It was pandemonium in the Upper Room.
The supper had been barely touched. Bread had not been broken, nor wine poured out.
Because when Jesus had knelt before his friends to wash their feet, all hell had broken loose.
Just look at the place now. Chairs have been pushed back. A dish has been smashed on the floor and the contents of a jug have been spilled.
At the table just one disciple remains seated. He is resting his head against Jesus’s shoulder.
See, another disciple is sitting in the corner with his head in his hands whilst another is striding to the door anxious to be gone. The others stand in two small groups whispering to themselves about what now needs to be done.
John’s Gospel gives us a disorderly approach to this evening’s events. There is no Last Supper. You cannot look here and find an early eucharistic liturgy, but rather a series of responses to how we need to be in the light of the things we see Jesus getting up to.
One of the other things you can’t find in John’s Gospel is the story of the transfiguration – when Jesus climbed the mountain with Peter, James and John and was lifted up in glory before them, and that’s because for John, the glory in Jesus is not when He raises himself above the earth, but when he lowers himself down into it.
It is when he kneels before his friends with basin and towel and portrays this as a godly glory we are to follow.
In this Gospel reading, the action of this night is frozen like a west end play reaching the interval.
But here no safety curtain comes down, there no pre reserved interval drinks to enjoy. Rather we are asked to see where we fit in to the emerging chaos, for the second half of the play cannot continue without us, and it all start is about ten minutes.
Let’s imagine that a spotlights falls on three particular disciples in that Upper Room and they point to three possible responses from us.
The one who reclines against Jesus – is John – the beloved disciple.
The one with his head in his hands is Peter – the rock on whom the church will later be built.
The one making for the exit is Judas – the betrayer.
There is a lot to find out about John’s Gospel these days and in what follows I have tried to bring together something of three writers who have been companions to me as I have explored these chapters.
In 1977 Alan Ecclestone wrote a dense little book called “The Scaffolding of the Spirit”.
In 2015 Jean Vanier who has spent much of his life working with the L’Arche community who provided support to those with intellectual and learning disabilities wrote a much easier affair “The Gospel of Relationship.
And last year, I sat at the feet of David Ford at a day conference and as a result rushed out to buy his volume “The Drama of Living”.
In the Upper Room we find this reticent, even shy character, John. He may or may not have been influential in writing this Gospel. He is called the beloved disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.
I imagine he allowed Jesus to wash his feet without demur and when they are all invited to return to the table, only He goes with Jesus at first and he rests his head right there upon the saviour’s beating heart. His response to Jesus’s love is complete trust and submission. He has nothing to give, no words to say, but he lives his life just there as close to the beating heart of Jesus as possible.
And I reflect if only that could be enough for me. If only I could go there and not seek to justify myself all day long, not seek popularity or value in the eyes of others, but just recline on him.
John’s response finds itself articulated in many wonderful hymns:
Jesus lover of my soul let me to thy bosom fly
Rock of ages cleft for me, let me find myself in thee.
John’s life is almost lost in Jesus’s story, so much so that we sometimes forget he is there.
Can I be alongside John in the second half of tonight’s drama. The action starts again in just 6 minutes.
Off in the corner with his head in his hands is Peter and Oh dear Oh dear, how he has dominated the evening with his continual going on and on. If you were holding a discussion group in your house and Peter pitched up for the evening, your heart would sink, knowing no one would get a word in edgeways!
He has to wrangle and dispute at every turn. He will not let things go! But we must forgive him – its only that he misunderstands, time after time after time!
His experience of life is that you have a hierarchy to respect. There is a structure in which you take your place and as a fisherman Peter would have known his place. Lowly. And this continual exalting of others to places where they had no right to be was really getting Peter’s goat.
Peter was used to seeing leadership as something to look up to, but here it manifests itself as something to look down upon. No mountain top. No courtroom. No throne. No temple. Rather, down at my feet and washing them.
Jesus is harsh towards him I think. “if you can’t accept this, then get out now. There’s the door. Walk through it!
But Peter has known the love of Jesus and he yearns for it but he cannot reconcile it with the way of the world. He gives in for the time being, but its not over yet, it’s not over by a long chalk.
Judas is not sucking up to Jesus a moment longer, like John. Nor is he sitting on the fence like Peter.
He takes decisive action at that very moment. He is about to storm out and never come back.
Judas cannot seem to ever take love at face value. When Judas sees love in action he reacts angrily too it.
Jesus proclaims back in ch 6 that is he the bread of life and all can come to him – and Judas is already simmering.
In ch 12 Judas prevaricates loudly at the scandalous woman who falls before Jesus to anoint his feet.
And this footwashing business is the last straw for him, he clomps out and slams the door behind him.
Trusting Jesus – like John. Misunderstanding Jesus like Peter. Angry at Jesus like Judas.
Where am I where are you in this moment when the action is frozen? For the second half begins in just four minutes now, and you will be required on stage, to take your place. The clue is not just how we would like to feel to Jesus, but how we actually feel towards everyone else.
On this Holy Thursday and into this scene, it is the deacon who steps into this dangerous scenario. She has worn her stole like a towel for nearly ten months and now at last, she must use it. Kneeling in the place of Jesus, where Jesus’s action caused such controversy. The focus of John’s strange transfiguration.
And my guess is that in each of those who step forward to have their feet washed there is a jumble of John and Judas and Peter. And our twelve are symbolic of us all.
And when the task is done and we each rise up again – how will we have been changed. For Jesus wants us to make this moment our transfiguration as much as his own.
There is an urgency about this because in 24 hours time, Judas will be dead, Peter will be in hiding and it will be only John who actually makes it out to Calvary.
Still with nothing to say. Still unsure about what to do. Still his only aim to stay as close to Jesus as he can.
The action has been frozen to reveal the Upper Room in chaos. The second half begins in just 2 minutes. The supper has barely been touched.
Bread has not been blessed and wine remains to be poured out. The chairs are pushed back. The contents of the jug is spilt. A dish is smashed on the floor.
The second half of the play begins in one minute. Take your seats, but not as audience, rather now as participant. Where will you dare to take your place on the set.
There is a place right next to Jesus, right there beside him, have you got the trust and maybe the cheek to put yourself there. Or will you sit with Peter or will you take your leave with Judas or stand around discussing the options with the others.
In John’s Upper Room, where are you? The bell is ringing. We must resume our seats…
1 COR 11: 23-26
JOHN 13: 1-17, 31-35
It was pandemonium in the Upper Room.