Everyone has gathered in the Upper Room, and their meal is well underway. They’re comfortably reclining, eating and drinking on the eve of the Festival that celebrates the liberation of the people. They’ve been a little caught off guard that Jesus has washed their feet, but then he announces the shocking news- “One of you will hand me over.” And 11 of the 12 are stunned. They all say “Surely you’re not talking about me!” And each of the 11 adamantly believes he is incapable of doing anything that would betray, or deny or abandon their Master and Teacher. Surely not I!
But Jesus is deadly serious. It seems one of them WILL do such a thing. They can’t really take it in, maybe becoming suspicious of each other, looking around-who could it be? It’s fascinating that none of the 11 thinks of himself, though over their time with Jesus they’ve all been pretty inconsistent. But even when it’s revealed to be Judas, there’s disbelief and confusion. Nothing makes sense. They’re stunned, and even now don’t quite get why Judas is leaving. It’s unreal. Later when it all comes together, Judas will be singularly reviled in history as “The Unforgiven” in our eyes, often seen in our art with a uniquely sinister appearance. Because he’s not us-He is the Betrayer, and to this day someone who’s a traitor is called a “Judas.”
This day in Holy Week used to be called “Spy Wednesday.” I’m glad it no longer is. This title places so much importance on Judas and his actions it seems to ignore those of everyone else around. “Spy Wednesday” sounds like the name of a TV show, where people pick him apart from a variety of perspectives- medically, psychologically, sociologically. To figure out just what happened, what made him tick. Was he a zealot-part of the group of radicalized Jews who believed violent force was necessary to overthrow the Romans? Was he disappointed that Jesus was not a warlord? Was he in a power struggle with Jesus? Was he someone who shouldn’t be trusted all along, or did he snap? The animosity toward him is even greater because he was in the Inner Circle, and we kind of celebrate the downfall of people like that. How dare someone in such a place do this!
Let’s pick them apart, know all we can, and then we can separate ourselves by degrees. Because we would NEVER do that. Surely not I! How dare he sit there and eat and drink with Jesus knowing full well that when he walked out the door, he would be anything but a follower of Jesus! Surely not I!
Despite these responses to Judas, of whom we actually know very little, we’re not here today to remember Judas. We’re here to remember Jesus. Another reason why “Spy Wednesday” was a bad name- it places more priority on the action of Judas than upon Jesus.
In reality, Judas did not betray Jesus in the sense that Jesus was caught off guard. Judas handed Jesus over to a fate Jesus already knew was coming, and freely accepted. Jesus knew his time had come to depart. John’s gospel says “having loved his own who were in the world, he (would) now love them to the very end.”
This meal begins the very end that will demonstrate the depth of God’s love and the strength of God’s power until it is finished. And before they reach that end, ALL of the disciples will stumble, deny, and let go of Jesus. Those who ALSO ate and drank with him but then struggle in moments of hurt, confusion and disillusionment, failing to act like His followers. Ultimately, though they’re the ones Jesus prepared to send out, they’ll hunker down behind a closed door, saying “You want me to face the world? Surely not I!”
The events surrounding the cross are still happening today. Last Friday night I joined with sisters and brothers of some of our city churches. We prayed for the city and walked into the night on our streets. We sang hymns, and prayed for people and businesses, government leaders, our schools, for families and children. We talked with those we met on the streets. To proclaim the depth of the love of Christ and the strength of God’s power. Hoping to show those that Satan is trying to enter completely that God is stronger than all of the forces of evil that tempt us to walk away for good. Our time in the darkness of the streets was powerful. So was the moment when we prayed for the churches. As we sat inside in the light, and considered whether we as churches are really responding by remaining with Jesus in the face of threats of darkness and evil, or whether we responding as those who ate and drank with Jesus but then say- “Surely not I” to our calling.
This is even more poignant as we consider that last week on Palm Sunday oru neighborhood was rocked by the death of a man who was innocently caught in a cross fire and we wonder how to respond.
Are we a people who will hand over our sisters and brothers and allow Satan to enter them completely? Or will we continue to turn to and remain with Jesus and proclaim his liberation to others? In light of the events of this past week, as here in our world where we would not expect it, gunfire has taken the life of an innocent bystander, it’s hard to keep the faith, and hard to pray for those whose lives are hurting but who also hurt us.
It is perhaps here that we get that sense of how Jesus felt when he announced he would be handed over. He was greatly troubled, but not only because he knew the weight of what was to happen. Also because he knows how it will be for the one evil enters completely. In another gospel, Jesus uses the word “Woe!” to speak of such a one. “Woe” is a death wail of grief. That when Satan enters completely, Judas will become one with the night and experience the feeling of total separation.
Though God uses this to accomplish a purpose, it’s still a moment of lament for all. None of us is immune to suffering or to times we too deny, fall away, or hand over things to the forces of the world. None of us should desire such a separation for anyone.
Instead we should pray to follow Jesus-who began knowing who those first disciples and we would be. Who traveled the road to the cross, knowing, and yet offered forgiveness, cleansing and new life anyway. Freely. All the way to the very last breath of forgiveness and true liberation.
Does any of us deserve this? “Surely not I.” But let’s think about what it means that God sees it differently for all of us.