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17. Involvement and Service

At the Last Supper Jesus washed his disciples' feet. This deed has made a deep impression on Christian consciousness. Its full significance has been a topic of discussion in every single century of the Church's existence. Did Jesus do more than give an example of humility? Did he institute a new sacrament? Was he teaching us something special about the Eucharist, priestly service, confession or baptism? Was he preparing his followers for martyrdom? Jesus symbolic act has intrigued and fascinated the Fathers of the Church, theologians? scripture scholars and spiritual writers of all times.(1)

The extraordinary power of Jesus' example only came home to me some years ago when I was saying Mass for a group of college students in India. It was Lent and it had been agreed that we would make something special of the penitential rite. I had suggested that we do a real foot washing. With some buckets of water, towels and soap at my disposal I moved round the circle, kneeling down on both knees before each person and washing his feet as well as I could. It was no ritual swipe with a wet cloth, but a real thorough scrub. I could see the action affected the students deeply, more deeply in fact than I had anticipated. One of them had tears in his eyes and hugged me afterwards. I understood why. He belonged to an outcast, cobbler family. Knowing himself as "untouchable" by traditional social standards, he had suddenly found himself touched-and loved as an equal and a friend. The proclamation of the Good News had suddenly become real to him.

Since then I have understood how wrong it is to construct beautiful theories regarding the footwashing. For its real meaning concerns actual people and dirty feet. The whole Gospel of John would be misunderstood if we would not recognise this point of contact with actual reality. That is why John has given it this central place in his Gospel. He puts the sign right at the moment when Jesus' hour had come when he was to pass from this world to the Father (13,1). He states that although Jesus always loved those who were in the world, he was now to show how perfect that love was (13,2). Positioned right between Jesus' descent and ministry on the one hand, and his passion and glorious return to the Father on the other, the foot washing becomes a key for interpreting the whole of Jesus' life.(2)

Jesus' actions during the foot washing obviously symbolised his redemptive suffering and death. The laying down of his garment (13,4) reflected the laying down of his life (10,17; 15,13). The washing of the feet (13,5) pointed to the washing with water that makes a person a child of God (3,5; 13,10). Even more telling was the gesture of subservience as such. The Jewish legal system did not regard a slave as the property of a Jewish owner until the slave had performed some act of personal service for his master.(3) By washing the disciples' feet Jesus made himself their real servant. He became their servant not in a condescending, patronising way, but as one who shares with the one to be served and who freely accepts the demands and costs of this service.(4) His service was to be one not of evasion of trouble, but of commitment and confrontation; as may be seen perhaps, in Jesus' girding himself with the towel, which replaced the ancient wrestling belt as a symbol.(5)

Jesus said, "I am your lord and master. If I have washed your feet, you should wash each other's feet. I have given you a model. Please, do for each other as I have done to you" (13,14-15). In this chapter we will discuss the implications of this model. What does it mean for our Christian commitment? It is clear that John attaches great importance to it. He says we will be happy if we behave according to Jesus' model: "No servant is greater than his master.... Realise this and happiness will be yours if you behave accordingly" (13,16-17). And I believe that John meant something definite and specific, which I will present under three of John's own terms. Christian life means "becoming flesh"; it means "being born in Nazareth"; it means "shedding water and blood". Let us consider each.

Incarnation and the secular world

Because of John's unusual vocabulary and hyberbolic way of speaking we could easily misinterpret some of his sayings. Jesus said to his disciples, "You do not belong to the world" and "I have taken you out of the world" (15,19; see also 17,16). Jesus refused to pray for the world (17,9), and he asks his Father to protect his disciples from the world (17,15). One might conclude from such expressions that Jesus would like to isolate his followers from secular realities in some kind of spiritual enclave in preparation for heaven; as some interpreters have done.255 But this is far from John's mind. He is speaking of opposition to the world of evil, to sin in the world; not to secular realities as such.256

On the contrary, if there is one thing John affirms in his Gospel it is that God takes secular realities seriously. John is well aware that Jesus had identified himself with the suffering servant (Mk 10,45; Mt 20,28). In line with ancient Christian tradition he understood that this servanthood of Jesus expressed the core of the incarnation (Phil 2,6-11). And he rightly drew the conclusion that through it God was expressing something about human reality as such. From all eternity the Word was with God (1,1-2), the word of love that created human beings and filled them with inner, spiritual life (1,3-5). That divine, everlasting principle so anxious to communicate God's love to us, did so most convincingly by becoming a human being himself. "The Word was made flesh and lived as a neighbour among us" (1,14). In fact, God loved the world, that is the human family, so much that he became one with that family through his Son (3,16).

Liberation theologians are right, therefore, to state that God's interest lies in the sanctification of this world and that the test of a Christian's faith is the extent to which it has been translated into justice towards the neighbour. Many Christians, unfortunately, serve a distant God of their own making, whom they try to please by cultic observances and conformity to moral precepts. Their spirituality alienates them from a true commitment to the world in which they live. They imagine God to be interested in his own glory. But "the Father's glory is the life of humankind. That is the sum and substance of the Fourth Gospel". (6) God in some sense is only real to the extent that we meet him in the otherness, in the total demand, of the neighbour who seeks justice.(7)Christian faith is not an intellectual act of the mind, but a commitment, a "becoming flesh" in love of the neighbour. Believing Christ and loving the neighbour are two aspects of one and the same reality. He who believes what the Father has done in Jesus "has passed from death to life" (5,24). He who loves his brothers and sisters in spite of the world's hatred "has passed out of death and into life" (1 Jn 3,14). There can be no Christian life in someone who is not committed and involved as Christ was. (8)

But if believing and secular involvement are all elements of one and the same reality, it also follows that a purely secular liberation will not do. The Gospel of John is not interested in promoting human welfare or political freedom as humanist values. Surely, Christ did not come to redeem the Christian community but the world. But in this redemptive work the spiritual dimension should not be lost sight of. We are only redeemed through a personal response and relationship to Christ. The truth of Christ will set us free (8,31-36) also in a social and secular sense. But any liberating action not promoted by Christ, consciously or unconsciously is not "true" liberation within Johannine categories.(9)

Being a prophet from Nazareth

Even if we admit the necessity of being involved and committed, we may still wonder what this means in practice. What does a "committed" Christian look like? Where does he begin? Can all of us be blood donors, or demonstrate for peace, or go out to do social work in the slums of Johannesburg? Where will it end? After all, Jesus himself did not organise a campaign against slavery in the Roman Empire.

The Gospel of John has a very precise and subtle answer. It is contained in those simple words of Jesus, "My food is to do the will of the one who sent me" (4,34). Remember, Jesus had just come across the Samaritan woman near the well of Sychar. Doing the will of the Father meant for him: acccepting responsibility for this particular person I meet here and now. This is also the meaning, I believe, of the other statement: "The Son can do nothing on his own; he does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does the Son does too" (5,19). Jesus said this to defend himself against the accusation of having healed the [aralysed man on the Sabbath. Since it was the Father who had made Jesus meet this person on the Sabbath, it was clear to Jesus that he too had to respond on the Sabbath. 'My Father goes on working and so do I" (-5,17). The principle Jesus lived by was that he was committed and involved at the very hour and in the very place he found himself.

For this is what becoming human meant. Jesus' parents lived in Nazareth, a small hamlet of Galilee. It was a very humble origin indeed, a scandal for sophisticated Jews. "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" (1,36). "Prophets do not come out of Galilee" (7,52). Yet it was as Jesus of Nazareth that he wanted to be known. It was the inscription on his cross: "Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews" (19,19).

This acceptance of the demands and possibilities of the moment as the will of his Father is characteristic for Jesus throughout his life. He does not organise or scheme; he simply responds to what the circumstances require of him. The shortage of food among his audience provokes his compassion; the availability of some loaves and fishes cause Jesus to work a miracle of multiplication (6,5-11). The callous behaviour of merchants and money-changers sparks off the angry scene in the Temple (2,13-17). A casual conversation about a blind beggar sitting on the roadside leads Jesus to give him sight (9,1-7 Yes, even Jesus' suffering and death, however important in John's theology, is not premeditated or willed for its own sake. They come about when Jesus responds as the good shepherd who wants to be faithful to his sheep till the end (10,10-18). At every turn Jesus is guided by a response to the challenge of the moment.

These considerations give us a clue as to how we should act ourselves. To be a committed Christian does not mean sponsoring a thousand unusual causes. But it does demand a qualitative change in all the areas where our life touches the welfare of other people and secular realities. We have to live existentially, by taking every point of contact with the world seriously.(10) We have to allow love to plunge us into history, realising that paradoxically this plunge will liberate us from the limitations of that history.(11) We have to discover that a personal, deep involvement in all those places where we are inserted into the world becomes our unique way of doing the will of the Father. Responding in this way we not only hear the word but do it; and by doing it begin to really hear it.

An understanding of this principle will also help us to see how to follow the example of Jesus. It is a little naive to project present-day issues back into gospel passages. Did Jesus upset the ideology of the ruling class (12) or show a preferential option for the poor?(13) When he stated, "My kingdom is not of this world" (18,36) did he disclalm interest in politics (14)or teach pacifism? (15) Did Jesus' discussion with Pilate about power (19,9-11) prescribe the style of authority to be used in the Church?(16) The issues involved are legitimate issues and studying them in the light of Gospel texts is a good thing. But the ultimate justification for courageous and dedicated involvement in every single issue that presents itself lies in the Incarnation itself, in Jesus' unqualified commitment to be true to his own historical context.

Water and blood

Pilate sent soldiers to ascertain whether Jesus had died. One of them thrust his lance into Jesus' heart, and "blood and water flowed out" (19,34). No doubt a historical detail of the passion has been preserved in this, (17) but for John the event was full of symbolism. It expressed the extent of Jesus' self-giving. The degree of our involvement for the sake of others is the measure in which we give of ourselves. Jesus gave everything: his life.

It has rightly been pointed out that all the "signs" of Jesus which John recounts in his Gospel (2,11; 4,54; 7,31; 20,30; etc) here reached their climax. For here the sign and the deed became one. Jesus' death possessed a reality that the signs could not possess. It was precisely as a reality that it made God's love truly visible. "The Cross - not as a symbol or an idea - but as an actual act of self-giving is the point where God's glory is actually seen".(18)

"This is what I ask of you: love each other as I have loved you. No one can have greater love than to give his life for his friends" (15,12-13). In these words of Jesus John expresses the true nature of Christian involvement. It is the kind of love that stops at nothing, that seeks the good of the other person at one's own expense, that serves others at real cost. In Johannine tradition this was a central doctrine:

"This is how we came to know love - that he gave up his life for us; that is why we, too, should give up our lives for our brothers (and sisters)

"If someone who is well off sees that one of them is in need but closes his heart to that person, how can he or she possess the love of God? My children, our love should not be just words or mere talk, but something real and active!"

1 Jn 3,16-18

The test of our commitment is not sympathy, the right attitude and good intentions; the test is what we actually do, what we give, what we are prepared to lose.

Self-giving, properly understood, transforms our life.What previously was no more than a search with the unspoken aim of self-fulfilment, now becomes a meaningful journey with a clear destination. Making ourselves a gift is difficult and demanding. For as a gift we offer permanent love, with no strings attached, no questions asked, as Jesus offered himself. But it will be our own liberation. It will paradoxically give us that fulfilment of self we were seeking all along. "If you remain in my love . . ., my own joy will be in you and your joy will be complete" (15,10-11).

For Reflection Wheat That Dies

Galilee is quite a fertile country and Jesus must often have watched farmers sow seed during one season and reap a rich harvest during the next. In a beautiful short parable he says that a grain of wheat cannot produce an abundance of new life unless it first falls to the ground and dies (read 12,24-25), He then explains that this applies also to us. If we are prepared to lose our life in an act of generosity, we gain an exuberance of life of much higher quality.

Have I ever known people who were truly generous and self-effacing? Have I seen examples of selfless service? What did it do to the persons concerned? And to me?

Do I remember instances where I evaded a responsibility that clearly was mine? What was the reason? Were these instances only passing occurrences or did they show up a deeper lack of commitment in me?

What have been the moments of self-giving in my own life? Did they mean much to me then? What do they mean now for my self-image? Can I say that they made me happy with the joy Jesus spoke about?

Can I honestly say of myself that I am deeply and personally involved in the welfare of my part of the world? Am I taking a real interest in the secular needs and secular challenges that come my way? What is my ideal in this matter and do I live up to it?

Foot Notes

1. G. RICHTER gives an exhaustive account of these discussions in Die Fusswaschung in Johannesevangelium, Pustet, Regensburg 1967.

2 G. G. NICOL, "Jesus Washing the Feet of the Disciples: A Model for Johannine Christology?", Expository Times 91 (1979) 20-21.

3. J. D. M. DERRETT, "'Domine, tu mihi lavas pedes?' (Studio Su Giovanni 13,1-30)" Bibbia e Oriente 21 (1979) 13-42.

4. J. WOLFF, As I have loved You, Dove Publications, Pecos 1979, p.114. l

5. E. LEVINE, "On the Symbolism of the Pedilavium", American Benedictine Review 33 (1982) 21-29.

6. J. COMBLIN, Sent from the Father. Meditations on the Fourth Gospel, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin 1979, p.78. "Institutional Christianity has betrayed Jesus, making his teaching the cornerstone of yet another ideology that estranges people from God, truth and one another" (p.80).

7. J. MIRANDA, Being and the Messiah. The Message of St. John, Orbis Books, Maryknoll 1977, p.37.

8. J. MIRANDA, ib. pp.74-76.

9. J. M. CASABÓ SUQUÈ, "La Liberacion en San Juan, Revista Biblica 34 (1972) 225-242; cf. J. E. MARTINS TERRA, "Teologia da Libertacao em Sao Joao. A Verdade vos Libertara (Jo 8,32),' Revista por Cultura e Bibbia 2 (1978) 3-34.

10 S. P. KEALY, That You May Believe. The Gospel According to John, Middlegreen 1978, p.173.

11 W. J. FULCO, Maranatha. Reflections on the Mystical Theology of John the Evangelist, Paulist Press, New York 1973, p.70.

12. G. LOHFINK,'Wenn wir ihn so weitermachen lassen....' (Joh 11,45-53)", Orientierung 48 (1984) 62-63.

13. S. RAYAN, "Jesus and the poor in the Fourth Gospel", Biblebhashyam 4 (1978) 213-228.

14. X. ALEGRE, "'Mi reino no es de este mundo' (Jn 18,36). Conflictividad de la existencia cristiana en el mundo segun el cuarto evangelio", Estudios Eclesifisticos 54 (1979) 499-525

15. S. MOTT, "Pacifism? Come now!", The Other Side 13 (1977) 64-69.

16. S. SCHNEIDERS, "Women and Power in the Church: A New Testament Reflection", Catholic Theological Society of America Proceedings 37 (1982) 123-128.

17. J. WILKINSON, "The Incident of the Blood and Water in John 19,34", Scottish Journal for Theology 20 (1975) 149-172.

18. W. D. DAVIES, "The Johannine 'Signs' of Jesus", in A Companion to John, ed. M. J. TAYLOR, Abba House, New York 1977, pp.91-115; here 112-114.


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