Sunday, March 30, 2008

Leaning on Jesus

Leaning On Jesus

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder
Mountain View Presbyterian Church Las Vegas, Nevada

Second Sunday of Easter, March 30, 2008
John 13:21-30

Once, at a Bible study I led on this scripture lesson, there was a sort of universal moaning response to this passage from John. It was something like, “I thought we had already been through this in Lent, do we have to do it again?”

This is an understandable reaction. Lent seems to be the right time for thinking on the ways in which Jesus gave himself for us, and the realities of our own shortcomings in trying to live up to his gift. But now we are in the seasonal weeks of Easter, the season of the resurrection. Why this return to dreary consideration of betrayal and denial?

We might start our answer by considering whether there is a difference between those who deny and one who betrays. When I spent a summer month studying art in Italy one year, I recall seeing a large, room-sized Renaissance fresco in what had once been a monastic dining room. The theme of the Last Supper is a common one for such ancient dining halls, and that was the subject here. I found it particularly fascinating that each disciple seated at the table was on the side opposite from the person viewing the painting, so that they faced into the room; all except one. The odd man out was dressed in dark colors, had a brooding and calculating look on his face, and, while all the others seated with Jesus in the painting sported tiny golden halos, this fellow’s head was shadowed by a dark circle. He was placing his hand into a bowl in which Jesus’ hand was also placed. It didn’t take too long for anyone familiar with John 13 to figure out who this was meant to represent. But who really is the villain in this little drama? Is it Judas? John says that Satan entered into him. Isn’t the contest here really between Jesus and Satan, not Jesus and Judas? Why is he so easy to single out, so that the shortcomings of the rest of the disciples fade from memory?

In the translation I read, John says that the disciple “whom Jesus loved —was reclining next to him.” Literally, the phrase is “was reclining on Jesus’ bosom.” In other words, he was very close to his master, reclining in him, in the same way that Jesus later says that he is in the Father and the Father is in him.1 Seating arrangements at meals were very important in the dining rooms of the ancient world, as reflections of status. Even Jesus spoke about it once at length.2 Two of his disciples once went so far as to ask to be seated to his right and left when he came into his glory.3 He encouraged them through his teaching not to try to sit too high in the pecking order, but instead to take a lower seat. One highly respected scholar4 of John’s gospel has suggested that the beloved disciple was seated, reclining, on Jesus’ right, so that when he tilted his head back, it was at Jesus’ chest. And it may very well be that the other place of honor, next to the master, on his left, was reserved for another important disciple, one whom the others trusted so fully that they made him their treasurer: Judas, the keeper of the common purse.

That whole scene at the table is filled with subjects for contemplation. Think on the towel that Jesus used to wash the dusty feet in the gospel just prior to our reading; the ironic contrast between that act of selfless love and the self-absorption characterizing betrayal. It is one thing to betray, but to do so in light of self-giving love describes a treachery we hardly wish to see. Jesus saw it. He knew that if he was to save humanity from what we are capable of being, he had to face the darkest and most treacherous parts of us, and offer that same selfless love no matter what the consequences for himself. Think of the common dish into which bread was to be dipped, a symbol of community, of shared resources and common bonds, broken by treachery. But who was it that was treacherous?

What was the night like after the betrayal? There had been other betrayers-in-waiting sitting at that table, they all abandoned him. We are so blessed, as a nation, as people of the church, I’m afraid that sometimes we are tempted to think it means we are also blameless, beyond culpability. Judas is not meant to present a figure beside whom we all may feel relieved at our relative innocence. Maybe you recall Eddie Murphy’s rather somber comic routine years ago when a terrorist in Rome shot the Pope. Murphy shouted, “You really want to go to hell? Shoot the Pope!” The implication seemed to be that was something that could get you a front row seat in hell, like many of the editorial cartoons I remember following the events of September 11.

People of all times have frequently named their children after biblical figures, yet we never name our children Judas, though we might name them Peter, Andrew, Mary or Thomas. Why is this? Well, it seems obvious, doesn’t it? Who wants their child named after someone with a front row seat in hell? Judas betrayed Jesus, of course, while the others did not. Or did they? In the end, none were to be found with Jesus in his hour of need at trial, none. They all denied him. Jesus even warned Peter beforehand that he would deny him, and despite his strong protests to the contrary, that is exactly what he did. What is the point of trying to establish a pecking order of badness? The figure of Judas is immensely popular for preaching because he seems to provide a level of wickedness about which we much less-wicked people can be usefully warned. While it may feel good to have a scapegoat, someone worse off than we are in some way, the fact is, all the disciples can be counted among Jesus’ betrayers in one way or another. John is not particularly hung up on Judas as a villain, Satan seems to occupy that place, and Satan works through a weak person in order to do battle with the Savior of all.

The point of this sermon is not to drag us backward through Holy Week and Lent. It is to help us look forward through the eyes of the cross and the resurrection to see in Jesus’ words of farewell to his disciples that new life in him was a gift which came at a cost; and that new life is meant to be lived in a community characterized by the sort of grace-filled giving that Jesus modeled when he washed the disciples’ feet. In the end, Jesus is raised to save those who betray him, no matter how they have done it, nor how often, nor under what circumstances. In the end, we all lean on Jesus, as his beloved disciple did in the scene which John painted for us, because, in the end, all are equally dependent upon him for a grace-filled love that saves us.

Jesus summons believers in the community not to the giving up of life, but the giving away of life. The grace that Jesus embodies is grace, not sacrifice. Jesus gave his life to his disciples — and not just in his death but in washing their feet and myriad other ways — as an expression of the fullness of his relationship with God and of God’s love for the world. Jesus’ death in love was not an act of self-denial, but an act of fullness, of living out his life and identity fully, even when that living would ultimately lead to death.5

What price would someone need to come up with to entice us to betray him? How would Satan enter into our hearts and make us instruments of opposition to Jesus? How has it happened already? What would Jesus say to us?

Well, in the end, our focus today is meant to be an Easter focus. We are not meant to look mournfully at the shortcomings of disciples but rather at the persistent gracefulness of Christ. He persisted in grace, in giving, even though it came at a tremendous cost, an ultimate cost.

One preacher said about this passage,

“Whatever Judas’ degree of guilt and whatever his motive, it is important that we note how Jesus identifies the traitor. He points no fingers, mentions no names, doesn’t even try to talk him out of it. All he does is feed him. When we would expect condemnation and rejection, Jesus is nurturing. Jesus dips into his cup and offers it to Judas, whose feet he has just washed and dried with a towel wrapped around his waist. It’s not what we would expect from somebody who is being betrayed, is it?”6

No, it’s not. But then, Jesus was never the Messiah that many people thought he should be. It’s only in knowing him after he was raised from the dead that we have come to recognize him as the only Messiah we would ever want.

John concluded his account of the dismissal of Judas, into a time in which all the others would abandon him as well, with the chilling sentence, “And it was night.” But it would not always be night. That is why the celebration of resurrection is real, because while the night seemed to have come to hold sway, the very opening lines of John’s gospel come true in Jesus’ resurrection with astounding force: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”7


1 John 14:11.
2 Luke 14: 1-11.
3 Mark 10:37.
4 The Gospel According to John, Raymond Brown, Anchor-Doubleday, 1970, p.574.
5 New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Abingdon, 1995, p.734.
6 “Judas and Jesus,” a sermon preached April 2, 2000 by Dr. Dan Ivins, First Baptist Church, Silver Springs, Maryland.
7 John 1:5.

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved