Much of the Gospel according to John contains long speeches by Jesus full of sayings that are difficult to understand. It is very possible to read a section of the Gospel like the one we have today and just hear it as a jumble of words. We have to stop and consider what each word means, what each sentence means. There is practical wisdom here; we should not pass it by.
Consider only one sentence from the reading today: “If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it.” Part of the problem is the translation. The literal translation of Jesus’ words as John wrote them down is: “If you know this, you would be happy if you do it.”
What is “this” that we might know? Does “it” and “this” refer to the same antecedent? The original grammar of the sentence implies that it does, but the context does not. Jesus has just told the disciples that no slave is greater than their master. Then he says, “If you know this, you would be happy if you do it.” Our inclination is to believe that “this” is the preceding idea, but that is an analysis of a situation, not an action, not something we can do.
The antecedent of “it” must be the washing of feet. If we fill in the antecedents then we get: “If you know that no slave is greater than their master, you would be happy if you wash one another’s feet.” If we take foot washing to be an analogy for all service, and we consider that we are the slave and Jesus is the master, we can further interpret the sentence as: “If I know that I am not greater than Jesus, I will be happy if I serve others”, which logically leads to the contrapositive, “If I am not happy when I serve others, I do not know that I am not greater than Jesus.”
This all sounds complex, but who said that understanding the Word of God must be easy? I show the complexity because I do not want anyone to think that I am just making things up when I say that Jesus is giving us some incredibly practical advice today, specifically, if serving others does not always make you happy, then consider this: do you know that you are not greater than Jesus? Do not just say, “Of course I know that.” Consider it. Do you know, with every fiber of your being, that you are not more important than God? When you know this, you will be happy to serve others.