Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
“He loved them unto the end.”
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus “loved them unto the end,” he loved them to the fullest, to the utmost. To show his disciples his love for them, he washed their feet, and told them, “I’ve given you an example of how to love. What I’ve done, you do…. This is the way of a happy life. Love one another as I have loved you.”
It’s all enormously moving and inspiring to me. It’s what I want to be, what I hope God is making me. Not yet, but eventually. A model for disciples to live. And yet, within hours of this dramatic display of love, Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter denied Jesus, and all of the disciples abandoned Jesus. A massive failure of discipleship, a massive failure of friendship, a massive failure of companionship.
This evening as I listen to the gospel, it’s hard to hear good news because I feel so much guilt and sadness about the disciples, about the human condition, about my condition. Tonight smacks me upside the head with our resistance to God and love, how ambivalent we are about intimacy, how it freaks us out, how limited our capacity for love sometimes, how quickly fear can get the best of us. It’s upsetting. Where’s good news on Maundy Thursday?
Well, it’s not us. It’s Jesus, and what he does for us. At the Last Supper, Jesus was continuing his ministry of wining and dining. The gospels frequently show us Jesus sitting at table and feasting. The table may be the base for his ministry, his office. It was where he made friends and taught and offered pastoral care, but mostly his table manners shocked people because he’d eat and drink with anybody – traitors, thugs, sinners, reprobates, prostitutes. He developed a reputation for hanging out with the outcast, the overlooked, the offensive, and received a lot of fierce, condemning criticism for it.
Think of what it means to eat a meal with someone, to sit down and talk and listen and share food. It implies acceptance of them; it develops a relationship, or strengthens it, or revives it. This is part of the meaning of the Eucharist, what the altar must be for us.
Jesus’ table fellowship was a sign of inclusion, a prophetic act showing everyone the reality of the Kingdom of God, a place where all were invited to come. In Jesus’ world, people broke bread with people like themselves. There were lots of social boundaries, lines not crossed to maintain appearances and a false, haughty sense of self. In other words, it was not that different than our own divided world obsessed with social standing.
Tonight’s gospel reminds us that Judas Iscariot was at the Last Supper, that Jesus washed his feet. The chunk missing from tonight’s gospel, verses 18-30, reports that Jesus broke bread with Judas even as he knew what Judas was betraying him. Jesus dipped a piece of bread into a common bowl, possibly a bowl of mixed herbs, and passed it to Judas. A host at a festive meal would do that as a sign of friendship. Some scholars think that Judas was sitting at Jesus’ left, a place of honor.[i] The honored man betrayed his friend.
Perhaps, Judas was angry at Jesus, even feeling betrayed by Jesus, that Jesus was not the kind of Messiah he expected. We don’t know because Judas apparently did not express himself. He didn’t talk about it. He just reacted. Rashly. Still Jesus accepted and desired Judas to be with him. Jesus wants us no matter what. That’s good news.
It’s very difficult for us to fathom God’s longing for us, the depth of his acceptance of us no matter what. In fact, at times, we live this way too. Brian was twelve when he came to live at the youth home.[ii] He had grown up fighting with his siblings, and he was also exposed to his parents’ fights. Most people in relationships fight. It’s normal. But how we fight and resolve conflicts matters, a lot.
Many times Brian watched his parents’ altercations end when his father went to the gun cabinet, took out a pistol, placed the barrel under Brian’s mother’s chin, and said, “If you say another word, I’ll blow your head off.”
One day Brian fought with his sister over the last bowl of cereal in the house. She had the upper hand, possession of the last bowl, and his protestations did not have the desired effect. As she poured milk over the cereal, Brian went to the gun cabinet. He came back to the table, put the barrel to his sister’s head, and warned her, “If you take one bite of that cereal, I’ll blow your head off.” His sister took a bite. Brian reacted. Rashly.
Brian went to the youth home. The staff determined not to discuss with Brian why he was there until he brought the subject up himself, but he didn’t. A couple months passed, and the staff grew concerned. Brian was quiet, compliant, and never showed emotion. It was all bottled up within, directed at himself, a despair, not at all what the staff desired for Brian’s health. The staff began to consider trying to force Brian to talk about his crime.
Still uncertain about how to treat Brian, a staff member took Brian to a nearby pond to fish. In the ease and relaxation of fishing, the staff member expressed appreciation for Brian and commented upon how it was enjoyable to be with him. Brian replied, “You wouldn’t say that if you knew why I’m here.” The staff member responded, “I know why you’re here.” This startled Brian: “You do?” “Yes,” the staff member said, “I do. We all know why you’re here.”
Brian began to sob. It was his first expression of emotion in months. He recognized that the staff had accepted him, cared for him, even though he had murdered his sister. It was the turning point for Brian’s life, a moment where transformation became possible, renewal, some kind of new life. The staff had not shamed him, had not shunned him, but in expressing appreciation and acceptance, he could have a renewed life.
Horrified by himself, Brian had run away into himself, shutting out the world and life, but he experienced the grace of acceptance and affection, and everything could change. He repented: his heart and mind changed.
For me, one of the great saddest parts of Maundy Thursday is Judas, poor Judas, who probably felt betrayed by Jesus. He reacted by betraying Jesus, by sinning spectacularly, but we don’t hear of him turning and coming back to Jesus to receive forgiveness. Imagine Judas’ despair. Imagine his lack of trust. Imagine his inability to express himself.
Peter denied Jesus tonight. But he turned around. He repented. Despite his horror at his actions, Peter had some sense of still being acceptable to God, allowed for the possibility of a new start. But not poor Judas.
Jesus does not reverse our actions. He does not make it all go away. He does not force us to turn back to him and receive the forgiveness that he always, always offers. But Jesus does identify with sinners. Jesus does accept Judas, Peter, you, and me as we are, and he will be there with us in our pain, in our suffering, in our lowest moments – not desiring our shame or condemning us, but calling us back to him and to new life.
The church, the body of Christ, you and me, at our best, we are the staff of the youth home – that ye love one another as I have loved you. We welcome Brian, care for him, encourage him, break bread with him, and recognize that in a way we are also Brian. We have room in our hearts for Brian, for Brian’s father, for Judas. Like them, each of us has hurt God and loved ones. The good news is that Jesus still comes and sits at table with us, identifies with us, breaks bread with us, washes our feet, changes our hearts. He loves us to the fullest.
X In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Lane Davenport
[i] Andreas J. Kostenberger, John, Baker Academic (2004), pp. 416.
[ii] Greg Carey, Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers¸ Baylor University Press (2009), pp. 35-36.