We are deep in it now. After six weeks of Lent to prepare, after five days of Holy Week to reflect, we now enter into the holiest days of the entire Christian year.
Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are really parts of a single service that extends through Sunday. Tonight, we’ll exit in silence, with no final blessing or dismissal. Same for the Good Friday service tomorrow. The service we began tonight doesn’t truly end until Easter.
That means all four days point forward to Easter joy. Soon our Lenten disciplines will come to an end. I can enjoy my first glass of wine in nearly seven weeks. I can eat sweets without guilt, and not just on Sundays. I can complain without having to cough up any money. (I do realize complaining is not the best way to celebrate Easter!)
Easter is where we are heading. But we’re not to Easter yet. And that’s a good thing, because Easter without Maundy Thursday and Good Friday risks becoming a sentimental, feel-good, childish sort of thing—all about eggs and candy and bunnies, and not about the great mysteries of death and resurrection.
The Gospel reading for tonight is packed with important lessons, and we’ll get there. But first I want to sit with a passage that comes between the beginning of our reading and the end, a bit that the lectionary omits. In the in-between bit, John tells us that “Jesus was troubled in spirit and declared, ‘Very truly I tell you, one of you will betray me’” (13:21).
Now, this is not the first time Jesus has warned his disciples that he would be betrayed. But this is the first time Jesus tells them that one of them will be the one to do the deed.
I’ve known this passage for years, but I never stopped to ponder why Jesus tells them about the betrayal this way. Why does Jesus tell them that one of them will betray him, but not say who? What does Jesus want to accomplish?
The disciples didn’t know what to make of Jesus’ warning. According to John, “The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking” (13:21-22).
It doesn’t have to be that way. Jesus knows it’s Judas. Jesus quietly tells one disciple as much (John 13:26).
But Jesus doesn’t tell the others, and they don’t have a clue. When, a few verses later, Jesus tells Judas to “do quickly what you are going to do,” no one understood what he meant (John 13:29). It didn’t occur to them that Judas was going to betray Jesus, certainly not right then.
Now, imagine you were there, one of disciples. What do you think it would feel like to learn that one of your closest companions, a man you have lived with day in and day out for something like three years, is going to betray your common Lord? What would it feel like to learn that, but not to know who? Look to your left. It could be him. Look to your right. Maybe her. It could be Peter, or James, or John. It could be any of them.
And as you sit there, remember that everyone else is wondering the same thing about you. Then it sinks in. For all you know, Jesus might mean you. And along comes self-doubt. “Could I be the one? Could I do something so awful?”
When Jesus says that one of them will betray him but doesn’t say who, Jesus is creating, presumably on purpose, an atmosphere of mutual distrust and suspicion. Jesus is inviting them to doubt the intentions of everyone else at the table that night. For the more reflective, Jesus is inviting them to doubt themselves, too. Why?
I think Jesus is trying, once again, to lead his disciples to genuine self-knowledge.
Even after all their time with him, the disciples have illusions of grandeur. Three times Jesus has warned them that he will suffer and die. Each time, they have responded by immediately arguing about which one of them was the greatest. They still see following Jesus as a ticket to fame and fortune. They have so far utterly failed to grasp that Jesus will be crucified, and that, like every other sinner, they are part of the reason why.
And so, on this last night of his life, on this last opportunity to prepare his disciples for what is coming, Jesus effectively forces them to look at each other with suspicion, and to question themselves, too. Judas is the one who will actually betray Jesus. But Jesus is making the point that none of them are perfect, that all of them were capable of betraying him in the right circumstances.
On this night, our task is to put ourselves in their place, and to hear Jesus’ words as directed to us. Our task is to learn that same lesson.
We are good people. We try to do the right thing.
But, says Jesus, we shouldn’t have any illusions. As we look around, as we look in the mirror, we need to know that we are all capable of betraying Jesus. Indeed, our sins help to put Jesus on the cross.
That’s a hard thing to hear.
But we don’t stop there. Imagine, once again, that you were with Jesus and the others that night. Imagine those suspicions about the others going through your head, as you sit at the Last Supper, and hear again Jesus’ instructions, to them and to us.
“If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example.” Wash the feet of the one capable of betraying me. I, Jesus, did.
Or this one: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Love the one capable of betraying me. I, Jesus, did.
Serving others, loving others, is hard enough when we like and admire the other person. But Jesus is asking a lot more than that. We miss just how radical Jesus is being if we don’t see that Jesus was commanding them, and is commanding us, to serve and to love people, knowing we and they are capable of doing the worst thing we can imagine, betraying Jesus himself.
That kind of service and love takes enormous strength. But it is our calling. We, who are frail and fallible sinners, are called to be a community of service and love to other frail and fallible sinners.
It can seem like an overwhelming responsibility. How can we possibly do what Jesus is commanding us to do? How can we serve and love like that?
Thankfully Jesus doesn’t ask us to do it alone.
On this night, Jesus also gives us the gift of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, Jesus communes with us, and Jesus helps us to commune with each other. We come together to experience Christ’s love, to practice mutual service and love, and to be transformed.
And, over time, we become just a bit more Christ-like, a bit more Christian, a bit more capable of resisting our own worst impulses, a bit more capable of living, and serving, and loving like Jesus, serving and loving everybody, good or bad.
On this holy night, we hear Christ’s command to serve and to love. And we give thanks to God for the gift of Holy Communion, the gift that helps us to serve and to love others, as Jesus commands.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan