We begin this week with celebration. All four gospels include Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem for the Passover festival. It’s no accident that the crowds are waving palm fronds. Considered a patriotic symbol in those days, the palm leaves are a sign that people see Jesus as a possible king—but not the King, at least not yet.
But the festivities soon give way to Jesus’ consternation. Despite his signs and wonders and teachings, many still do not believe in him. And those who do (even some religious leaders) are too afraid to publicly confess their belief. In his last public teaching, Jesus again explains who he is and what it means to be a believer. Common motifs surface: the idea of new growth with the grain of wheat and contrast between the light of Christ and the darkness of the world.
Chapter 12 can be seen as a bridge between the first part of Jesus’ life and ministry and the last week before his death and resurrection. These verses compel us to understand “believing” as a verb, not a passive emotion but one that requires an active response and engagement. Jesus urges us to see him not as a mere messenger but as the Message.
In chapter 13, we move to familiar territory for most readers: the Last Supper. Interestingly, the Gospel of John does not mention the eucharistic action that we find in the other three gospels. Further, it is only in John that we hear the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. What are we to make of these editorial choices?
Scholars offer any number of reasons for the omission of the eucharist. Perhaps one of the easiest to understand is the simplest: Since John is believed to be the last gospel that was written, the author may have assumed readers already knew about the eucharist. So instead the writer offers a new and important story: Jesus washes the feet of the disciples as a tangible example of a lived faith, one committing to serving others. The embrace of servanthood as a hallmark of the faithful is reiterated by Jesus with his words: “Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.”
While the gospel accounts of the Last Supper differ in some ways, all four mention the betrayal by Judas. It is easy for us to condemn Judas, confident that we would never forsake our savior in such a way. Yet we are all guilty of turning our back on Jesus: failing to care for the poor, mistreating our neighbors, letting racist comments slide, and indulging in juicy gossip. Even Simon Peter, who has faithfully followed Jesus, will deny him when the going gets rough. We might not literally turn Jesus into the authorities, but each time we fail to emulate our Lord, we turn our backs on him. Jesus is clear what it looks like to follow him as he gives the disciples and all of us a new commandment to love one another: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
While his disciples can’t imagine the events of the next few days, Jesus knows. And so he offers comfort for his friends.
Do not be afraid
, he says.
I leave you with peace. And soon, you will have an Advocate—the Holy Spirit—to be a teacher and reminder of my words.
We end our readings this week with the last of the I Am statements. Jesus tells us, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” In this agrarian metaphor, Jesus invites us to see that we all grow from one root but are many branches, bearing fruit in different ways.
It’s interesting to note that the word “abide” appears eleven times in the first seventeen verses. Abide isn’t a word we use very often these days—and when we do, it’s mostly in a negative sense: “I can’t abide that.” But here Jesus calls us, implores us, to abide in him. To abide—to reside—in him, knowing that we shouldn’t go through life alone and that change will come, but “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”