Thursday, March 29, 2018

Maundy Thursday: Order Matters


One of the privileges of being a clergyperson is accompanying others on their spiritual journey and sharing the enthusiasm of the insights they gain. This Lent, our Wednesday-night series has been a home-group study of The Last Week, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Although I had recognized it before, the fact that Judas was given Communion before he went out to betray Jesus, which is discussed in the book, was new to some of the lifelong Christians in our home group. Our shared enthusiasm for that fact has been a recurring topic in our conversation as we have explored the nature of God's redemption. And it has allowed me to consider the limitlessness of God's forgiveness in a new way.

Today is Maundy Thursday. In Morning Prayer, we read from Mark 14:12-25, which describes Jesus and his disciples gathering in the upper room for the Passover meal. One of the first things Mark recalls is Jesus' announcement of his betrayal and the disturbance that it causes among the disciples. Then, as soon as Jesus has finished telling them that one of them--one with whom he is dipping the bread in the bowl--will betray him, he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them in what becomes the institution of the Eucharist. After that, likely after all of them have gone to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, in a moment not described by Mark, Judas slips out to meet the mob that comes to arrest Jesus.

This evening, when we gather for Eucharist, we will read from John 13. Although John omits the institution of the Eucharist, he replaces it with the institution of the washing of the feet. Still, and this is important, the essential order is the same. The disciples gather with their master for the evening meal. While at dinner, John tells us that the devil had already provoked Jesus. Then, Jesus gets up from the table and washes the feet of all twelve disciples. Notice the causal connection in John's telling of the sequence: "Jesus and his disciples were sharing the evening meal. The devil had already provoked Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist..." Only after that does Jesus dip the bread into the bowl and hand it to Judas, sending him out into the darkness. As with Mark, the announcement (to the reader) of the betrayal is first. The Jesus-given act that unifies the disciples is given second and includes all twelve disciples, even Judas. Later on, the betrayer leaves the company.

In John's account, it almost feels like the betrayal provokes Jesus' washing of the feet, which, in turn, provokes the departure of Jesus, which provokes Jesus' issuing of the love commandment. Those causal relationships aren't as clear in Mark, but the order is. And the order matters. Knowing the one who will betray him, Jesus offers his body and blood in pre-crucifixion form to Judas. In John, Jesus stoops down and washes Judas' feet. What is it like to gently and lovingly and humbly wash the feet of the man who is about to betray you? What is it like to give one's self so fully to another as to say, "This is my body...my blood," and to say it to the one who will cause that blood to be spilled?

It felt controversial to me when Crossan and Borg suggested that Judas, too, would have been forgiven had he not hanged himself but had returned to Jesus and the other eleven disciples after the resurrection. Given the clear language that the biblical authors use to condemn him--"It would have been better if he had not been born!"--it is hard to imagine that he could be readmitted to the fellowship. It felt controversial at first, but, as our series continued, by the end of our time together, I thought, "Of course, that's what Jesus would have done!" Maundy Thursday, as Jesus gives himself to all twelve disciples, knowing that all twelve of them will falter, Jesus reminds us that we, too, are forgivable and, perhaps, already forgiven.

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