This sermon, given at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church on April 17, 2014, is based on the Gospel reading for Wednesday in Holy Week.
Here on Wednesday in Holy Week we sit riveted as the pace of the unfolding drama picks up speed. Today we hear a story that is part John’s account of the Last Supper. We hear the story that sets the machinery of the world into motion and that will finally result in Jesus hanging dead on the cross on Good Friday. It is story of terrible juxtaposition. We have the beloved disciple, the one whom Jesus loved leaning against his breast as the Disciples share this last meal together; and we have Judas, one of the twelve, leaving to summon the temple guard to the place where Jesus will be arrested. This juxtaposition heightens the anxiety we feel when we hear Jesus say, “Very truly I tell you, one of you will betray me,” and we begin to wonder if those words are directed at us.
The study Bible that I use, a New Revised Standard Version, labels this story, “Jesus Foretells his Betrayal.” The NIV uses a similar heading, “Jesus predicts his betrayal.” And the RSV calls this story, “Jesus dismisses Judas Isacriot his betrayer.” Those labels say something very clear.
We do not like this story and we don’t like Judas.
We don’t like it because it is a story about the worst that is in us, betrayal in the face of unconditional love and we don’t like Judas because he hold up a mirror fomr which we cannot avert our eyes.
But if we are driven by our discomfort to turn away from this story too quickly we will have missed a great treasure. For in this story there is good news. In fact John, in the telling of this story, has given us reason to hope and to rejoice. So perhaps a better name for this story in the Gospel of John would be, “Jesus commits himself to being faithful.”
Jesus commits himself to being faithful.
That is certainly good news. Jesus’ faithfulness to us is cause for great celebration. But why is that an appropriate name for this passage and where do we find such good news here in this story of Judas’ betrayal?
The story of the Last Supper, in which we hear this story about Judas and Jesus, appears in all four Gospels. In the three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke the story of Jesus predicting Judas’ betrayal is pretty much the same. In all three he tells the apostles that one of them sitting at the table will betray him. In all three Gospels the apostles become upset and wonder who it will be. And in all three: Matthew, Mark, and Luke Jesus says, “woe to the one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed.”
In John’s Gospel we have all of those elements but we also have a very important addition. John’s Gospel is the only one that has Jesus tell Judas, “Do quickly what you are going to do” (John 13: 27).
To understand why this little addition is so important we need to think for a moment about the Jesus of John’s Gospel. John takes stories from among the the opther Gospels and from the oral traditions and sayings of Jesus and crafts a narrative that portrays a Jesus who is in complete control of his destiny from the beginning to the end. John makes very it explicit; nothing is happening to Jesus that is beyond his ability to stop.
Earlier in John’s Gospel Jesus is talking about himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. He says,
“No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father” (John 10:18).
In the chapter following the one we read from today Jesus says,
“I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way” (John 14:30-31).
Again, in John’s Gospel, when we read the story of Jesus’ interview with Pilate, we suddenly understand that it is not really Pilate who is in control of the interrogation process. Pilate is the one asking questions but it is clear that Jesus is in charge. Pilate becomes flustered, frustrated, and angry and John’s Gospel tells us,
“Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you? Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above…’” (John 19:11).
Jesus is clearly in control of what is happening here…
Now if we were reading this story for the first time, never having heard it before and not knowing how the story ends, we would be caught up in the tension of the moment. What will he do? The powers of the world have conspired to silence the voice of Emmanuel, “God with us.” Will he put a stop to it? Surely he knows what is coming. Jesus has seen in the life of the Prophets how the world treats those who tell the truth in love and seek to bring us to a greater awareness of God’s presence in our lives. Surely he knows what fate awaits him if Judas leaves on his dark mission.
He has told the apostles that one of them is about to betray him. Will he tell them who it is? “It’s Judas! He is the one! Quick, tie him up and lock him in the closet!” Jesus is in control. What will he do? Will he abandon the humanity that he has taken on, assume his full glory and power and smite those who would arrest, torture and kill him? He is in control here… what is he going to do?
What he does is almost unthinkable. He says to Judas, “Do quickly what you are going to do” (John 13: 27).
As we sit here reeling from the choice that he has made the story goes on. Judas leaves and the Gospeller reports, “And it was night.” Darkness had fallen on the world.
Hmmm… maybe the heading, “Jesus foretells his betrayal” isn’t strong enough. At this point in the story we might be feeling that a more appropriate heading for this story would include some really nasty epithets for Judas.
But the story isn’t over yet…
“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’” (John 13:31-32).
Now the son of man has been glorified? Now? At once? In this moment when Judas has gone off to betray him? Now before he has been crucified and risen? Now, before he has even been arrested? Why is Jesus saying this here?
Remember that Jesus is in charge, in control here. I made a funny reference a minute ago to the apostles tying Judas up and locking him in the closet. I hope it sounded funny at the time but the point is a serious one. Jesus had a choice to make. Did he look at what was about to happen to him and say, “Hey Let’s just put a stop to this right now before someone gets hurt!” Or did he,
“humble himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
John wants us to know that Jesus is in charge and he does have a choice. We did not take his life. He gave it for us.
Jesus said, “Do quickly what you are going to do” (John 13: 27) and in that moment he set the terrible machinery of death into motion. He refused to stray from the path. He refused to abandon his humanity and pull himself out of an awful and deteriorating situation. Instead he remained obedient to the Father and to the task that he had been sent to accomplish, the reconciliation of our relationship with God and the drawing of the whole world to himself.
So this was indeed the moment in which to say,
“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him” (John 13:31) for, “…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:8-11).
“Jesus commits to being faithful.” That is the heading that I proposed for this story. I am not sure that I will submit that name for the next scholarly translation of the Bible./ Aside from being a little “clunky” there are many moments in the scriptures where we can say that Jesus has made that commitment. But I hope that we can see that this story is not so much about Judas as it is about Jesus.
It is important to see this as a story about Jesus because an interesting thing happens when we read the story that way. Instead of squirming in our seats wondering who he is talking about when he says “One of you will betray me” we can finally begin to admit that he is, in fact, talking about us. We are the ones who betray him. We all betray Jesus in little, and sometimes in not so little ways. When we create idols for ourselves, when we put anything in our life before our relationship with God we are betraying the Son who came to show us that it is our relationship with the God who creates, redeems and sustains us that is the most important thing in our lives. When we place more importance on things than we do on relationships with each other, when we fail to hold up the most vulnerable among us, when we exploit one another as a means to advance ourselves… we are, in those moments and actions, consigning Jesus to the cross.
When the story that we have been talking about today stops being about the betrayer and starts being about the redeemer, the one who chose to be faithful to us even when we were not faithful; who chose to love rather than abandon us, even in the face of unspeakable pain and suffering, suddenly we see that we have been given an invitation to come back to that upper room, to come back to the table.
When we read this as a story about Jesus and not as a story about Judas the betrayals that have haunted us and have kept us from approaching the throne of mercy become a little lighter. Jesus has chosen to stay with us, through the betrayal into the hands of Pilate, through the pain and suffering of the cross and through the pain and suffering of our betrayals. He has chosen, and he shows us, that he will not abandon us. We may approach and ask for the forgiveness that has been promised for he has chosen and,
“neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).