April 21, 2011 – Maundy Thursday
Exodus 12:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-36; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
© 2011 Evan D. Garner
When telling a good story, timing is everything. The ability to set the scene, reveal just enough information to draw us in, build the tension to an almost unbearable point, and then hold us there long enough to make us squirm before wrapping everything up with an exhaustive release is a gift that few people have. And I’m not one of them. My idea of good timing involves a telling a simple tale that will occupy my children just long enough to get them to settle down for bed.
John, the author of tonight’s gospel lesson, is quite the storyteller. Many people pick John as their favorite of the four gospel accounts because he portrays the story of Jesus’ life with such captivating energy. In his version, the narrative tension builds as the reader’s understanding of who Jesus is grows with each successive chapter, and, by the time we get to the last week of Jesus’ life, all of that drama is hanging in the balance. When will the people realize who Jesus really is? Will they figure out that he is God’s son before it’s too late?
The timing buried within this particular passage, as the disciples gather with Jesus for the Last Supper, is dizzying in its significance. They have huddled together in a tucked-away room, shutting out the chaos of the Jerusalem crowds. Yet all of that frenetic tension that swirls around the city—the Pharisees and scribes, the High Priest and Pilate, the Romans and the Jews—it all comes with them into the quiet space where Jesus sits at table with his disciples…because one of them is going to betray him.
John reveals that tension as he introduces this scene, writing that “the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him.” That’s the little detail that stuck out to me this year when I read this familiar story. It’s all about timing. Judas and Jesus—the inevitable betrayal has already been set into motion. And both of them are aware of it. None of the other disciples knows, but these two do. And so they sit with each other in that little room, bathed in flickering candle light, looking at each other and knowing the truth.
When Jesus looked at Judas and Judas returned his gaze, I wonder how each of them felt. What’s it like to stare into the eyes of one who has betrayed you or to look at one whom you have betrayed? Although the trap had not yet been sprung, Judas and Jesus both knew what was going to happen, and, more importantly, they shared that unspoken knowledge.
I remember a time from my childhood when my physician and family friend asked me a question to which I gave a dishonest answer. And I remember that awkwardness when he asked a second time and yet I still told him a lie. And we looked at each other, and he knew I was lying, and I knew that I had been found out, but, even though we both knew, nothing was said. That’s one of those moments in my life when I felt smallest and most ashamed. What, then, must it have been like to share that moment with Jesus?
And yet, despite all that was known, despite the evil betrayal that had already taken hold in Judas’ heart, Jesus took off his outer robe, tied a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin, and washed all of his disciples’ feet—including the feet of Judas. It must have been tortuous for the betrayer to have Jesus kneel at his feet and wash them in an act of love and service. But that isn’t why Jesus did it. He did it because, whether Judas realized it or not, Jesus’ love wasn’t limited only to those who loved him. Even though Jesus already knew the treachery that lay in Judas’ heart, he still loved him to the end.
The dual reality that we face in the middle of Holy Week is just as tortuous for us as it was for Judas. Like him, we have betrayed our Lord. We have turned our backs on God and rejected his gracious offer of love. Indeed, it is our sin—and the sin of the whole world—that betrays Jesus into the hands of those who would kill him. Yet, in the midst of our disloyalty, our Lord and savior still reaches out to us with a gesture of love and humility. Every day of our life, we sit at a table with Jesus, and, as he looks into our eyes, he sees just how faithless we really are. Yet, fully aware of our sin, he still loves us. When our eyes meet, the look he gives us in return is not one of judgment but of love. Amen.