jesus who abide in him without the aid of material props. It is a lay community that rejects the institutionalization of their spiritual life and any attempts to control the Holy Spirit by ecclesiastical authority. The Christian life consists of abiding in his word (8: 31), and confessing, as did Peter, “You have the words of eternal life” (6: 68).


(For a scholarly presentation of the pericope of the washing of the disciples’ feet, see “Footwashing in the Johannine Community”, Novum Testamentum 21 (1979), 298-325.)   


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