Thursday, April 17, 2014
A Meal for Sinners (John 13:1-17,31b-35)
Before the Festival of Passover, Jesus knew that his time had come to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully.
2 Jesus and his disciples were sharing the evening meal. The devil had already provoked Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. 4 So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing. 6 When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7 Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.”
8 “No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!”
Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.”
9 Simon Peter said, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!”
10 Jesus responded, “Those who have bathed need only to have their feet washed, because they are completely clean. You disciples are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 He knew who would betray him. That’s why he said, “Not every one of you is clean.”
12 After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. 14 If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. 16 I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. 17 Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.
“Now the Human One has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify the Human One in himself and will glorify him immediately. 33 Little children, I’m with you for a little while longer. You will look for me—but, just as I told the Jewish leaders, I also tell you now—‘Where I’m going, you can’t come.’
34 “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. 35 This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”
It is Thursday evening of the most important week in the history of the world. Jesus entered into Jerusalem on Sunday, triumphantly riding a donkey, fulfilling the prophecies about the Messiah, God’s anointed king, coming to set God’s people free. If you’ve followed Jesus’ activities the rest of the week, you’ll find that Jesus will weep for the city for they don’t know the things that make for peace, you’ll find him angrily turning over the tables of the money changers as he clears the temple. We know that on Tuesday night, Jesus had supper at the home of Simon the Leper. Somewhere in here, Judas, one of his disciples, has struck a bargain to sell Jesus out for 30 pieces of silver; about $10,000 in today’s money.
On Thursday night, the Gospel writers come alive as Jesus and his disciples take their place around the Passover table in an unnamed Upper Room somewhere in Jerusalem. The meal they shared has been portrayed in art through the centuries, and DaVinci’s The Last Supper is probably the most famous. That’s unfortunate, because based on what we know about the customs of the day, DaVinci had the scene, in every conceivable way, completely wrong.
Does it matter who sat where or what the room looked like? Actually, yes it does. As we take our place with Jesus and his disciples around the table, I want you to keep this thought at the back of your mind: the disciples were not perfect people, yet Jesus invited them to the table, Jesus desired to eat the meal with them. The Lord’s table is still a feast of grace; where God’s grace is always greater than our sin. May we pray.
When Ashley and I got married, one of the least romantic yet incredibly practical gifts we were given was from an attorney in the congregation who drew up our wills, power of attorney and healthcare proxy documents. Now, obviously we hope that we won’t need those documents for another 50 or 60 years, but let’s also face reality – any one of us could die at any time – having a will in place ensures that, even when we are gone, the things that are most important to us are still taken care of.
Did you ever think of Jesus’ supper with his disciples, on the night before he met with death, as his last will and testament? Knowing that tomorrow he would be executed, Jesus gave his disciples some of his most important teaching.
In fact, that teaching is where we get the name for tonight – “Maundy Thursday.” The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin, “mandatum,” meaning “command.” On this night, Jesus gave his disciples a “mandantum novum,” a “new command” to love one another.
But when Jesus says, “Love one another,” he isn’t saying “Have warm fuzzy feelings for each other.” That would be an impossible task, to have warm fuzzy feelings for everyone because so many people are downright irritating, and you can’t have warm fuzzy feelings for me because I’m irritating; we all are sometimes! Further, that’s not what love is. Love is not a feeling; it’s an action, it’s a decision, it’s a choice. And on this night, Jesus displayed his love in action around the table. He commanded the disciples to grow in their love as they continued to come to the table and remember all that he had done, and to look forward to all that he was yet to do.
Let’s come back to the design of the table and the seating arrangement for a moment. Unlike our dining tables, formal dining tables in the ancient near East were low to the ground. And rather than a long table, a formal dining table would have had three sides in a u-shape. This kind of table is called a triclinium. “Tri,” meaning “three,” and “clinium” comes from the same root that we get the word “recline” from. While we sit in chairs around our tables, people reclined on pillows and cushions.
Jesus was the host for this particular meal, which meant he would be sitting at the head of the table. But the head of the table isn’t in the middle, it’s over on the side, one position from the end. This graphic shows a table arrangement for 9, but you can imagine it for 13 with Jesus and his disciples. Those at the table reclined against the table, typically with their left arm toward the table, and their feet away from the table. To the right and left would be the positions of honor. You remember the disciples were arguing about who would be the greatest and who would sit at his right hand and his left hand (Mark 10:37), and in many ways, this is what they were talking about.
John’s Gospel tells us as Jesus sat at the table, he said, “One of you will betray me.” Peter whispers across the table to John and says, “Ask him who it is.” The Gospel writer says that John leaned against Jesus’ breast to ask him, “Master, which one of us is it?” (John 13:23-25) Now, seeing how they would have been seated at the table, does that make sense to you? It also tells us that John was sitting to Jesus’ right, in one of the honored positions.
But, this was the lesser of the two honored positions. The person sitting to the host’s right would serve the host, but the person sitting to the host’s left would be served by the host. Also, the person to the host’s right might be asked to get up and help serve the meal since they were on the end and it was convenient for them to get out.
Now, back to the question about who will betray Jesus. How does Jesus respond? “The one with whom I share my bread will betray me” (John 13:26). Well, who is going to share Jesus’ bread? Who is Jesus going to serve? The person to his left. So who was sitting to Jesus’ left, in the position of great honor? Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Jesus, who sold Jesus out for 30 pieces of silver.
Judas – the very name now carries the stench of betrayal and distrust. We think about Judas as if he were evil to the bone – what kind of person would sell Jesus out for a few silver coins? And what he did was awful, make no mistake about it, but what I were to suggest that Judas wasn’t really that different from you or me? What if we were to take Jesus’ command – to love one another – seriously, even as we think about Judas? Not to condone what he did, but neither to condemn it, but to look at Judas and his actions through a more charitable lens?
You see, Judas never intended to get Jesus killed. Of all the disciples, Judas and Peter were probably the most radical. Their expectation of the Messiah was that he would be a strong military leader, who would lead an armed rebellion against the oppressive Roman government and crush them, who would lead the nation to eternal superiority over all other nations. So, Judas really believed in Jesus; he just believed the wrong things about Jesus.
Judas had been with Jesus for three years, expecting Jesus to start the revolution at any moment, enlisting the disciples as front-line freedom fighters who would all be lauded and lifted up as national heroes. Now, with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Sunday, fulfilling the Messianic prophecies, Jesus was claiming the rights to his royal throne. Judas thought the time was now, only Jesus wasn’t getting the revolution started.
I’m convinced Judas was trying to give the revolution a little kick-start. Jesus wasn’t moving fast enough for him, so Judas took matters into his own hands, and what harm was there if he made a few bucks for himself in the process? I can just see the wheels turning in his head. “If they come to arrest Jesus, surely Jesus will fight back and it will be ‘game on.’ At supper, Jesus had announced that one of us would betray him – surely, Jesus knows it’s me, he must be wise to the plan. If Jesus wants to abandon the plan, he can say the word anytime. Wait, what was that Jesus just leaned over and told me? ‘What you are going to do, go, and do quickly?’ (John 13:27) All right, there are my orders!”
He wasn’t trying to get Jesus arrested and killed, he was trying to get Jesus to take his place at the front of the rebellion! Judas was his lieutenant, the one who sat in the seat of greatest honor, after all, he was going to be there right beside Jesus and have Jesus’ back the whole way.
Those who came to arrest Jesus came with swords and clubs because they thought Jesus was going to start a rebellion (Matthew 26:55). They thought that because that’s what Judas had told them; that’s what Judas wanted and expected to happen!
By the time Judas realized that Jesus’ mission was bigger than Judas’ own expectation, it was too late, and the whole plan backfired in his face.
Judas was wracked with guilt. He took the money back to the chief priests and said, “I changed my mind. I don’t want this. I never wanted this. I don’t want Jesus to die.” But the deal was signed, and there’s no way it could be undone.
His regret was so deep that he hung himself. These are not the actions of someone who is pleased with how things worked out. They are the actions of someone who is riddled with grief over their own sin, who took matters into his own hands, tried to force the issue, and got his friend killed.
But, Judas isn’t the only one who betrayed Jesus that night. The disciples had argued about who would get the most important, honorable place. They had all refused to serve each other. They had false expectations about him, even at that late hour. They would fall asleep when Jesus told them to pray. Peter would deny ever knowing him. The others would abandon him and run for their own lives, not just for tonight, but for the next several weeks. None of the disciples is any prize. Not just Judas, but there is enough sin to go all the way around the table.
What are we to do with all these sinners? What did Jesus do with them?
He loved them.
He served them.
He spent time with them.
He gave his life for them.
The Scriptures say, “God showed his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Even on the cross, Jesus would mumble words of forgiveness: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34). Words for the Roman soldiers who nailed his precious body to the cross, for the government officials who condemned him, for the chief priests and jealous religious leaders, for the crowd who cheered his death, for the disciples who abandoned him, and I believe, for Judas, who betrayed him. Father, forgive them – all of them – they don’t have the first clue what they’re doing. Father, forgive us – all of us – we don’t know what we’re doing, either.
Friends, we’re a hot mess. We don’t have it all together, we need a Savior whose love and grace is infinitely greater than our sin. The Holy Week story is our story. Later tonight, our sin will betray Jesus. Our sin will put him trial. Our sin will torture him. Our sin will nail him to the cross. Our sin will take his life. Our sin will bury him, but it will also be buried with him.
Yes, the Holy Week story is our story. We, too, cheer for the wrong reasons, we often don’t know what we’re doing. We grasp at coins and make bad decisions and walk away from our commitments and join our voices with the angry mob who shouted “Crucify Him!” and disappoint and betray Jesus in a thousand other ways.
The thing about Jesus is that he loves and trusts people even when they let him down. And sometimes when we trust people, they’ll disappoint us. But, following in the way of Jesus, we continue to love and trust them, anyway, and maybe even invite them to share a meal with us.
In the kingdom of God, sinners get the seat of honor. That’s who this meal, God’s grace and love broken and poured out, is for.
We, too, belong at the table for sinners. When the invitations go out for the banquet of God’s grace, there are no perfect people on the guest list – only sinners who are hungry for God’s love.