After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, one pastor told his decimated church, “We’ve always said that Jesus is all we need. Well, now Jesus is all we have.” When the COVID-19 pandemic bullied its way into churches, all we had was Jesus. Our buildings sat empty. Our plans fizzled. Strategies stopped dead in their tracks. We couldn’t even be together for Easter Sunday! We found ourselves unsure of how to do the most basic things—sing, preach a sermon, serve Communion, visit the sick, pray together, evangelize—never mind growing our churches or touting our worship services.
We still had Jesus, but we weren’t sure of just what he had to say to us or what he wished to do. At first, pastors preached about fear and God’s protection. But after that, when we had to settle into a new reality, it was as if we’d awakened in a strange room at night, unsure of how to take a step without stubbing our toe. So what does it mean for Christians facing a catastrophic crisis to have nothing more than Jesus?
When Judas slipped away from that final Passover meal with Jesus to fulfill his diabolical contract, John added ominously, “And it was night” (John 13:30). The epic crisis was soon upon them. John 13–17 recounts how Jesus, in his final hours, prepared his disciples—all of us—for life without him in this dark world. The crisis ahead of them was not only that he would be gone but that they would face the world’s hatred as surely as he had.
What Jesus taught his disciples that night prepares us not only for the hatred of the world but also for its catastrophes. Jesus’ teaching in John 13–17 was new. While he had hinted at some of these themes before, what we learn here (now so familiar to us) was the capstone of Jesus’ teaching. The rest wouldn’t hold together without this. Every congregation worth its salt must know and embody what Jesus taught. Here is how we shine in this midnight world. Here is Christian survival training.
Significantly, Jesus’ first lesson began with him taking the basin of water, laying aside his outer garments, slipping to his knees before his disciples, and washing their feet—even Judas’s. “I have set you an example,” he said, “that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15). Then, shortly after Judas left, Jesus made it clear: “Where I am going, you cannot come” (John 13:33). With that foreboding news hanging heavily upon them, Jesus gave them foot-washing instructions in triplicate: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35, emphasis added).
When the church faces the dark night of catastrophe, that is Rule #1: Get your basin and towel, get low, and love one another. Love the neighbors around you as God leads, but always “love one another.” Pressure inevitably pulls at the seams of our relationships so our love must be tightly woven before the night falls on us.
The disciples must have been reeling. Jesus was leaving them, and they couldn’t follow. Jesus stunned them again when he said that the Rock among them would very shortly disown him three times (John 13:38). Then, in a response to their stunned silence, he said the most counterintuitive thing: “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1).
Easier said than done, of course. Especially when our world is falling apart. Jesus’ second coming somehow seems too far removed to be of much immediate consolation to believers swamped by crisis. Yet that is what Jesus offered the Eleven that dark night. As we’ll see, Jesus often pointed his put-upon disciples to his return.
Christ’s second coming reorients us to the fact that what we face now is not the end of the matter. This hope peels our white knuckles off our earthly securities. When we’re glued to our TVs and news feeds, we forget to look up, forget that our redemption is drawing near. Our worship songs, our sermons and passing words of encouragement, should often have a faraway look about them.