New Commandment: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter 5
Easter 5 (Year C): John 13:31-35 and Acts 11:1-18
1) This is the fifth of the seven weeks of Eastertide; between now and Pentecost, we’ll continue exploring passages on faith, discipleship, and intimacy with God.
2) This week’s reading from John’s Gospel includes one of the most famous verses in the New Testament: Jesus’ “new commandment” to “love one another...as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Too often, this command is domesticated into a bland personal platitude, something along the lines of “be kind” or “serve others” - while in fact, what Jesus has in mind here is distinctive, subversive, and surprising, with wide-ranging social consequences.
3) The larger context is John’s version of the Last Supper (John 13-17). John doesn’t include the Eucharist, instead focusing on a foot washing and the so-called “farewell discourses” - basically Jesus’ last words of guidance and consolation for his followers as he takes his leave. The broad strokes in this section of John, then, are that Jesus is on his way out, the Holy Spirit is on her way in (John 14:15-26), and the post-Easter church is about to be born - a community that, Jesus insists, will go on to do even “greater works” than he did (John 14:12). This week’s “new commandment” is central to Jesus’ instruction for that new community to come.
4) And speaking of early Christian community, this week’s reading from Acts 11 is Peter’s report to the church in Jerusalem about the Holy Spirit’s inclusion not only of Jews but also of Gentiles in the expanding circle of salvation. The events Peter describes here are themselves narrated in Acts 10, a passage that features the theological key to the whole episode: “God has shown me,” Peter says, “that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28). Why not? Because “God shows no partiality,” and we shouldn’t, either (Acts 10:34).
1) In John’s story, Jesus has just finished up the foot washing, and Judas has just left the dinner party, ominously disappearing into the night (John 13:30). We might expect Jesus to condemn him, or at least to say, “Now the Son of Humanity is betrayed into the hands of sinners” - but instead, Jesus announces the opposite: “Now the Son of Humanity has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him” (John 13:31). Now! Not at the moment of crucifixion, or resurrection, or ascension - but here at the outset of his ordeal, the moment the betrayer slips away into the shadows. For John, God’s redemption is so complete that even the night of shame is transformed into a night of glory.
2) Jesus then turns to his companions with tenderness: “Little children,” he says, “I am with you only a little longer” (John 13:33). Just as I said to the Jewish authorities, I say also to you (for God shows no partiality!): Where I am going, you cannot follow. But even as I withdraw, I call on you to step forward and continue the mission we began together. Listen - I’m giving you a new commandment: Love one another, just as I have loved you... (John 13:34).
3) The first thing to notice about this commandment is that, on the surface at least, it isn’t particularly new; commands to love, after all, are at least as old as Leviticus (Lev 19:18). What’s “new” here, then, must be in the second phrase: “as I have loved you.” The cross and resurrection haven’t happened yet, of course - so how has Jesus loved them so far? As it turns out, Jesus has just provided what he calls “an example” of his love: the foot washing (John 13:1-17; esp 13:15). And the foot washing, so far from a generic call to kindness or servanthood, is a distinctive, subversive, and surprising model in at least two ways.
4) First, it upends conventional wisdom about social status, power, and prestige. In the ancient Near East, servants would commonly wash their masters’ feet - but Jesus reverses these “above” and “below” roles (much to Peter’s consternation!). And second, the foot washing upends conventional wisdom about purity and impurity, “clean” and “unclean.” When Jesus explains that the foot washing will allow Peter to have a “share with me” (or to “participate in me”), Peter enthusiastically asks for a full bath. Why? We might initially think he just wants a bigger “share,” but Jesus’ response (You’re already “entirely clean”! (John 13:10)) suggests instead that Peter mistakenly believes he requires purification. Jesus assures him otherwise, as if to say, Don’t doubt your worth or propriety - I’m not washing you because you’re unclean, but rather in order to demonstrate the kind of dignifying love I have in mind (John 13:6-10). You aren’t greater than me, mind you (John 13:16), but neither are you lesser; I will call you not “servants,” but friends (John 15:12-15). I kneel and wash your feet to drive this point home, to set an example for you, so you might go and do likewise for one another. Listen - I’m leaving, and I’m entrusting my love to you. Take up my mantle! Love as I have loved you, making friends, not servants, bridging divides between “above” and “below,” “insider” and “outsider,” “clean” and “unclean.”
5) These concerns about status and purity continued into the early church - and this week’s passage from Acts is a case in point. Peter argues that the Holy Spirit is on the move, including both Jews and Gentiles in the emerging new community, and “who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17). Reading John and Acts side-by-side, we can discern a narrative arc in Peter’s understanding: at the foot washing, he learns that he is both “entirely clean” and commanded to love in ways that bridge divides between “high” and “low,” “clean” and “unclean” (John 13:10); and over time, with the Spirit’s help, he learns that he “should not call anyone profane or unclean,” for God “shows no partiality” - and so God’s love is open to all (Acts 10:34,28).
1) Familiar as it is, Jesus’ “new commandment” is much more than a humdrum call to kindness. On the contrary, it’s a summons to a distinctive, subversive, surprising form of love, bridging social divides between “above” and “below,” “insider” and “outsider,” “clean” and “unclean.” To what shall we compare this love? The foot washing itself is an experiential parable, a live demonstration of how this kind of love looks and feels - and a glimpse of the community it creates. Don’t servants wash the feet of masters? Well, yes - but here Jesus does the opposite, levelling the field and redefining the relationship as “friends” (John 15:12-15). Isn’t the world as we know it divided into worthy and unworthy, insider and outsider, “clean” and “unclean”? Well, yes - but here Jesus pronounces Peter “entirely clean,” and likewise, in Acts, Peter proclaims that the Spirit’s love is open to all, Jews and Gentiles alike.
2) Accordingly, following Jesus’ “new commandment” today means living out this dignifying, levelling, bridge-building love in our own lives and circumstances. When Pope Francis - in one of his first public acts as pope - washed and kissed the feet of twelve inmates at a youth prison on Maundy Thursday, including (for the first time in papal history) two women and two Muslims, he embodied this “new commandment” love in his context. So did Keshia Thomas, the African-American teen who helped a man with a Confederate flag t-shirt and an SS tattoo, shielding him from an angry crowd. And so does anyone today whose love helps knit a broken, divided world back together, stitch by stitch by stitch.
3) This “new commandment” love defies expectations, transforms conventions, builds bridges precisely where no bridge is supposed to be possible. Accordingly, it often takes us by surprise. And then, upon reflection, it presses the question: How might we love in this way? In our contexts and communities, who are considered low, unclean, unworthy, cast out - and how can we, with the Spirit’s grace, help build bridges of love and friendship in unexpected places? At its best, “new commandment” love is humble enough to kneel and wash, to “take the form of a servant” (Phil 2:5-8) - and at the same time, it’s a love bold enough to protect and connect, overturn conventions, and let the surprising, beautiful glory of God shine through. Humble and bold, ordinary and radiant, stitch by stitch by stitch. By this love, Jesus says, the love that remakes the world, everyone will know that you are my disciples (John 13:35).