Daniel P. Strandlund
St. John’s Episcopal Church
Maundy Thursday, Year A
April 13, 2017
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Our Last Offering
A lot happens on Maundy Thursday. It’s the evening when Jesus celebrates the Passover with his disciples and says, “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you,” thereby instigating the meal which today we call Holy Communion.
It’s also the night when Jesus rises from the table, takes off his outer garment and wraps himself in a towel, and then washes the feet of his disciples.
Finally, this is also the night in which Judas leaves that bright room filled with friends and bread and wine, and walks out into the night to betray his teacher and Lord.
Our lectionary mostly omits that part tonight. Our Gospel passage skips over some things, 13 verses to be exact. You might have noticed the break: in the right hand column of the Gospel passage in your bulletin, about halfway down there’s a phrase that seems a little out of place. Jesus is talking to his disciples, saying, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (v.17) But then right after that the text says, “When he had gone out, Jesus said…” (v.31). That’s where the break happens. That’s the moment when those thirteen verses get up from the table and sneak off into the dark.
That phrase, “When he had gone out” is important. It’s referring to Judas Iscariot and his exit from the bright presence of the Son of God. That’s what happens in the verses we miss. Judas dips his hand in the bowl with Jesus, and then leaves to betray him.
So, we have to read that next verse like this: “When [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him’” (v.31). The point is this: the Son of Man is not glorified until Judas leaves to do the terrible thing he intends to do. The Son of Man is not glorified until he is betrayed by one whom he came to save, to lead, to empower with the Holy Spirit.
The glory of God is not fulfilled on earth until it is betrayed. Our betrayal is the last thing the Father gives into Jesus’ hands. It’s our last offering.
Tonight, Jesus inaugurates the Lord’s Supper, the meal we still practice today as Holy Communion. When supper is finished, Jesus rises from the table and washes the feet of his disciples. And Judas the Betrayer is present for all of that. He receives the blessed bread and the blessed wine. Jesus holds the calloused feet of Judas in his hands and pours water over them and dries them with a towel as surely as he washes the feet of the others. And what’s most stunning is that all the while Jesus knows what Judas is about to do: “for this reason he said, ‘not all of you are clean’” (13:11).
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is the light of the world. From the beginning, the circle of that light has been wide enough to bring within its scope the worst of sinners. In John’s Gospel, Judas is not guilty of ordinary sins like lust or gluttony or wrath or apathy about injustice. No, in John’s Gospel, Judas is calculating. He’s practiced at deception. He is deliberately malicious when he betrays Jesus, the source of all that is good and redemptive in the world. In Matthew, Judas repents. But not in John.
And yet, even Judas’ malice is contained within the glow of that light, the glow of our Lord’s Table.
Early on in our passage tonight, we read that “the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him” and that “during supper Jesus [knew] that the Father had given all things into his hands” (13:2-3). Jesus knew that the Father had given all things into his hands. All things. It’s a phrase wide enough to include Judas and the devil’s intentions.
What happens is this: Judas, having been fed and washed, leaves that circle of light and goes to the Chief Priests to hand Jesus over. He’s gone awhile and misses much of Jesus’ final conversation with his friends. In chapter 18, Jesus and the followers who remained with him go out to the Kidron Valley to a garden (18:1). It’s a place where Jesus and his followers gathered regularly, like the pub or the restaurant or the living room where you and your friends get together. Judas knows the place, and I imagine that as he gathers the crowd of soldiers and police from the chief priests, his feet just sort of carry him there on autopilot. He’s one of Jesus’ intimate friends: he knows that Jesus always goes to this particular garden after work on Thursdays.
And so Judas’ treacherous feet, the feet washed by his Lord, lead a crowd of violent men through the dark with only the feeble, artificial lights of their lanterns and torches (18:1-3). Once there, they fall upon the Son of Man, and so begin our efforts to snuff out the light of the world, that dimly burning wick we thought God had promised never to be let quenched (Isaiah 42:3).
Tonight is the night when Jesus initiates Holy Communion—that bright sacrament which we still celebrate, week in and week out. That bright sacrament within whose light we live and move and have our being, the outward and visible sign in which we receive solace and guidance and grace. That light Jesus kindled on the night before he died still burns with us and in us.
But tonight is also the night in which, even though our feet are washed and our soul’s appetite is sated with holy food and drink, on this night we stand up from the table and leave that bright circle of friends only to return with torches and lanterns and weapons. We’re a bit like Abraham standing over the bound Isaac: even in our best efforts to be faithful, we stand holding the fire and the knife over an innocent, as the blood rises in our minds (Gen. 22:6).
When Christians talk about original sin, all we’re really saying is that even at our best, we’re never entirely rid of that impulse that can’t stand the light, the impulse that would prefer to walk alone into the dark and return in violence against the God in whose image we are made.
The grace is that Jesus knows that even before we do, and he washes our feet anyway. The grace is that Jesus offers us his body and blood anyway, even before we can realize that we are in need of it. The grace is that the Father has given all things, even the most pernicious parts of us, into Jesus’ hands. The sins that are too subtle for us even to name, those too are given into Jesus’ hands. Those too have been subsumed by the light of the world and thrown into stark, shadowy relief.
There is nothing for us to say about it. There is nothing for us to do about it. There is no action to be taken—except to sit, silently, and watch, as all the candles are put out, as all the bright architecture of the world is carried away, as the angels’ faces themselves are wrapped in shadow.
What happens is this: when we gathered for worship tonight, it was as though we followed our feet here out of habit, like Judas to the Kidron Valley, with all our usual torches and weapons. Make no mistake: when this place grows dim, it is because of the darkness we have brought here.
And yet, God will receive even our darkness as a gift. All our torches, all our weapons, all the violence and fear we carry around in us—we bring it to God as though to betray and arrest him by force, and yet God, in his utter freedom, receives it from us as though we had laid it gently in the offering plate and set it on the altar. Our pain and our gift is the knowledge that we cannot force God to become our enemy, even though we so often become his.
The Father has given all things into Jesus’ hands, including our ignorance, our failed attempts at righteousness, even our deliberate betrayals. Watch, as the Lord receives from us those sins from which we cannot bear to be parted.