Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from 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 … After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that it what I am. So if I your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. … Very truly. I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.’
We all realise that there is no description of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in John’s Gospel. Instead there is an acted parable of the relationship between Teacher and Disciple, Lord and Servant. By taking upon himself the most menial task for anyone is a host’s household, Jesus powerfully illustrates the changed relationships in the Kingdom of God. Furthermore in the final verse of this passage, the image of this new relationship is extended to that between the Father and the Son in a way which fits uneasily with the equality of the three persons in God, as expounded by the Council of Chalcedon (451) – though that should not worry us too much. The point here is the equal standing of each of us at the Lord’s Table, with none of us daring to claim the role of the host.
Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands that have taken holy things; may the ears that have heard your word be deaf to clamour and dispute; may the tongues that have sung your praise be free from deceit; may the eyes that have seen the tokens of your love shine with the light of hope; and may the bodies which have been fed with your body be refreshed with the fullness of your life; glory to you for ever. Amen. (Liturgy of Malabar)
The Rev’d Professor David Thompson is a retired minister and a member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge.
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