Scripture Passage: John 13: 21-32 (Holy Wednesday)
After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night. When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.
(Sorry…Wednesday’s post is a little late!) We started this week with the account of the anointing of Jesus, a story that shows us what it means to extravagantly serve our Lord. Tuesday’s text was one that showed us the meaning of following Jesus, indeed what it means to “take up our cross”. And then today…no extravagant anointing, no taking up any crosses…just a prediction of a betrayal of the worst kind as the dark pall of death begins to enshroud our week.
This passage is indeed a difficult one. Look how it begins…”Jesus was troubled in spirit.” He knew. He knew that a friend would betray him. It made him angry and indignant. But, more than that…it had to hurt. That has to be one of the worst pains imaginable. Because…think about it…betrayal is not something that you do to a stranger. You do not speak of inadvertently cutting someone off in traffic as a “betrayal”. For, you see, betrayal…true betrayal…is a deep-cutting blade that that can only cut into the closest of relationships. As painful as it may be, betrayal only happens in the midst of true intimacy. And that is the most painful of all. “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” What? The disciples looked at each other flabbergasted. NOT one of us. (And even if it was one of us, it is certainly not I. Maybe him or him or him. But I KNOW it’s not me! I love you! You are my Lord!) So Simon Peter leans in…Jesus…come here…come on, you can tell me…who is it? And Jesus, with perfect parabolic eloquence responds…It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish. And then he hands it to Judas. Do quickly what you are going to do. But the disciples didn’t get it. Well, of course not…because it really doesn’t make sense. So they began speculating. You know what I bet he really MEANT to say? He MUST have been telling him to buy something for the festival or to give something to the poor. (After all, just a few days ago, Judas was worried about the poor and why money was not being spent on them rather than on the extravagant anointing of our Lord!) NOW it makes sense. Because NONE of us could betray Jesus. And so the other disciples are removed from the betrayal, relieved of the blame.
So Judas leaves immediately. Even in the midst of betrayal, he is quietly obedient, knowing in his heart of hearts where he really belongs and is not going. And the passage ends as the darkness of night falls. We know what happens after that. It was Judas who led the authorities to the garden a little way east of the walls of the city and it was Judas who signaled to them which of the men standing there in the dark was Jesus. It all changed with a single kiss as Judas’ lips graze Jesus’ cheek.
But I think, in all honesty, we may be a little too eager to jump on the “blame Judas” band wagon. After all, there is probably a little Judas in all of us. There are those times for all of us when we inadvertently choose the darkness, either intentionally or unintentionally. There are those times when our greed or maybe even our fears drive us to choose the security of wealth or the selfishness of our own preservation, fleeting as it may be, over trust in Christ. There are times when our own blindness toward others compels us to choose our own personal bread, rather than a community feast. And there are times when even our love for our Lord is so shrouded in the darkness of greed, and insecurity, and selfishness towards others that we once again hand him over to be crucified in our hearts. We all must ask the question “Is it I”? And we all must face the uncomfortable truth that sometimes it is.
And we know what happened to Judas. As the writer of Matthew’s Gospel accounts, when Jesus was condemned to death, Judas could not face himself. What had he done? And so he hanged himself, a victim of his own choices and his own action. And to this day, Judas lives on as the veritable poster child of the worst sin imaginable, known to all as the one who handed the Savior of the World over to be crucified. His name has literally become a noun, the description of the worst that one can do. Dante places him on the 4th level of the 9th circle of the inferno, hanging out for the ages in the bowels of hell between Brutus and Cassius, who conspired in the assassination of Julius Caesar. And we, like the other eleven disciples, breathe a collective sigh of relief that it was not us, that we were not the one that betrayed our Lord.
And yet, the story does not end there. With all respect to the 14th century Italian poet, I think he may have missed that. I do think that Judas ended up in hell, the worst hell imaginable, a self-imposed banishment from God, a place where he could not conceive that he would ever be forgiven because he could not forgive himself. So in that place with the blood of Christ on his hands, he saw no end other than his own.
I’ve read this Scripture many times. I’ve even preached on it a few. But this time, something else leapt off the page for me. (I love it when that happens!) I missed it before. It was the bread. Jesus said “the one to whom I give this bread.” The point is, he gave it to all of them. They were all betrayers but, more importantly, they were also all beloved. I once heard Walter Brueggemann talk about the liturgy that we use for our Eucharist. Before we take the bread, before we take the cup, we confess. We name our sin. We name our betrayals. And then, we are told “In the Name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” The words do not specify that we are forgiven if we are good or that we are forgiven if we’re only on the first couple of circles of Dante’s vision of hell. Nowhere does it say that we are forgiven of limbo or lust or gluttony but if we get to the fourth circle (which is greed) or below, we are doomed. Nowhere does it say that. And Brueggemann points out that with those words, with the simple words “In the Name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven,” we are wiped clean, spotless, if only for a moment. Oh, but what a moment!
Because, you see, the good news is that God does not love us in spite of who we are; God loves us because of who we are—the betrayer and the beloved, the Judas and the one whom Jesus loved. God loved us before any human person could show love to us—a “first” love, an unlimited, unconditional love—loved us so much that when we are handed this bread, we are handed the real presence of Christ—all of us—the bumbling disciples, those unnamed people that were in the periphery of the picture that day, the beloved and the betrayer, and me. I, Judas, no matter what I do, am forgiven. That was the part of the story Dante forgot. Forgiveness is not payment for a job well done; it is our chance to start again.
Judas was there at the table. Jesus served him as one of his own. It still hurt. But God’s unfathomable grace and God’s forgiveness is bigger than our own selfish betrayal, bigger than any hell we could ever imagine or conjure up for ourselves. You know, it’s about the bread…
And so, Madeleine L’Engle tells an old legend that after his death Judas found himself at the bottom of a deep and slimy pit. For thousands of years he wept his repentance, and when the tears were finally spent he looked up and saw, way, way up, a tiny glimmer of light. After he had contemplated it for another thousand years or so, he began to try to climb up towards it. The walls of the pit were dank and slimy, and he kept slipping back down. Finally, after great effort, he neared the top, and then he slipped and fell all the way back down. It took him many years to recover, all the time weeping bitter tears of grief and repentance, and then he started to climb again. After many more falls and efforts and failures he reached the top and dragged himself into an upper room with twelve people seated around a table. “We’ve been waiting for you, Judas. We couldn’t begin till you came.” (From “Waiting for Judas”, by Madeleine L’Engle, in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003), 312.)
That is the crux. None of us are innocent. All of us are forgiven. Holy Thursday does not end in betrayal; it ends in love. Perhaps rather than trying to lay blame for what happened at the Cross, perhaps rather than using Judas as the scapegoat for all of our own sins, we should let the Cross be what it is—a place of healing, a place of reconciliation, a place of forgiveness, a place of life recreated. Because of the Cross, all of us are invited to the table and each of us, no matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, no matter what we will do, is handed the bread. Each of us is the one to whom I give this bread.
In the Name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.
(In the Name of Jesus Christ, I, Judas, am forgiven.)
The body of Christ given for you. Take, eat, in remembrance of me.
The soldiers are there with their swords and lanterns. The high priest’s slave is whimpering over his wounded ear. There can be no doubt in Jesus’ mind what the kiss of Judas means, but it is Judas that he is blessing, and Judas that he is prepared to go out and die for now. Judas is only the first in a procession of betrayers two thousand years long, If Jesus were to exclude him from love and forgiveness, to one degree or another he would have to exclude us all. Maybe this is all in the mind of Jesus as he stands with his eyes closed, or possibly there is nothing in his mind at all. As he feels his friend’s lips graze his cheek for an instant, maybe he feels nothing else…It is not the Lamb of God and his butcher who meet here, but two old friends embracing in a garden knowing that they will never see one another again. (Frederick Buechner)
We are journeying through Holy Week. Things are changing and what we know will come is imminent. But forgiveness is abundant. We are all Judas’s. What are the Judas parts of you? What does it mean to be forgiven? Have you forgiven yourself? None of us are innocent. All of us are forgiven.
Grace and Peace,