May 19, 2019
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
The 13th chapter of John presents us with the dark mystery of human treachery in the figure of Judas and the bright mystery of God in Christ restoring the relationship that had broken down between God and his creatures. It’s the last Supper, and John tells us about Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, and also of Jesus—though distressed mightily—continuing with his mission. Jesus takes time to ‘love his disciples to the end’ and to teach them about love, about loving how he loved.
Darkness and Light: this was captured masterfully in a painting by the French Baroque artist Nicholas Poussin. For many years I had a postcard-sized print of his rendition of the Last Supper. (That’s how I’m a collector of fine art on a budget: I buy the postcard-sized prints. Sometime I pay as much as ten-dollars!) Poussin used his talent to draw the eye’s attention to the table around which the disciples were with Jesus, warm fellowship, in the light, listening attentively…while showing the outline of a figure in the shadows, heading away from the table-fellowship. That’s Judas
That card kept in front of me the same thing, I think, that the lesson keeps in front of us. In the figure of Judas, moving away from the table, is a reminder to be vigilant. We, too, can betray the purposes of God—maybe not, almost certainly not of the magnitude of which Judas was guilty…maybe not--- but we can walk away from enjoying the real fellowship with the living Christ as our Lord and teacher. We can make that fellowship peripheral, not central, by moving away and into darkness.
So, we will take the dark figure of Judas, first, to remind ourselves of the need to be watchful. And, second, on the bright side (this may surprise you) there is something to learn about vigilance, too. When Jesus talks about how the disciples are to love one another, he is careful to add: love as I have loved you.
Down through the centuries, there have been two lines of approach to the figure of Judas, in general. The Scriptures tell us he was greedy, and there are hints that he may have be jealous of Jesus’ power and the attention Jesus drew. Interpreters who allow this to stand simply and straightforwardly, see Judas an unable to overcome his selfishness, and jealously, and greed—and in weakness he sold out Christ to the guard who didn’t want to make a scene because Jesus had the support of so many in the crowd that saw him ride into Bethlehem. So awful was what happened to Jesus that Judas was overcome, and he hanged himself, overcome by grief and guilt of his wickedness.
Another approach is to theorize that Judas meant well: he wanted to put Jesus in a position in which Jesus would have to call down a heavenly band of angels, or use his miraculous powers, to overthrow the Roman oppressors and restore the kingdom of Israel that Judas thought was what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God. That strategy went terribly wrong, so the theory goes, and Judas hanged himself out of the grief and guilt of his mistaken strategy.
Well, the Scriptures don’t tie up the loose ends with that kind of theory, and I think for a good reason. When we walk away from Christ, when we let the dark side of human nature get its way, it really is darkness that we enter. We lose a vision of how things really are. We lose a vision of who God is. We lose relational perception. And we forfeit a peace---and much or even all of our willpower.
Yes, there is hope at the end of time for Judas and all of creation. There is hope. But we are talking about life in the now. Jesus didn’t wink at Peter while he was carrying the cross and say of Peter’s betrayal, “Don’t worry, things will work out.” No, he left Peter with the bitterness and pain of his betrayal. And so, the loose ends of Judas’ fate are not tied up for a reason: so that we realize (in the words of 1 Peter) “that our adversary, the evil one, roams about like a lion, seeking someone to devour.”
Of course, crimes are committed under the influence of mental illness. But whatever mental illnesses attach to people who commit great crimes against humanity---at least some of them begin with the nursing of grudges, jealousies, and the like. And not all crimes are due to mental illness. I remember a book from the 1990’s. Read the book Wild Swans for an account of how a young woman is enslaved by the authorities in Communist China. And the depiction is of sane, cultured, educated and accomplished, but corrupted people, who are given over to exploitation and jealousy and the like.
Our temptations to walk away from the light may be different—and I won’t list them—but we don’t live in a Temptation Free Zone. There is no Temptation Free Zone, no Temptation Free Time, no Temptation Free Situation.
Are you a watchful Christian?
Are you careful?
Are you wise enough about human nature to say No to platitudes like, “Everybody means well” and “Everybody gives their best” and
On The Bright Side
Now let’s talk about the bright mystery of love expressed and lived out by Jesus around that table at the Last Supper.
This scene teaches us something about vigilance, too. You see, we have to be watchful about what we mean when we use the word love. We have to be watchful about putting the word love into play without putting it into play the way Jesus puts it into play.
Jesus doesn’t just cheerlead for love, he teaches about the love he modeled.
Do you know that the great Brazilian soccer star Pele was also a great cheerleader for love? He was.
My mind goes back to his retirement games in the Meadow Stadium four decades ago now. It was packed to its capacity at the time with 77,000 fans. And it was televised across the globe. Not surprising for the world’s most famous athlete at the time. (So famous he was that once countries at war stopped the war to watch him play.)
People were in tears at the end of the game, as his career came to an end (I’m certain that many of us will be, too, when Akron’s greatest basketball player retires one day.)
Well, even more tears came after the game, when Pele ran around the field shouting “Love” and “Love one another” around the whole field. It was moving, exhilarating.
And it really is a wonderful thing to become enthusiastic about love, and to be moved by that kind of cheerleading to make love our aim.
But before us today, and everyday, is an account of something different.
Jesus is cheerleading for love. He is teaching.
He doesn’t say, ‘Love’ or ‘Love one another’ and leave it at that.
He says, love one another as I have loved you.
He has held himself out as a model of what love looks like, of what other-directed, self-sacrificial love is. Because we need to be shown what God’s version of love is to overcome our selfishness when it takes control, our corruptions, our waywardness.
He doesn’t say, “love one another as . . . you understand love”
“love one another as . . .as you are able.”
Nor does he say, “love…as long as you feel like or whenever you feel like it.”
No, he says, “as I have loved you.”
How little airtime this part of Jesus’ teaching gets, I am afraid, in the preaching and teaching of the church. We stop too soon when we talk about love. We let it be a sentiment, or we pat ourselves on the back, as if agreeing with “love” is enough. As if saying, “Yes, I am on board with that!” is enough
It isn’t enough. We have to be just as watchful over what we mean by love, and how we love as we do when we are careful about betraying Christ and walking into the darkness.And how can we be vigilant?
If we return to the biblical scene at the table, we hear early in the 13th chapter of the anguish of Jesus over Judas’ betrayal of him. He is “deeply troubled in spirit.” Distressed. How could he not be? He poured his life into the disciples—including Judas? The betrayal tore at his heart.
And yet, Jesus didn’t stomp off and leave the table in disgust or in sorrow.
He didn’t turn the discussion into a complaint about how poorly treated he was or how awful Judas was.
He didn’t choose to sit at the table, brooding in silence, and leaving the others to carry on the conversation.
He loved to the end, despite the distress Judas caused him. He didn’t allow the reality of Judas and the pain that came with it to:
- Stop him from loving the other disciples
- Stop him from completing his mission
- And stop him from delighting in God the Father and delighting in the completion of his mission. (it is in this time of his life that he talks most about joy)
So, you see how different this is from us?
- We can so easily let the things that happen to us become a roadblock to loving like Jesus, or we can use them (sometimes barely aware of it)
- as excuses for not loving others as Christ did,
- as excuses for not delighting in God,
- and for not running our race with joy.
We moan, we complain about our disappointments, our difficulties, our tribulations--- grievances, illnesses and losses – and there is nothing wrong about lamenting for a time. But the danger is we let these things keep us from loving others and being a help to others. We let these things or our moods master us, when we should let Christ’s example master our moods.
As I have loved you is the command …and what God commands, God empowers.
Love and Communion
Well, embracing this simple phrase, calling to mind, is a good way of being vigilant about love. And the other way is to approach communion, asking God to make your life, my life, our life, One Great Big Thanksgiving to God. That’s the meaning of Eucharist: Thanksgiving. Some wise theologian once said that the real mystery of communion is not about the transformation of bread and wine. The real mystery of communion is about the transformation of men and women.
If we let this weekly practice do its work, it will help us love as Christ has loved us. With our hands outstretched and open, we admit that we are recipients of God’s grace. Whether we kneel in humility or stand in the confidence that God has born us to new life, we are taking God at his word that he forgives all who confess and that in Christ we are a new creation. And with our ears open, we listen to the message from a God who hasn’t remained silent, locked up in eternity. But who tells us what we really need to hear to stay in fellowship in the bright mystery of his love. The bright mystery of God’s love.
At the last supper, when Judas had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."