John 13:1-7, 31b-35
My Vermont colleague posted a question for Holy Week pondering on Facebook this week:
Name someone that you would turn in to the police in return for a month’s pay. Now sit with that and pray. (1)
We have all betrayed someone. Most of us have someone in our lives that we’re willing to betray in the future: given enough money, given enough danger, given enough pressure, given enough coercion and fear.
We like to think of ourselves as good people.
But we are all Judas, in a way.
One of the final chapters in Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Accidental Saints is called, “Judas Will Now Take Your Confession.” (2) There was a time when I thought such mentions of Judas — including a friend’s mention of “Judas the prophet” over beers on a Saturday — was trying too hard to be edgy, that it was provocative and little more. And in some cases, I still think I was right about that. But being a pastor over a few years has made me realize something: we are all Judas.
But we don’t like to think of it that way. It’s more comfortable to think of Judas beyond the pale, as a bad person, the villain in the Gospels, far removed from us. Judas, we safely think, was a bad person.
We like to think of ourselves as good people, but none of us would claim to always be good. In fact, thinking of ourselves or others as “good people” gets in our way as much as it is a false comfort. It allows us to think that we don’t mess up quite as badly as “bad people” — until we do. Then, we question our entire worth.
I’ve been watching the TV series Shameless, wherein a character goes through a bad time, betraying nearly everyone she loves. Finally, another character gets into her face and says, in a low growl, “You think you’re a good person. You’re not.” (3)
This “revelation” puts her into such a bad tailspin that she nearly self-destructs entirely, rendering the entire show hard to watch.
We tend to divide people in our world between good people and bad people. We think that only bad people do certain things, and good people don’t. Bad people are racist. Bad people are sexist. Bad people are homophobic. “Good people,” we think, are none of these things. And when people accuse us of such things, how often do we say: “But I’m a good person,” keeping us comfortable, but still wrong. “I’m a good person” helps us to feel better, but it also keeps us from learning. We all mess up.
When you become a pastor, people look at you differently. You become seen as the universal “good person.” The collar makes people see something in you that wasn’t there before. People suddenly see you differently — as someone who is kind to everyone, gives until there’s nothing left, doesn’t get irritated, and would certainly never do something like make a racist comment, accidentally drink too much and inconvenience other people, get in fights with your family , cuss a lot, be insensitive to someone’s feelings, or betray someone’s trust. When you’re a pastor, people see you as the good person they strive to be, someone incapable of really screwing up.
And what no one tells you is that that will never be true.
You’ll always be just as messed up as they are — they just usually won’t be able to see it through the collar.
And thus you learn, through knowing yourself, that really, there are no good people. There are only humans who need a word of grace.
Judas will now take your confession.
We are all fallen. We are all Judas. Me included.
We say that we are all sinners, but we don’t really believe that. We put others, and ourselves, on the “good person” pedestal.
And if you think that I am somehow less likely to screw anything up interpersonally or otherwise than you are, we need to talk. Neither my theological education nor my ordination made me need grace any less than I did before, which was, and is, a lot. I need grace every bit as much as you do. Maybe more.
It is Maundy Thursday, and Judas will now take your confession.
Between the washing of the disciples feet and the giving of a New Commandment, something really significant happens in John’s Gospel. Judas is dismissed by Jesus, who knows exactly what Judas is going to do. The disciples think that Jesus has just sent him out to buy Passover supplies because, as we who are getting ready for the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday know, festivals take a lot of supplies. It’s a likely excuse.
But only Judas and Jesus know where he’s really going: to tell the authorities exactly where to find Jesus to arrest him. To betray the Son of God.
John’s Gospel adds, ominously: “And it was night.”
But before Judas is dismissed, Jesus, knowing full well what he would do, stoops down and washes Judas’s feet with every other disciple.
Contrary to what most of us have been taught, the foot washing in the context of John’s Gospel is not primarily about service. It is a tender act of love, compounded by the commandment to love one another (4). It certainly involves service, of course: in that we humans naturally serve those we love.
When our loved ones need us to, we become like servants for them. Whether they’re our children or our grandchildren or our partner or our elderly parents or a dear friend or relative, when a loved one needs us, we serve them however they need to be served. We bathe them, wash their clothes, change their sheets, and feed them. But we don’t call these acts of service, as if we were hired hands or community volunteers. We call these acts of love. So it is with the foot washing.
And Jesus showed this love to Judas, too. Knowing that this man would betray him, he still got down and washed his dirty feet. He still showed love to him, the same as every other disciple, right before he screwed it all up royally, setting in motion the events of Thursday that would stop the heart and cease the breath of the Son of God on Friday.
And we have all been where Judas sat: in that moment before you change a course of events forever, screw everything up, do something that cannot, will not, ever be undone. I have.
Judas will now take your confession.
In the chapter with that same title, Nadia Bolz-Weber points out that Judas is not the only one who betrayed Jesus before he was crucified. Peter denies that he even knows Jesus three times. His Lord and Teacher was on trial, and he denied three times to have ever even known him. All the other disciples flee, and only the women are left. And yet Peter receives absolution. The other disciples see the resurrected Christ.
They get to experience grace at Easter. Judas doesn’t.
Judas dies alone, wracked with guilt, in a field of blood (5).
Nadia Bolz-Weber posits that Judas never receives a word of grace because he was in isolation, removed from the community where he could have heard it. We cannot produce grace for ourselves. And that’s hard, since we’re used to producing things for ourselves: money, food, physical fitness, good grades, success at work — maybe even cleaning products, if you’re enough of a hippie. But grace and love, we cannot produce by our own effort. These must be experienced with other people.
Nadia writes, “Were we able to receive [a word of forgiveness] through pious, private devotion — through quiet personal time with God — the Christian life would be far less messy. But, as Paul tells us, faith comes through hearing, and hearing implies having someone right there doing the telling.” (6)
Tonight, we are here to do the telling for each other.
Being a pastor has so far taught me one clear thing: There are no good people. There are no bad people. There are just sinners in need of a word of grace, of tender care, of love. And some of us have just heard that sorely needed word a little more than others.
We are all Judas. We have all screwed things up royally. We have all done things that cannot be undone.
What makes all the difference is an act of love. A word of grace.
And that is why we are here: for Christ, and for each other. In the community where grace is heard and love is experienced, by all people, even the betrayers. Especially the betrayers. Because we have all been betrayers.
Because the love of this night — this night that Judas was here for, even though he messed it all up right after — is a blessing that, like our baptisms, cannot be turned back. I end with Jan Richardson’s poem for Maundy Thursday. She writes:
“As if you could
stop this blessing
As if you could turn it back,
Could return it from your body to the bowl
From the bowl to the pitcher,
from the pitcher to the hand that set this blessing on its way.
As if you could change the course by which this blessing flows.
As if you could control how it pours over you:
Unbidden, unsought, unasked,
yet startling in the way it matches the need you did not know you had.
As if you could become undrenched.
As if you could resist gathering it up in your two hands
and letting your body follow the arc
this blessing makes.” (7)
Beloved, what we need is here (8). Let us love one another, offering the word of grace that each of us needs. For we are all Judas, all messed up, all in need of love.
Judas will now take your confession. Amen.
1. The Rev. John Michael Longworth, OEF, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Rutland, Vermont.
2. The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, Convergent Publishing, p. 163.
3. Shameless, Season 4, Episode 7 (Available on Netflix.)
4. Gail R. O’Day, The Word Disclosed: Preaching the Gospel of John, St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002, p. 139.
5. Bolz-Weber, p. 164-165.
6. ibid., p.165-166.
7. Jan Richardson, “Blessing You Cannot Turn Back,” The Painted Prayer Book, http://paintedprayerbook.com/.
8. Line borrowed from Wendell Berry with love.