April 5, 2007
Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14; Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Let us pray. “God who shares our most painful hours – At Cana, Jesus turned water into wine. At Calvary, Jesus turned blood and agony into joy. We have not yet begun to understand – perhaps we never will. And even thinking about that kind of pain hurts. Birth seems somewhat like that: Blood and agony eventually bring joy. Is this some kind of universal rule? We don’t know. One thing we are beginning to see – there is no way to follow Jesus and play it safe. Please give us courage to live with the risks of our Good Friday faith, the risk Jesus took for us. God, it will soon be that Good Friday day, but for now, this evening, may we fellowship with each other and our Lord Jesus. Because of the Life and love of Jesus Christ lived for us long ago, we now move forward in our discipleship, living in courage and hope. It is in his Name that we pray. Amen.
Joe Hensley, a student at Virginia Theological Seminary where I taught (no relation) told this story about a soldier in the Israeli army.
“One day he was on patrol in an area of occupied Palestine when he felt a rock strike him in the back. Before he had a chance to turn around, another rock had struck him in the shoulder, then another hit his helmet.
“He whirled around, his rifle ready to fire. In his sights were several Palestinian children. Children. They were picking up more stones to throw at him. The soldier did not want to fire, but he could not allow them to attack him again.
“Suddenly, he had an idea. He bent down and picked up three of the rocks….and began to juggle. Yes, juggle. The children were mesmerized and forgot about their stones. The soldier did a few tricks, and the children laughed. Then he did a grand finale, and they applauded. He took a bow and walked away.
“No, that soldier did not end the war with his action. But he took what had been hurled as weapons and transformed them into objects of wonder. He took a broken moment and made it whole with the laughter of children. That moment revealed God’s shalom.”
It isn’t very likely that the soldier was a Christian, but he knew something about the peace of God, the same peace we believe Jesus the Christ came to bring us and to give us in his death and resurrection. “Christ took the cross, a tool of torture and death, and transformed it into a symbol of salvation. Christ took death and transformed it into life. Christ took our despair and turned it into hope. He took our sins and juggled them before our eyes that we might forget our hatred and focus on his power and love.” (www.epiphanydc.org/worship/previous_sermons.htm)
Our reading from John’s gospel for this evening records an incident at the Last Supper where Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray him. And while they are all wondering who it can be, Jesus privately hands Judas a piece of bread, which he had said would signal the betrayer. John then tells us, “After [Judas] received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him.” Luke also attributes Judas’ action to the Devil, saying, “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve” (Luke 22:3). Matthew and Mark simply report Judas’ action without blaming it on Satan, but they clearly describe it as an act of betrayal. There is no mention in any of the New Testament gospels of Judas’ acting on any kind of instruction from Jesus, and all four agree that Judas acted against Jesus.
Let’s look for a moment at John’s statement that Satan entered into Judas. Throughout his gospel, John has been concerned to explain the life, ministry and death of Jesus theologically, and not just to report specific facts. When narrating Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, John sees what is going on in cosmic terms. As far as John is concerned, in the soon-to-occur crucifixion and the events leading up to it, as well as in the ultimate outcome of salvation for all who believe, the real opponents are not Jesus and Judas, but Jesus and Satan. Or, to say it even more broadly, the struggle is between the most-holy God and the Prince of Darkness.
Although John had previously branded Judas as a thief who stole money from the common purse he carried for Jesus and the other disciples (John 12:6), John does not blame the betrayal on Judas’ greed, but on Satan’s invasion of his heart (John 13:2). What’s more, although the other three gospel writers tell us that Judas received money from the chief priests for his actions, no where does John ever mention money, effectively discounting the possibility that Judas was motivated by personal greed.
As John understands it, the devil made Judas do it.
But let’s be honest…that’s a hard conclusion to swallow. A few decades ago, comedian Flip Wilson, in the disguise of his comic character Geraldine, would tell of some outrageous thing she’d done and then excuse it by saying, “The devil made me do it.” And we would all laugh because we knew the claim was ridiculous and was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. We may feel that way about John’s claim regarding Judas as well, even though John was completely serious.
John was looking at the big picture, which was the salvation of the world. From that perspective, Judas was no more than a bit player. Jesus didn’t come to rescue us from Judas, but from sin. And John saw Satan as the author of sin.
Still, when it comes to the motivation behind our own actions, attributing them to Satan or even Jesus is not helpful. Most of the time, such claims are merely ways to duck personal responsibility. There is a sense, of course, in which every Christian should be “Jesus-possessed,” but by that we do not mean that Jesus takes over our will. Rather we mean that we do our best to bend our will toward what we understand of his. Our will remains free, and we remain responsible for our actions.
What that suggests to us is that the essence of being possessed by either Satan or Jesus is not that either one of them is a puppet master pulling the strings of our actions, but rather that the places from which we draw lessons for life and models for action are either the lowest common denominator or the highest heaven — or somewhere close to one or the other.
Sometime in the last century, an American journalist traveled to China to report on the several wars that were going on there at the time. She watched a Catholic nun cleansing the gangrenous sores on wounded soldiers, which was an ugly, repulsive task. The journalist said, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.”
Without pausing in her work, the nun replied, “Neither would I.” Both, of course, were talking about motivation, but the nun was alluding to a commitment made earlier in her life, to bend her will toward Jesus. It is doubtful that her commitment was ever as specific as to include cleaning diseased wounds of foreign soldiers under battlefield conditions, but that beforehand decision was the basis for why, when the need presented itself, she went to work caring for the wounded. She would not do that work for a million dollars, but she would do it because she was committed to Christ. Her knowledge and love of Jesus was a source of personal transformation for her.
On this night of Jesus' last supper with his friends, he instituted what we would come to call the Holy Eucharist and also washed the disciples' feet, as if he were not their master, but their servant. These things, he said, were dramatic examples of a new commandment, that we should love one another as he has loved us. Unstinting. Self-giving. That is the sort of love expressed by the nun laboring with wounded soldierss in China.
But isn't that an old commandment? Don't we already know something about it? For example, you are a young mother up in the night again with a sick child – not the sick child you were up with last night, but her sister. The family is passing the same germ from person to person, and you yourself feel heachache-y and a bit limp as you set up the vaporizer in her room and prop an extra pillow behind her, so she's all but sitting up. You sit down on the floor by the bed, rub some eucalyptus on her chest and a little on your own, and then you pull an extra tee shirt over her head and her pajama top over that. She takes another drink of water and asks you to sing "Shadabee." It's three in the morning, but you rest your head on her mattress and quietly begin to sing the nonsense syllables your mother set to the tune "Long, Long Ago." Just a few rounds is all it takes; your little one's cough quiets down and she is asleep. You pad back to bed and pull the covers up to your chin. You drift back to sleep, smelling the eucalyptus.
Another example. Your wife wakes you in the night. She calls for her mother first, and then for you; her mother has been dead for thirty years. Your wife has soiled herself again; she is weeping tears of shame. She tells you she is sorry several times, and you tell her its okay. You weren't a dad who managed dirty diapers very well back when your kids were little, but you are different now. You get up and turn on the lamp. You go to the bathroom for the washbasin and fill it water and with a squirt of the special soap the nurse gave you. You get two more quilted pads out of the closet, and a clean towel. Expertly, you lift your wife's legs, slide the soiled pad out and one of the clean pads under, and begin to wash her. Then you pat her dry with the towel; and finally you change pads again. You move the lamp a little closer to look for sores, as the nurse taught you to do, and there aren't any, which is good. You carry the soiled pad to the bathroom and rinse it in the tub so you don't have to deal with it in the morning. You lie back down and fall asleep immediately, because you are really tired, but not before you wonder for the thousandth time how much longer you're going to be able to keep this up. If it doesn't get any worse than this, you think, I'll be all right. But it's going to get worse than this. Just when, is the question. You decide to think about that tomorrow.
Love transforms service, whether it is a nun working with wounded soldierss in China, a young mother caring for her ill daughters, or a spouse caring for their terminally ill partner, teaching us that there is no such thing as a menial task. Love teaches us that, if nothing is beneath us, nothing will be beyond us. Love remains with us after our unstinting efforts have all failed – it doesn't conquer all, as the old saying goes, but it bears all things, hopes all things, and endures all things, without turning away from any of them.
On this Maundy Thursday, we are invited to be obedient, to obey the commandments of Jesus. We are invited to allow ourselves to be open to the self-giving, transformative love that Jesus embodies and expresses as he performs the menial task of washing his disciples’ feet.
But in the end, it is totally and completely up to us. Being a faithful disciple of Jesus is our choice. The Devil cannot keep us away from Jesus, but at the same time, Jesus will not force us to come to him.
John also records Jesus saying, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). That is how he accomplishes his mission to rescue us from sin. Jesus draws us to him, but he will not drag us. The choice is ours. Amen
Grafton, Barbara, The Almost Daily eMo, 5 March 2007.